In October, Pope Francis canonized five “Blessed” men and women of the Church, including Cardinal John Henry Newman, the Anglican convert “widely recognized as one of the greatest theologians of the 19th century.” Along with Cardinal Newman, four women were made saints, including three religious women and one laywoman.
When I first heard the news on the car radio, the name “Cardinal Newman” sounded familiar, but I couldn’t remember why. I was also curious about who the women were – and why I hadn’t heard their names reported also! My passing interest grew into a promise to learn: 1. Where have I heard of John Henry Newman? and 2. Who were the four women canonized with him?
The first question was easiest to answer. In addition to his famous conversion and subsequent tenure as the vicar of St. Mary the Virgin Church at Oxford University, John Henry Newman was a prolific writer. Newman’s essays and sermons even influenced the White Rose student group in Munich, which included Sophie and Hans Scholl, who were tried and executed after speaking out against the Nazi regime.
These clues helped – but when I stumbled upon Cardinal Newman’s Wikipedia page, the answer hit home. If you have ever visited a secular college campus in the United States, Canada, or the United Kingdom with a Catholic Student Center – the odds are good that the center will be called a “Newman Center,” “Newman Club,” or “Newman House.” Newman Centers “get their name and their role from the cardinal who died in 1890 and emphasized that Catholic students who attend public universities must be given a place to gather to support and encourage one another in their faith.”
This “Newman Connection” helped me understand why this saint is beloved in many English-speaking parts of the world – especially among students, young adults, and those of other Christian denominations. One mystery solved – four to go!
At first, I was totally unfamiliar with the four newest women saints. My lack of familiarity may owe partially to the fact that these women are from four very different, non-English speaking parts of the world: Brazil, India, Italy, and Switzerland. The three religious women were Blessed Dulce Lopes Pontes, Mariam Thresia Chiramel Mankidiyan, and Blessed Josephine Vannini. The laywoman canonized was Blessed Marguerite Bays.
In the Holy Mass homily, Pope Francis said “[These three religious women]… show us that the consecrated life is a journey of love at the existential peripheries of the world. Saint Marguerite Bays, on the other hand, was a seamstress; she speaks to us of the power of simple prayer, enduring patience and silent self-giving.”
St. Marguerite Bays was a lay member of the Secular Franciscan Order in 19th Century Switzerland. Early in her life she dedicated herself to helping others, especially her parish, her family, and unemployed Swiss peasant farmers who were adversely affected by the mechanization of the of agricultural industry. Fittingly, one of the miracles attributed to Marguerite involved the case of a two-year-old who fell under the moving wheels of a tractor. “Her grandfather witnessed the accident unfolding and prayed to Marguerite... and the girl got up unharmed.” Marguerite experienced a miraculous healing in her own life from bowel cancer and lived to age 63. St. John Paul II beatified her in 1995.
St. Giuseppina Vannini is the first Roman woman to be canonized in over 400 years. Raised an orphan in the shadow of St. Peter’s Basilica, she went on to found the Daughters of St. Camillus, after being rejected from the Daughters of Charity for poor health. She faced rejection and bureaucratic roadblocks to establishing her order, which now has 800 sisters working in 22 countries. Giuseppina was beatified by St. John Paul II in 1994.
St. Mariam Thresia Chiramel Mankidiyan also founded a religious order, the Congregation of the Holy Family, with the mission of caring for poor families in India. A mystic, she was born Thresia Chiramel Mankidiyan (“Theria” for Teresa of Avila). Pope John Paul II named Mariam as Venerable in 1999.
St. Dulce Lopes Pontes is well known in the Western Hemisphere, often referred to as “Brazil’s Mother Theresa,” due to her birth into an upper-middle class family and her subsequent devotion to the poor. She founded the first Catholic workers’ organization in the state of Bahia, and she also “launched several initiatives including a health clinic for impoverished workers, a school for working families, a hospital, an orphanage and numerous care centers for the elderly and disabled.” At the time of her death in 1992, Sister Dulce had been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
In Pope Francis’ Holy Mass homily, he discussed the journey of faith as the way of those who cry out, walk and give thanks. This is a dynamic challenge, taken up by all five of our new saints – many who paired their rich mystic experiences with bold, resourceful action to affect change. St. Dulce Lopes Pontes, St. Mariam Thresia Chiramel Mankidiyan, St. Josephine Vannini, St. Marguerite Bays, and St. John Henry Newman certainly inspire me to do likewise.
Besides receiving and visiting Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament at Mass and Adoration, I find that the most nourishing aspect of my spiritual life is friendship with the saints. The Church holds celebrating the saints and asking for their intercession in high regard, as the Solemnity of All Saints, which falls on November 1st each year, is a holy day of obligation. The Vigil of All Saints, then, falls on October 31st each year.
One goal of the Christian is to engage in prayer with God, and prayer, simply put, is conversing with God. Each day, we can offer our work to God and talk to Him frequently. This is not always easy, though, and I have found that friendship with the saints helps immensely.
A friendship, which is the mutual willing of the good between people, is cultivated with communication and time spent together. Aristotle and Shakespeare, in their genius commentaries on friendship, always return to the simplicity of authentic friendship. Developing a friendship with the saints does not need to be overly-complex. It can also be founded upon communication and time spent together, ultimately bringing us closer to God and strengthening our communication with Him.
Communicating daily with the saints further orients our minds to the supernatural, to the existence of the “things…invisible” that we recite in the Creed, and it also strengthens us in the fight for our souls.
By communicating with the saints, we will become more like the saints, who in their devotion to Christ became like Christ. Thus, the saints will help us to become more Christ-like. The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins gets at this point in one of his poems:
I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is --
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men's faces.
The “just man” is the saint, and the saint’s Christ-like actions help him to become like Christ.
As I mentioned in my last blog, stories of the saints are dramas of the highest caliber. Each saint had a unique personality and found their way to heaven in their own special, grace-filled way. There are so many saints that everyone can find someone they relate to or want to emulate. Below, I have listed just a few of my friends, and I pray that they will intercede for you!
Sts. Peter and Paul, St. Edmund Campion, St. Ignatius, St. John the Beloved Disciple, St. Luke, St. Catherine of Sienna, St. John Paul II, Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati, Bl. John Henry Newman, Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher, St. Robert Southwell, St. Henry Walpole, St. Aloysius Gonzaga, St. Robert Bellarmine, St. John Berchmans, St. Francis Xavier, St. Leo the Great, St. Augustine, St. Vincent Pallotti, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Therese of Lisieux, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Josemaria Escriva, St. John Vianney, St. Joseph, Guardian Angels, Our Lady…
Ora pro nobis!
If you are anything like me, you find it difficult to discern God’s call, but sometimes Jesus makes it plain and simple in Scripture. For example, Jesus very specifically calls us friends (John 15:15). Friendship is a calling.
In my own faith journey, I continually find this actually a rather strange, startling summons. Jesus’ friendship is an unmerited grace-filled gift, which is desirable, but it also demands something of me, which is a bit frightening. On a day-to-day basis, nothing gives me, or most people I imagine, greater joy than faithful friendships. If we Christians lack Gospel joy, it goes to show among other things, that we are not heeding the call to be faithful friends of Jesus.
Rediscovering friendship as a calling has challenged my paradigm for discerning my personal vocation. Friendship shapes both the context and content of my choices. Let me try to explain what I mean. A culture of friendship is an indispensable context for discerning a vocation. Faithful friends often know us better than we know ourselves. They help us discern our gifts, weaknesses, and purpose, and then encourage or challenge us to act in a way we couldn’t or wouldn’t on our own.
Like the spiritual life in general, friendships are very often difficult to navigate. This is not because the path ahead is overly complicated, but because the next step usually lies in the darkness of the unknown. Friends who know our hearts invite us to step into the vulnerability with courage and bring our darkness into light. One example in my life is the young adult group I attend, the Baltimore Frassati Fellowship. We don’t focus on multiplying social activities, which too easily becomes another way to fill rather than sanctify our time. The Church teaches us to share each other’s time, not compete for it. We focus on cultivating an atmosphere of trust and virtue that counterbalances the typically transitory and fast-paced “young adult” phase of life. Our events are rather ordinary, but they are consistent and dependable: weekly adoration, regular service opportunities, and a larger monthly Holy Hour and social.
Pretty soon, we all have to make decisions (something I’m bad at), so friendship also determines the content of our vocation. Paraphrasing John Henry Newman, each of us is called to some definite and unique vocation, which is centered in some specific friendship(s) (Meditations on Christian Doctrine, I.2).
Here is a question to pray with: What kind of friendship am I called to, and with whom?
I wasn’t always used to thinking about different “kinds” of friendships, so one helpful question I learned to ask while in seminary concerned the call to exclusive or inclusive friendships. Am I called to befriend one person like no other (marriage), to show no partiality and be a special part of many lives (religious life), or some other group? Moreover, since there is no greater love than “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” (John 15:13), friendship is also intrinsically sacrificial. Another form of the question is: Who is God calling me to daily lay down my life for: a spouse and children or on the altar of Eucharistic sacrifice?
That’s what makes so special the radical witness of someone like Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche. Vanier felt called to leave behind an academic career to form a small community with persons with developmental disabilities where they could share their lives in faith and friendship. After 50 years, his original calling continues to grow and inspire others to embrace the joy, virtue, sacrifice, and particularity our friendships in Christ are meant to take.
As part of the universal call to holiness though, evangelization involves going out and befriending others and inviting them to become friends of Jesus. Friendship, though it takes different forms, is an apostolate all are called to.