Two forces have particularly influenced my life. The first is my Catholic faith – given by my parents and nurtured by others as I grew. The second is my adulthood experience with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). In wrestling with both of these forces (at times feeling like Jacob, who wrestled with God), I accidentally discovered a saint whose experiences reflected my own.
Saint Dymphna lived in Ireland during the seventh century, after the time of Saint Patrick, Saint Brigid, and Saint Columba. Christianity was practiced by many – including Dymphna’s mother, who had her daughter secretly baptized. Dymphna’s father was a pagan king named Damon. Dymphna’s mother died when Dymphna was just 15 – throwing her father into a terrible grief.
Damon’s counselors advised him to remarry, and though they searched for another wife, they found none. They then advised Damon to marry his daughter, who reflected her mother’s great beauty. Initially repelled, Damon eventually agreed and proposed to his daughter. Under the guidance of her confessor priest, Saint Gerebran, Dymphna rejected her father’s proposal, and fled Ireland for Belgium. Tradition states that Dymphna then built a hospice in Geel for the sick and the poor, where she remained for some time.
Soon, Damon and his men traced Dymphna’s journey, and ascertained her whereabouts due to Dymphna’s use of foreign currency. Confronted by the mad king, Saint Gerebran rebuked his behavior, and Damon had his men kill the priest. Still hoping to win his daughter, Damon then pleaded kindly, offering wealth, prestige, and honor. Dymphna, steadfast in her vow of chastity, rejected the offer – and by her own father’s sword was beheaded.
Soon after Dymphna’s martyrdom, several “lunatics” spent the night in the countryside where Dymphna died, and woke up in the morning healed. This miraculous place became known throughout Europe: a church was eventually built in the 1300s, with a sanctuary expansion built to accommodate pilgrims seeking mental relief. Townspeople themselves even began taking them into their homes, a tradition that continues to this day.
Saint Dymphna entered my own life in a chance way seven years ago, near the onset of my OCD symptoms – which involved uncontrollable obsessions and time-consuming “checking” behaviors. Around this time, I discovered in my bedroom a prayer coin invoking Saint Dymphna. I do not recall where this coin came from – and I certainly had never heard of Dymphna before. But the prayer on the back captured me: “Oh St. Dymphna, Patroness of nervous and mental illnesses, grant that, through prayer, I may be pure in mind and soul.”
Fascinated by her story and her Irish identity, I began to read, learn, and ask in prayer for her help. This relationship deepened and developed into my own pilgrimage to St. Dymphna’s church in Geel – which was closed when I reached Belgium! Nevertheless, she has continued to inspire my journey from OCD sufferer to OCD advocate, and I am more convinced than ever that she is a great intercessor and resource in our current Age of Anxiety.
Below are some brief meditations on Dymphna’s continued influence on my life:
1. Dymphna kept faith even in grief. We all know how grief challenges our faith. Not only did Dymphna lose her mother, but she also had to tread the impossible tightrope of consoling her father while recognizing that his sickness was warping him. This must have torn at Dymphna’s heart. Yet even amidst suffering, she did not stop hoping in God’s providence. In my own life, losing my brother six years ago in an accident severely challenged my faith in God. During this time, I believe Saint Dymphna’s help guided me back to a place of trust and hope.
2. Dymphna chose the path of unknowing and vulnerability. By fleeing to Geel, Dymphna took a major-league risk and rejected the familiarity of her native land. Yes, she was momentarily safe from the king – but incredibly vulnerable as a foreigner and refugee. In many ways, staying home and appeasing her father would have been the “safe” choice.
OCD constantly tempts me with gaining “safety” at the cost of doing ridiculous compulsions. While it’s terrifying to reject what OCD wants me to do (“Think hard enough and you’ll have peace!”), I have to respond by saying, “I’m willing to be anxious and unknowing, so I can live a real life.” That Dymphna, Patroness of mental illness, was beheaded, indicates to me that I must abandon relying on my brain, and embrace God and that which I cannot see or “figure out.”
3. Dymphna perfected her own authority and freedom to choose. In standing up to Damon, Dymphna inspires all of us who face temptation and all who face oppression from those who misuse their power. Not only did Dymphna preserve her vows of chastity, but she also avoided another, potentially graver misstep – the acceptance of a false crown, that is, her mother’s rightful crown.
The choice to be independent is terrifying. The story of Dymphna, however, shows true independence is possible, through faith in God who desires our freedom from sin and from oppression. With God’s help we may learn to abandon the perceived “safety” of acquiescing to the soul-stealing machinations of tyrants (even the tyrants in your own mind), at which time the opportunity for freedom, originality, generosity, charity, and creativity arises.
Questions for Reflection: What false crowns have you been offered in your life? What powerful proposals have been extended at the cost of your authority and freedom to choose?
I can recall from a very young age pondering what it means to be Catholic. We were supposed to somehow be different from secular society by the way we lived our lives, but how or why was that any different than simply being a good, kind, and moral human being? Can “normal” domestic life be holy? Why is the domestic church—the Christian family—so vitally important to our faith?
Throughout my life, this question has been answered in various ways and degrees. However, nothing has been so powerful as what I have witnessed in the past few months. In the late fall of last year, my mother-in-law underwent unexpected surgery and was unable to attend Mass. During our family’s Thanksgiving visits, I witnessed an incredible moment of our faith: my mother was able to distribute the Sacred Body of our Lord to my mother-in-law. Tears fell from my mother-in-law’s eyes as my husband, father, mother, and I encircled her, reciting prayers together in preparation for the distribution of the Eucharist. I was struck by the immensity of this moment: as I witnessed the woman who gave me life distribute the source of eternal life to the woman who gave my husband life, the depth and vital importance of the domestic church began to come into clearer focus for me.
The Christmas season would bring me another unexpected intersection of family and faith and another reminder of the significance of the domestic church. My father was hospitalized between Christmas and New Year’s; I found myself once again in the midst of a family circle of prayer as this time I witnessed my sister ministering the Sacred Body of our Lord to both my father and mother. My husband, nieces, nephew, brother-in-law, and I encircled my father’s hospital bed. Again, I found myself struck by the immensity of the moment unraveling before me; there is something very profound in witnessing the physical, tangible presence of Christ enter into vulnerable family space. I held these moments in my heart and in my mind, reflecting on them as the days rolled by between the holidays and the beginning of Lent.
This year, our parish announced that they are encouraging families to consecrate themselves to the Holy Family. Ah, the Holy Family, the perfect model of the domestic church! It is within the context of the family that we learn about our faith and see examples of faith lived out. Christ Himself was born into a family; it was a vital part of his plan of salvation.
We are each called to sainthood and each of our paths to sainthood will look a bit different. Lent is a beautiful time to really evaluate how close we are to following that path and what we can do in our lives to stay the course. No matter what path our calling leads us on, all paths lead back to the family—whether that be our own family by blood or our brothers and sisters in the faith.
How do we live out each day as a domestic church and bring that holy reverence to our everyday lives? We are called not only to love one another but to LIVE for one another. I witnessed this profoundly over the holidays when I saw different members of my family live for and serve one another. But there are also opportunities being presented throughout our everyday life to grow in holiness and spiritual maturity—especially now during this Lenten season. Lent is not only a time to deny ourselves of those things that keep us from our path to sainthood but also a time to invite the Holy Spirit to open our eyes and hearts to opportunities of everyday holiness and saintly domesticity. Christ wants to be a living presence in our homes and in our families, but we have to open the door for Him and invite Him in. I saw the effects of Christ’s presence in my family in those moments when He was brought physically to my parents and mother-in-law. Christ brings unity, service, strength, love. Just as in our physical lives we can manage the stresses and craziness of ever day life better when we fuel our body with proper nutrition and exercise, so too are we called to fuel our spirits and our family bonds with the Bread of the angels and on every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.
What spiritual exercises can we work through together as a family this Lenten season? How can we work to call one another to a life of saintly domesticity?
For more resources to accompany you throughout your Lenten journey, please click here.
To learn more about Marriage and Family, please click here.
One of the topics the 2018 Synod on Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment sought to address was the role of mentorship in the development of the spiritual life. In a time when so many of us seek to know more about the faith and struggle to find faithful examples in the world, the topic of mentorship is extraordinarily important in nourishing young Christians in the faith. The Instrumentum Laboris for the Synod, published in March, brings up two major points that address the roles a mentor has today. The first, and most talked about, is that of accompaniment. The other is education, which is especially important in a time when we live in an increasingly secular culture. These two facets of mentorship are different and cannot always be fulfilled by one person. For this reason, the contribution of the community of faith is incredibly important.
In my life, faith education came from many sources, but none was more important than my Confirmation teacher who was also my youth basketball coach and the father of one of my best friends. Throughout my life, my mentor helped me to learn and grow more in my faith by inviting me to events and men’s conferences. In my Confirmation classes, he showed the beauty of the Faith and helped me understand the truth that flows from the Church’s teachings. Like many young people, I didn’t fully take advantage of a great mentor when I had the chance. But his presence in my life continues today, and his example is a continual witness of what it means to be a faithful Christian.
When we look at the life of a saint, we often see the impact other peers, mentors, or saints had in their life. St. Augustine, for example, had two great saintly mentors: St. Monica (his mother) and St. Ambrose. St. Monica, who prayed tirelessly for the conversion of her son, showed the young Augustine an example of the Christian faith in a lived way. Augustine only fully appreciated this until after his conversion. St. Ambrose provided Augustine—who was struggling with his dualist view of the universe—with the truths found in the Christian faith, which strengthened Augustine and propelled him to ultimately become a Doctor of the Church.
In my life, my friends and peers have been incredible examples of accompaniment. An intimate and baseline knowledge about me makes it so much easier for a friend or peer to understand where I am in life and how to proceed. Peer mentorship, in my experience, is only possible because of the tireless effort that my parents, teachers, ministers etc. have put into nurturing me in understanding and action in the Faith. Without those people I wouldn’t have had the faithful and honest advice that is always so valuable to making me a better Catholic. Just as Jesus sent out his Apostles two by two, we share in the Apostles’ mission to evangelize the world and we must rely on those who share our mission for their support in life.
Saints are often friends with other saints. Two men who followed in the footsteps of the Apostles in fraternity and holiness were St. Ignatius of Loyola and St. Francis Xavier. In the early days of the Jesuit Order, these saints relied on one another for the strength to persevere in promoting the mission of the Society of Jesus. Roommates at the University of Paris, their friendship was centered around Jesus and informed by their studies in Theology. The union of intimate friendship and a well-formed Christian mind creates incredible fruits, which are seen clearly in the success of the Jesuit Order in the missionary work in Europe and around the world.
A revitalized sense of mentorship among Christians is so necessary in a time when the world directs us away from God and into itself. The responsibility for educating and accompanying young people falls on old and young alike. So many young people search for true meaning. It is our responsibility as Christians to take their hand and walk them closer to faith by showing them the truth in the Church’s teachings.
The 2018 Synod is so important because it refocuses on the universal call to holiness. We are called to invite young people into the fullness of the Faith through mentorship, educating them in the fullness of her truth and accompanying them through their struggles—always striving to bring each other closer to Christ along the way.
Questions for Reflection: Do you have any examples of mentorship in your own life? How can you accompany and educate those around you in the example of Christ?
For more resources on the Synod on Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment, please click here.
In 1745, Fr. Alban Butler produced his collection of the Lives of the Saints. It’s been in circulation ever since, providing the faithful with stories of holy men and women as exemplars to imitate. Oftentimes, the stories in the volumes of the Lives of the Saints do not seem to portray real human beings. The brief passages list only miracles and pious deeds. Sometimes I feel that the examples used could even make the sweet St. Therese, the Little Flower, look positively scandalous in comparison!
This is not to say that Fr. Butler’s work is in vain. It is good that these names are recorded for us. As we celebrate All Saints’ Day, we should honor those who came before us and passed down the faith from generation to generation. But this feast day raises the question: what is a saint?
The process of canonization tells us that we know when a certain person is surely in Heaven and that their life is worth imitating, but there are more unrecognized saints than those that are recognized. Saints are people who, through the course of their lives, have grown into the image of themselves which God holds in His divine mind. They become who they were created to be in the fullest sense. The marvelous thing about saints is that they were real, gloriously messy, complex human persons. If we believe every human being is an unrepeatable expression of God’s love, then it stands to reason that every saint is an unrepeatable example of what it means to live out of that love.
I think too often we get concerned with trying to imitate certain saints, like St. Therese, and forget to discover who we were created to be. You cannot be St. Therese: Part 2, or Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati 2.0. Those roles have been taken because those two individuals had the humility to see the greatness God was inviting them into. They stepped into the journey of becoming who they were meant to be. Dr. Gianna Molla, known for giving her life to save her infant daughter’s, was not a saint because of that one action. Her life was steeped in holiness. She was a doctor, a mother, a lover of fashion, and apparently a terrible driver. But as much as I want to be her when I grow up, I can’t. I will never be a doctor, for one thing. What I can do is find pieces of my personality in hers, and I can learn from her example of how she lived and how she handled certain situations and use those lessons in my own life—much like getting advice from an older sister.
Holy lives are not replicas of each other. You cannot program holiness by inserting a set of statutes, commands, circumstances, or ideals into people. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, in his General Audience on April 13, 2011, said “Holiness, the fullness of Christian life, does not consist in carrying out extraordinary enterprises but in being united with Christ, in living his mysteries, in making our own his example, his thoughts, his behavior” (emphasis mine). We are called to live as Christ in a particular manner, in this particular time, with our own particular gifts. I cannot be you and you cannot be me. But I need you to be the person God has called you to be because we are part of the same mystical Body of Christ, alongside the saints. Conversely, I need to become the person God created me to be as well.
We will never know all of our spiritual brothers and sisters until we reach Heaven. As members of the Church triumphant, the saints want us united with God even more than we want to be with Him because they love more perfectly than we do. May we imitate their holy example and ask for their guidance in living out of the love of God more and more completely each day.
Reflection Questions: Who is your favorite obscure saint? What quality of sanctity do you want to grow in this season?
“We declare and define Blessed Paul VI, Oscar Arnulfo Romero Galdámez, Francis Spinelli, Vincent Romano, Mary Catherine Kasper, Nazaria Ignacia of Saint Teresa of Jesus March Mesa and Nunzio Sulprizio to be Saints and we enroll them among the Saints, decreeing that they are to be venerated as such by the whole Church.” -Holy Mass and Canonization of the Blesseds: Paul VI, Oscar Romero, Francesco Spinelli, Vicenzo Romano, Maria Caterina Kasper, Nazaria Ignazia di Santa Teresa di Gesu, Nunzio Sulprizio
This was the moment I had waited months to experience: the official canonization of these seven men and women.
This past May, I knew I would be studying in Rome for my fall semester of sophomore year. I wanted to know what, if anything, would be happening during my time in Rome. Little did I know that I would be blessed with attending a canonization Mass. I’ll say it again if you didn’t catch my excitement the first time: a CANONIZATION!
But at this moment I know some of you are asking, “Tom, what is a canonization?” Well, I’m glad you asked, inquisitive reader.
A canonization occurs when the Catholic Church formally recognizes that someone who has lived an exemplary life of holiness and virtue is now in heaven with God and can be prayed to and venerated in all the Catholic churches throughout the world. With this solemn declaration, they are added to the official canon, or list, of saints. The Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it this way: “by solemnly proclaiming that they practiced heroic virtue and lived in fidelity to God’s grace, the Church recognizes the power of the Spirit of holiness within her and sustains the hope of believers by proposing the saints to them as models and intercessors.”
The next question you probably have is, “Tom, you said you waited months for the canonization Mass. Why were you so excited?” Dear reader, what a wonderful question!
The answer is that I love the saints and want to grow in my relationship with as many of them as I can, in as many different ways as I can, because they are examples to all Catholics of how to live for Jesus Christ in this world. This canonization Mass was a once-in-a-lifetime way for me to exercise this desire. This is further illustrated by a beautiful and unintended consequence of my studying in Rome and attending the canonization Mass: I got to tangibly experience the saints. Let me explain.
When I prayed at St. Peter’s tomb and later read the passage about how he walked on the water toward Jesus, I thought: “Woah, the Peter I’m reading about is the same Peter whose tomb I just prayed at.” When I prayed before the skull of the young Saint Agnes, I thought: “This is the skull of the patroness of my diocese. That’s amazing.” As my friends and I waited to enter St. Peter’s Square, we talked to a woman from El Salvador who listened to Oscar Romero’s homilies and was 19 years old when he was assassinated. She told us that when he was killed, she felt as if she had lost her own father. After she said this, I thought: “I have read about Oscar Romero’s life and sacrifice and how much he influenced the Salvadoran people, but I didn’t truly grasp it until I heard this story.” And that is the lesson: Catholicism isn’t dead—not even close. It is fully alive! It is an encounter with Jesus Christ through His saints who are alive among His faithful people here on earth!
A final question you may have for me, and a question that I asked myself, is: “What lessons can we learn from these seven saints?”
I believe we should emulate Pope Saint Paul VI’s fortitude for defending the truth of the Catholic faith, Archbishop Saint Oscar Romero’s passionate love for the poor and oppressed in our midst, Saint Francis Spinelli’s devotion to the Most Blessed Sacrament, Saint Vincent Romano’s zeal for the Word of God, Saint Mary Catherine Kasper’s “openness to the Holy Spirit,” Saint Nazaria Ignacia’s caring heart, and Saint Nunzio Sulprizio’s youthful devotion to the sufferings of Christ.
I encourage you all to learn about these seven saints and as many saints as you can, and then to go tangibly experience them, however you can.
Please click the following links for more resources on the canonization of Paul VI and Oscar Romero.
On October 14, 2018, Pope Francis will canonize two great church leaders who helped shape Catholicism across the globe in the second half of the twentieth century: Pope Paul VI and Archbishop Oscar Romero. In reflecting on their lives, I cannot do justice to the complex and controversial circumstances that forged these extraordinary men into the saints they are. Instead, I’d like to reflect on something common and fundamental to us and them: Baptism.
Baptism sets the foundation for a lifelong calling and mission. The Catechism calls Baptism “the basis of the whole Christian life” and “the gateway to life in the Spirit” (CCC 1213). A saint is someone who lives their baptismal identity to the full. The three fundamentals we are called to live and practice “on entering the People of God through faith and Baptism” (CCC 783) are what we call the “three offices of Christ”: Priest, Prophet, and King. What made Pope Paul VI and Archbishop Oscar Romero saints was the integrity and fullness with which they lived out their baptismal vocations as priest, prophet, and king.
Both Pope Paul VI and Oscar Romero were ordained Catholic priests, but by virtue of their Baptism they shared what we call the “priesthood of the faithful.” What is this priestly vocation? We live it by offering prayer and sacrifice for others. At the heart of every saint is a love for and commitment to prayer. Archbishop Romero lived his priestly vocation in a powerful and tragic way when he was martyred on March 24, 1980 while celebrating Mass in Divina Providentia Hospital—uniting his prayer and sacrifice with Christ’s into eternity.
Paul VI and Oscar Romero excelled at the way they lived the prophetic vocation of their Baptism. A prophet, in the biblical sense, is someone called by God to deliver a message of truth through either words or actions. One of my favorite descriptions of a prophet is one who comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. During their lifetime, prophets are often inconvenient, unpopular, or even attacked, but history proves they shared the right message at exactly the right time.
Both Paul VI and Oscar Romero faced harsh criticism, and Romero (as did many other prophets through history) suffered martyrdom. When Paul VI issued the encyclical letter Humanae Vitae (1968), which affirmed traditional Catholic teaching on sexual ethics, he faced a wave of criticism and dissent in the Church. Fifty years later, many Catholic moral theologians and historians see that his analysis and predictions were right on target. Archbishop Romero, standing in the tradition of Old Testament prophets like Amos and Isaiah, stood up and spoke out to the government (known as the Junta) in his home country of El Salvador, as well as other world governments (including the United States), on behalf of the poor and marginalized who were being treated unjustly. Like Paul VI and Romero, every baptized person is called to stand up and speak out for truth and justice, especially when it is unpopular or inconvenient.
While we gravitate toward thinking of the “royal” or “kingly” role as one of being above or served by others, it is actually the exact opposite. A true leader is one completely dedicated to serving others through his administration and decision-making. I can think of few more monumental or difficult tasks a church leader faced than Pope Paul VI when he was called by the Church to steer the conclusion and implementation of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), which has been called the single most important religious event in the twentieth century. Archbishop Oscar Romero was often criticized for his ecclesial administration getting mixed up with the political situation. Yet Romero recognized that in order to effectively lead and serve the church under his pastoral care, he needed to engage the civil government around him.
We, like Paul VI and Oscar Romero, do not become saints by being perfect administrators or leaders, but by bringing God’s spirit of wisdom into the challenges and opportunities that come our way. I would guess that at their baptism and even priestly ordination, Paul VI and Oscar Romero had no idea how God had planned for them to exercise their royal vocation. Under extraordinary times and circumstances, these saints modelled for us how we all are called to exercise leadership in ordinary, everyday circumstances with humility and whole-hearted devotion to God and others.
On October 14, let us rededicate ourselves to living our own priestly, prophetic, and royal vocation of Baptism with the same spirit and integrity as Pope Paul VI and Archbishop Oscar Romero.
Please click the following links for more information about the canonization and lives of Pope Paul VI and Oscar Romero.
Editor's note: This blog was originally published in 2013. We are re-posting it in honor of the two upcoming Marian feast days on September 8 (the Nativity of Mary) and September 12 (the Most Holy Name of Mary). Blessed Mother, pray for us!
Both of my grandmothers had great devotion to the Blessed Mother. I remember going to their homes and seeing statues of Mary and other saints, prayer cards, and crystal and silver rosaries. I learned much from them and my mother about devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Back in 1901, on this day, the feast of the Most Holy Name of Mary, my grandmother, Millie Donio, was born. During my childhood, though, I did not know that it was a feast day, because with the reform of the liturgical calendar in 1969, the feast was removed. Restored by Blessed John Paul II in 2002 in the revised Roman Missal, it is now an optional memorial. Interestingly, there is only one other feast related to the name of a person, the Most Holy Name of Jesus, celebrated on January 3rd. This feast day was restored in 1996.
The name, Mary, could mean “sea of bitterness” or, possibly, “beloved”. Consider for a moment how many situations Mary found herself in that could have resulted in bitterness. When the unwed young Mary was told by the angel Gabriel that she was pregnant by the “power of holy Spirit,” she did not focus on her own situation, but made herself available to her cousin Elizabeth (Lk 1:39-40). When her son, Jesus, went off preaching suddenly at age 30, the scriptures show no evidence of her complaining about it. Instead, she says, “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5). No bitterness there. When she is at the foot of the cross watching her son die before her eyes, powerless to do anything about it, she accepts being given over the care of the Beloved Disciple, he as her son, she as his mother (John 19:26-27). Sorrow, yes. Bitterness, no. A “sea of bitterness” around her, but she, being the perfect disciple, shows us the way to be. She shows us how to live as beloved by God.
My grandmothers showed me how to live as one beloved by God. They each had their various hardships in life – physical sufferings, emotional difficulties, financial challenges – but each held firm to her faith and it was faith in God that sustained them. They each moved outside of themselves and cared for others, even in the midst of their own struggles. I will never forget going with Grandmom Donio to quietly drop off bags of fruits and vegetables at the back doors of the homes of people she knew were in need of them, but were not able to ask others for help. No words exchanged, we were not even seen, just an action done for good because the other is beloved by God.
Being beloved by God does not mean there will be no suffering or challenge in life. Being beloved by God, called by our name in Baptism, which claimed us for Jesus Christ, we are not left alone to simply move through life. We have the ones we call by name, Mary who intercedes for us with the other person we call by name, Jesus, who is also the Son of God. We call also on the names of the other baptized in the community of faith, the Church. We call out with all of our needs as we live in what can seem at times like a “sea of bitterness.” But, we are not meant to be bitter in life, no matter what we experience. Pope Francis offers us encouragement to move out of ourselves toward others:
“Let us never yield to pessimism, to that bitterness that the devil offers us every day; let us not yield to pessimism or discouragement: let us be quite certain that the Holy Spirit bestows upon the Church, with his powerful breath, the courage to persevere and also to seek new methods of evangelization, so as to bring the Gospel to the uttermost ends of the earth (cf. Acts 1:8)” (Audience with the College of Cardinals, March 15, 2013).
What are we to do then? Not live in bitterness, but witness as ones beloved. We are to call others by name and assist them in being good disciples of Jesus Christ, following the pattern of life and asking the intercession of the one called Mary.
In the most beautiful chapter of the best work of one of the greatest Catholic theologians - in my opinion, anyway - Saint Augustine tells the story of his mother, Saint Monica.
Saint Monica was born to a good Christian family but she had little luck in marriage. She was married at a young age to a man named Patricius, and they had three children together. He was a pagan, he was angry, and he was unfaithful. But Monica was patient and merciful. Despite Patricius’s evil ways, she served him with devotion, mercy, and constant prayer. At the end of his life, only one year before he died, her daily prayer and kindness were rewarded and Patricius was baptized into the faith.
But Patricius’s conversion did not end Monica’s sorrow. Augustine was seventeen when Patricius died, and his conduct was worse than his father's. He was brilliant, but lazy. He drank excessively, stole, and lived promiscuously. The year his father died, Augustine fathered a son of his own out of wedlock. Despite Monica’s urging, Augustine refused to settle down and get married. Worse still, Augustine rejected his mother’s faith and joined the Manichean cult.
But Monica never ceased her kindness and prayers. She followed Augustine as his teaching lead him to Carthage, to Rome, and to Milan. In Milan, Monica met Saint Ambrose, then a bishop. In serving in his church, she came to know Ambrose well, and Ambrose came to understand her sorrow for her son. He comforted her, saying, “Surely the son of so many tears will not perish.”
Her prayers were eventually answered. A year before she died, Augustine was baptized. He went on to become one of greatest saints in history. As she lay dying, Monica told her son that her life’s work was complete. “One thing there was, for which I desired to linger a little while in this life, that I might see you a Catholic Christian before I died. God has granted this to me in more than abundance, for I see you his servant, with even earthly happiness held in contempt. What am I doing here?” (pg 223).
Saint Monica gives us a powerful example of the influence of intercessory prayer (CCC 2634-2636). Monica did not use words to persuade Augustine to convert. Instead she led by example, living with kindness and praying on his behalf. For thirty-two years she patiently prayed for his conversion, and God rewarded his faithful servant. We are called to do the same.
The Letter of James says, “Pray for one another, that you may be healed. The fervent prayer of a righteous person is very powerful” (James 5:16) and Jesus tells us, “Amen, amen, I say to you, whatever you ask the Father in my name he will give you.” (John 16:23). We are all sinners and we all need God’s intercession. But we are not alone. God desires us to pray for our own forgiveness and for the forgiveness of others. That is why we pray “forgive us our trespasses” and not “forgive me my trespasses.”
People are difficult. We treat each other with anger, unfaithfulness, and unrepentance. But rather than meet those that harm us with our own shortcomings, let us instead follow Saint Monica’s example and live a life full of kindness and prayer. Pray for God’s help, pray for the forgiveness and conversion of others, and Saint Monica, pray for us.
St. Monica’s feast day is celebrated on Monday, August 27, 2018.
Every year at the school where I teach, the students do a project on St. Ignatius and our school’s Jesuit identity. We focus on the way St. Ignatius taught people to help others, whether in our own classroom and at home, or on the street and in desperate need of assistance. We teach the students about what it means to live a Magis life, meaning “greater” in Latin, i.e., living for a higher purpose to serve. My favorite part and the purpose of this lesson for the small ones is the opportunity to open their eyes to the needs of others and ask them what they can do to help.
Some common answers:
Although these answers are from 5 year olds who are just learning about God, they carry weight and insight, demonstrating that a Magis life can be lived even through our everyday actions.
Now, enough about the cute Pre-Kindergarteners, here is some information on St. Ignatius and the Magis life that we “older kids” can focus on.
A short biography of St. Ignatius:
Ignacio de Loyola was born in Spain in 1491 at a time when noble families like his expected their sons to become soldiers and fight in battles for their country. Ignacio loved the bravery and recognition that came with being a soldier and often basked in the glory of victory. Little did he know that one day his life would drastically change.
In 1521, a French cannonball shot Ignacio in the leg and left him bedridden. While he was recovering from his wounds, he read two books: one was on the life of Christ and the other was on lives of the saints. As he read, he noted the good works that these saints had accomplished and desired to do great things with his life, too. He vowed, then, that he would serve the rest of his life in service to God, doing Christ’s work on Earth. Soon after he recovered, his goal was to be educated, know more about the faith, and serve as a spiritual director. He eventually compiled the many prayers, insights, meditations, and thoughts on how to live in Christ as a person of faith. He called this compilation the Spiritual Exercises.
Years later, with friends Francis Xavier and Peter Faber, Ignacio formed a new order called the Society of Jesus, also known as the Jesuits. Their message consisted of doing things Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam (AMDG), in English, “For the greater glory of God,” a message that children and young people can understand easily. The Jesuits were educators and missionaries and opened many schools around the world. St. Ignatius’ message lives on through the words and works of the Jesuits. Additionally, Pope Francis is the first Jesuit priest to be named Pope.
In my school each morning, we pray the Suscipe, a prayer that is said to have been written by St. Ignatius, which asks for God’s guidance for the day. It helps the students and teachers alike remember that each day is a new beginning, regardless of what happened the day before. I invite you to take a moment and pray this prayer. I would encourage you to even begin to say it once a week, or each morning on your way into work, or in a quiet space during lunch. As we remember St. Ignatius of Loyola on his Feast Day today, let us remember his way of living Magis, a life with a higher purpose that always strives to serve Christ better than before.
Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,
my memory, my understanding,
and my entire will,
All I have and call my own.
You have given it all to me.
To you, Lord, I return it.
Everything is yours; do with it what you will.
Give me only your love and your grace,
that is enough for me. Amen.
“GO, GONZAGA, G-O-N-Z-A-G-A!”
In recent memory, the basketball arena at Gonzaga University has been filled with that chant every season. Students and alumni alike gather together to celebrate their team, especially in March. People are excited—as they should be! Gonzaga is a Jesuit University in Spokane, Washington that is very well known for its basketball team. Every time they’ve made it to March Madness, there are always some commentators who ask, “Is it pronounced Gone-ZAY-ga, Gone-ZAH-ga, or gone-ZAG-uh” (it’s the latter, by the way). While Gonzaga is a great university and a great team, something that is often overlooked about the university is the great man for whom it is named. A man who, assuredly, would find it madness how many people are chanting his name every March.
St. Aloysius Gonzaga, or “Luigi,” was born in Spain to an aristocratic family. As the first-born son, Luigi was raised to eventually inherit the entirety of his father’s fortune. Everything provided for him already, he was not required to work for a living. Instead, he was sent to the royal court at age ten to prepare for a life in the aristocracy. Yet, while serving the court, he saw the ways of nobility—filled with backstabbing, sex, and so many more things—and they seemed to him disgusting and vile. Exposed to and repulsed by these things, he vowed to God to never sin again.
Little Luigi began to read in the family chapel at court about the lives of the saints. At the age of 11, he read a book about the Jesuits, who brought the Gospel to India. Luigi felt invigorated. He too wanted to bring the Good News to India or Africa with the Jesuits. Even with the aristocracy all attempting to convince him to stay, and his father threatening violence, Luigi left home at 17 to go to Rome and join the Society of Jesus. Six years later, he was dead. Luigi had been sent on mission—but not to India, or Africa, or even anywhere outside of Italy. He died after being sent to help the people, plague-ridden and dying, on the streets of Rome.
While he was never ordained a priest, the epic journey of preaching the Gospel that Aloysius Gonzaga had dreamed about as a child did happen for him on the streets of his adopted home. Although young Luigi dreamed of serving the Lord in faraway, impoverish nations, the Lord showed him that even the people right outside of our windows need the Gospel. When we strive to live the Gospel, we must ask ourselves: have I shown the love of Christ to those around me? To my housemates and family members, to my neighbors a couple doors down? To those in my community? Not all missionary disciples are called to board a plane and serve abroad. Where ever our vocation takes us, we are called to be missionaries of Christ throughout our daily lives.
Aloysius Gonzaga was beatified fourteen years after his death for his heroic virtue, which he demonstrated through his chosen life of simplicity and trust in the Lord. Maybe it is appropriate that we chant his name every year—and maybe we can all imitate the Gonzaga who gave up his servants to be one himself.
Today ends a yearlong celebration of the Jubilee of the 200th Anniversary of the Ordination to the Priesthood of St. Vincent Pallotti. In celebrations in 54 countries around the world and beyond, Pallotti’s foundation, the Union of Catholic Apostolate, is offering thanks for his life of selfless ministry. Ordained on May 16, 1818 as a priest of the Diocese of Rome, Pallotti served his entire life in the city, especially through pastoral care of the poor, sick, prisoners, and dying, spiritual direction, education, and sacramental ministry, particularly the Eucharist and Penance.
Through reviving faith and rekindling charity as a priest always in collaboration with others, he was inspired 17 years later to found an association of lay people, religious and clergy that would assist the Church’s missionary efforts, revive the faith of Catholics, and live universal charity. He called it the Union of Catholic Apostolate. Only after almost 20 years of priestly ministry did he form a community of priests and brothers as well as a community of sisters. Both communities were small by the time of his death in 1850, but today are throughout the world.
Fr. Jacob Nampudakam, S.A.C., the Rector General of the Society of the Catholic Apostolate (Pallottine Fathers and Brothers) in his book, The Spirit of the Priesthood according to St. Vincent Pallotti, summarizes well the way in which Pallotti went about his priestly ministry:
“Vincent Pallotti from the very beginning of his priestly life, committed himself to live out all of the implications of the ministerial priesthood and revive its evangelical spirit. He interiorized the priesthood as a following of Jesus Christ and expanded his vision and put it into practice by means of priestly activities” (9).
Pallotti in and through his priestly ministry lived the life of an apostle, a follower of Christ who is sent out into the world to share the Gospel in word and deed. As apostles, we are not alone, as Pope Francis notes:
“I entrust all of you to the protection of Mary Most Holy, whom St. Vincent Pallotti venerated especially as Queen of Apostles. Her good example of apostolic zeal and perfect charity, invites us to pray without ceasing to invoke the gifts of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles of today, so that the Gospel of her Son can be proclaimed in every part of the world.”
May the Charity of Christ urge us on!
In Christ, Apostle of the Eternal Father,
"Remember that the Christian life is one of action; not of speech and daydreams. Let there be few words and many deeds, and let them be done well." – St. Vincent Pallotti
Blessings to all on the feast day of St. Vincent Pallotti!
Today’s feast is not celebrated universally in the Church, even though it is listed on the Vatican’s calendar of saints. And yet, this humble Roman priest who was ordained 200 years ago this coming May 16th, by his deeds and words still affects the lives of people around the world through his legacy, the Union of Catholic Apostolate.
The Catholic Apostolate Center is a 21st century expression of the charism of St. Vincent Pallotti as articulated in the General Statutes of the Union, particularly number 12:
“The Union of Catholic Apostolate participates in the mission of the Church to reawaken faith and an awareness of the vocation to the apostolate, to rekindle charity among all the members of the People of God, so that they be ever more united in a commitment to spread charity and so that there be, as soon as possible, one flock under one Shepherd (cf. Jn 10, 16). Therefore, the Union, in communion with the competent Pastors, promotes collaboration among all the faithful in openness to new forms of evangelization.”
The action that we take is not simply on our own, but is in collaboration and union with others and fosters greater co-responsibility for the mission of Christ and his Church.
As we celebrate this special feast day today, please know that our prayers are with you. May you continue to revive faith, rekindle charity, and form apostles wherever you are and in whatever you are doing. May your words and deeds be done well!
May the Charity of Christ urge us on!
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!
Changing diapers. Making dinner menus for the week. Vacuuming raisins out of the deepest crevices of the car’s backseat. Often, the daily tasks of running a household and raising a toddler feel more to me like mindless drudgery than fruitful and productive labor. My inner monologue ends up sounding like this: My husband works eight hours a day at a meaningful job that he enjoys, and his income puts a roof over our heads, food on the table, and clothes on our backs. And what do I do? Sweep floors that are just going to instantly get dirty again and scrub toothpaste off the bathroom mirror—which is my own fault because I left the toddler alone while he brushed his teeth this morning.
Lately I had found myself searching for examples of saints whose primary vocation was parenthood and family life. And I began to read The Journey of Our Love, a collection of letters written by St. Gianna Beretta Molla and her husband, Pietro.
Prior to reading the letters, all I had known about St. Gianna was that one of her pregnancies was extremely difficult and that she ultimately sacrificed her life for her child. I thought this was the only reason that she was canonized in 2004. But as I read the letters St. Gianna and her husband wrote to each other, I gradually realized that Gianna’s self-sacrifice was only the final heroic act of a life filled with profound joy and holiness.
On the surface, the Mollas’ married life looks quite typical for the contemporary western world: St. Gianna was a pediatrician who split her time between her clinic and her duties at home, while Pietro traveled frequently for his job as an upper-level administrator for a manufacturing company. Their older children suffered from persistent, but not life-threatening, health issues like severe reflux and hip misalignment. Where the Mollas differ from most modern parents is in their deep devotion to God and in the trust, love, and joy that flowed from placing Christ at the center of their lives.
The more I read of St. Gianna and Pietro’s letters, the more I was struck by my own inability to see the greatness that is possible within the most mundane, repetitive, and irritating aspects of domestic life. St. Gianna and her husband did not found any religious orders, nor were they publicly martyred for their faith, nor were they brilliant theologians. Rather, they were ordinary people whose love for Christ permeated every aspect of their lives.
One of my favorite examples of St. Gianna’s quiet holiness is when one of Pietro’s overseas business trips, already over a month long, was extended by several weeks. Gianna initially reacted as many wives would do and “had a good cry” (page 209). But then, rather than wallowing in her loneliness or in the difficulties of parenting alone, she writes that she “offered this sacrifice to the Lord for you [Pietro] so that he might protect you during your continual flights, and for the baby we are expecting, so it will be born beautiful and healthy.”
Pietro, too, often writes that while he suffers from the long separations from his wife and children, he offers those sufferings so that he and his family will continue to be blessed. Neither St. Gianna nor her husband ever express a sense of doubt about the apparent banality of their lives—they accept their ordinary trials with grace and humility, and are quick to turn their frustrations or sadness back into thankfulness for the good God has granted them in their lives.
Reading the Mollas’ letters helped me see that, like St. Gianna and her husband, I am called to be holy in every aspect of my ordinary and seemingly unremarkable life— whether it be caring for a toddler with a persistent cold or doing my fifth load of laundry in two days. For most of us, we are called to be saints not through grand gestures of faith, but in the love with which we embrace the ordinary burdens of our everyday lives.
Question for Reflection: What are some ordinary tasks in your everyday life that can help you become an everyday saint?
This past winter, as I knelt in prayer at the tomb of the Blessed Elisabetta Sanna, I experienced a great sense of peace. I also felt a profound connection to this holy woman, who is largely unknown in the United States. I was blessed to be in Rome on a pilgrimage with a few great friends during our university’s winter break. Before embarking on the pilgrimage, my thoughts chiefly centered on finishing final exams and looking forward to having the opportunity to pray with Pope Francis at St. Peter’s Basilica. This opportunity with the Holy Father ended up becoming a moment I will always treasure. Yet, as I reflect back on the pilgrimage, it is clear that my encounter with the Venerable Elisabetta Sanna in the small Church of San Salvatore in Onda left the greatest mark on my spiritual life.
Born in 1788, Elisabetta Sanna grew up in Sardinia. When only three months old, Elisabetta contracted smallpox, a disease that left her physically handicap for the rest of her life. Despite her disability, Elisabetta married and had seven children. She became well known in her town for devoting herself to the catechetical education of youth. Elisabetta also educated women from the town in basic Christian doctrine. After her husband died in 1825, Elisabetta decided to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and entrusted her children to the care of her mother and brother. Though she started her pilgrimage, Elisabetta never made it to the Holy Land, instead going to Rome. It was in Rome that she met a humble priest with a bold vision proclaiming that all the baptized were called to be apostles. This priest, Fr. Vincent Pallotti, would become her spiritual director, as well as a saint. He was canonized on January 20th, 1963 by Pope John XXIII. While Elisabetta planned on returning to her children in Sardinia, her physical disability prevented her from travelling back. Hence, while understandably upset, Elisabetta remained in Rome and continued to selflessly serve others in collaboration with Fr. Vincent Pallotti. In addition to performing multiple works of mercy, such as visiting the terminally ill, Elisabetta’s life was rooted in prayer. Both Sacred Scripture and the Holy Mass gave her the ability to be the face of Christ to the marginalized. In other words, Elisabetta’s love for Jesus Christ, which was grounded in her personal prayer, impelled her to the apostolate.
What I find so remarkable and inspiring about Elisabetta’s life is that her path towards holiness appears so un-extraordinary. She was not the founder of a religious community, nor did she author a great theological treatise. Yet, it is exactly the ordinariness of her life that makes her so extraordinary. Elisabetta’s life is important because it demonstrates that God calls each one of us, in whatever place, in whatever situation, to be apostles. If you begin to doubt your ability to do great things for Jesus, look to the example of Elisabetta. I invite you to pray for her intercession and ask her to assist you in living out your vocation to be an apostle.
For more resources on the Blessed Elisabetta Sanna, click here.
Editors Note: This blog post was originally published on July 7, 2016 and Elisabetta Sanna was beatified on September 17, 2016.