Pope Francis eloquently writes in his post-synodal exhortation Christus Vivit, “After this brief look at the word of God, we cannot just say that young people are the future of our world. They are its present.” In the last decade, and especially since Christus Vivit was promulgated in 2019, the Church has sought to help the Church’s youth become protagonists in their own right. This is seen in many parish, diocesan, and archdiocesan initiatives to form young Church leaders. Some examples of this include creating new diocesan offices for youth and young adult ministries and the growth of many high school and collegiate campus ministry offices. Nevertheless, young people crave young role models for the Faith. Pope Francis recognized this and listed many examples, including Mary, St. Francis of Assisi, and St. Joan of Arc. In this blog, I wish to discuss three saints in particular--Bl. Carlo Acutis, St. Jose Sanchez del Rio, and St. Therese of Lisieux—and how their witnesses are a model for young people (especially youth leaders) who wish to dive deeper into a relationship with Christ and his Church.
Young people everywhere crave to see an aspect of themselves in the people they look up to, and Bl. Carlo Acutis is a soon-to-be saint who allows young people to see commonalities between themselves and the saints. Carlo was a typical Italian teenager who played soccer and video games. Nevertheless, he also made great strides for God in his work, uploading Eucharistic miracles to a website to spread devotion to the Body and Blood of Christ. He was called “an influencer for God” by his mother in an America Magazine article. Bl. Carlo stands as a soon-to-be saint accessible to the Church’s youth because of his young age and his connectedness to 21st-century culture. Bl. Carlo Acutis models for youth leaders how evangelization must occur within the culture and modern media, not from an ivory tower of formal theology and scholarship. The Gospel must be spread in a way that all generations can appreciate, and Bl. Carlo accomplished that with the creation of his website.
Another young person who bore witness to the Faith in the context of his own time was St. José Sánchez del Rio. Saint José was a young man growing up in Mexico during the Cristero Wars. The Cristero Wars were a series of conflicts between the Mexican President Plutarco Calles's secularist government and Cristero fighters (formally known as the National League for the Defense of Religious Liberty). The Calles government imposed the 1917 Mexican Constitution, which contained anticlerical policies and sought state atheism. Catholics across the country opposed this and began resisting through liturgical services and military resistance against the Mexican army. Saint José was a young man during the war and wanted to fight to defend his Faith. His mother, however, refused to let him formally join the Cristero Movement. This made St. José contribute to the movement indirectly and attend Mass whenever possible. Nevertheless, when a Cristero General lost his horse in battle, young José offered his, and this led to his imprisonment by the Mexican army. After being tortured to renounce his Faith, José refused and was martyred. St. José Sánchez del Rio’s witness to the Faith is one of the best examples of what a Catholic is called to do by Christ: witness the Faith within your own culture and times while not renouncing our Lord. Despite his young age, St. José believed in Christ’s love and graces, and that gave him the strength to be countercultural and stand with Jesus instead of with the popular culture and the government that stood against Him.
Finally, St. Thérèse of Lisieux remains one of the most commanding forces in the Church’s lexicon for youth witnesses. Becoming a Carmelite at age fifteen, Thérèse began to pray incessantly and pioneered her famous “Little Way” for the spiritual life. St. Thérèse’s “Little Way” seeks to help people encounter Christ in their day-to-day activities and pray to Jesus with childlike dependency. St. Thérèse of Lisieux’s powerful devotion to the Eucharist, prayer, and a joyful attitude allow many to realize that one can be close to Christ no matter what they are doing. St. Thérèse stands as a strong role model for young Catholics since her relationship to Christ reached such profound depths at her young age.
Young people crave role models in the Church, and older generations can find powerful witnesses and wisdom from young Catholics as well. The Church has been and must remain dedicated to telling and promoting the stories of young saints to inspire every generation to become protagonists in the Church and saints for Christ’s kingdom. Young people can be inspired by these saints since they can “…offer the Church the beauty of youth by renewing her ability to ‘rejoice with new beginnings, to give unreservedly of herself, to be renewed and to set out for ever greater accomplishments’” (Pope Francis, Christus Vivit).
When I look at my faith journey and the twists and turns it has taken, I consider the people who have impacted it the most. Many of these people have come into my life and taught me something about my faith or about myself in one way or another, through positive relationships, prayer, and community. In the past couple of years, I have been blessed to get to know a few Catholic young women who have become a faith support system for me. These women from different walks of life have been living as witnesses of loyalty, honesty, and vulnerability on their individual faith journeys and have stood as role models to me in mine. Their witness of Christ’s enduring love inspires me to be the best Catholic woman I can be.
My faith journey has also been inspired by Our Blessed Mother’s “Yes” to God and faithful obedience throughout her life. She, along with many women in the Church, serve as witnesses of faith while living often tumultuous lives on earth. Below is a short summary of five real women with strong characteristics that each can serve as models for us as we move forward on our journeys of faith.
Saint Maria Goretti is remembered for forgiving, while on her deathbed, the man who stabbed her after she refused his sexual advances at the young age of eleven. This Italian saint it often depicted gazing at the Virgin Mother while clutching a crucifix. Maria shows us a not only an intense love of Christ, but also exemplifies forgiveness. She forgave her attacker, a man who later became a Capuchin lay brother. By following her example, we can learn to forgive those in our lives who have wronged us and maybe learn to be forgiven ourselves, which can help our hearts be pure through the Sacrament of Penance.
Saint Clare of Assisi is remembered for her empathy and care for the poor. She was a monastic Benedictine nun who later founded the Order of Poor Ladies in the Franciscan tradition. With a strong devotion to Saint Francis, Clare adopted his faithfulness to the poor and desired to live humbly with her order. Clare shows us how to live in service to others by giving of our time and prayer to people in need. We can imitate her example by donating gently used clothing or volunteering at soup kitchens all year round.
Saint Joan of Arc is remembered for her bravery and leadership. She defied secular norms and led soldiers to victory in France. Joan, who is the patron saint of soldiers and France, lived for Christ through her actions. Her bravery can give us courage to persevere through any vocation God has for our lives. She shows us the importance of following God’s call, whether we are preparing to take vows or changing careers.
Saint Kateri Tekakwitha is remembered for steadfast devotion to Christ after converting to Catholicism and cultivating a desire to live devoutly for God. In the face of adversity within her family (her parents and brother died of smallpox when she was only four years old) and rejection by her Native American community, Kateri stayed true to her heart and had faith in God. Kateri is the first Native American saint and was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012.
Saint Therese of Lisieux is remembered for her undying love for Christ and ongoing cheerfulness until her death at age twenty-four. Known as the “Little Flower,” Therese lived simply and fully in pursuit of a deep and genuine relationship with God. She became the third female and youngest Doctor of the Church in 1997. Therese once said of her life, "It is impossible for me to grow up, so I must bear with myself such as I am with all my imperfections. But I want to seek out a means of going to heaven by a little way, a way that is very straight, very short and totally new." She shows us how to stay joyful and childlike by fully opening our hearts to Christ and seeking God in our own little ways.
These women and countless others served God through their words, actions, and commitment to the Gospel. I invite you to take a moment to consider these female saints and hundreds of others who witness to their faith. How can Christ help you be brave, like St. Joan of Arc, or instill in you a burning devotion to the Gospel, like St. Kateri Tekakwitha? In what ways can you give to the poor or exercise other corporal and spiritual works of mercy, like St. Claire of Assisi? How can you forgive others, like St. Maria Goretti, or remain joyful like St. Therese of Lisieux? Let us look to the saints, pray for strength, and learn to live through faith.