Saints were ordinary people who led extraordinary lives

Father John A. Kiley

A parishioner handed me a slim book entitled “Church History 101.” As the title implies, the brief treatise outlined Catholicism’s 2,000 years in summary fashion: the ancient church, the medieval church, the reformation church, the modern church.

The author focused mostly on the structural development of the Catholic Church: the early church adapting the trappings of the Roman government; the church in the Middle Ages resembling a monarchy; the Reformation era church splintering as the nation-states arose; and the modern church greatly separated from the secular state. Of course, a good deal of other material filled out the 100 and a half pages. But a major aspect that was notably underreported was the multitude of saints that have filled church life.

As the solemnity of All Saints approaches, the myriad martyrs, missionaries, monks, mentors, monarchs and modern folk who enjoy heavenly glory deserve a prayerful consideration. It was Gregory the Great who significantly promoted the veneration of the Roman martyrs by demanding their relics be placed in all the altars of Christendom as a reminder that without their heroic faith the Catholic Church would be long extinct. The author of the slim volume estimated that at least “tens of thousands” of believers forfeited their lives for Christ in the church’s first three centuries. Popes, bishops, priests and deacons, men and women went joyfully, if not gleefully, to their deaths knowing that a better life awaited them in eternity. Ignatius and Agnes, Sebastian and Lucy were persons of faith, persons alert to the supernatural, persons keen on the next world.

The same supernatural faith that fortified the martyrs energized the missionaries that went out from Rome with a papal mandate in the next generation to convert and sometimes re-convert the whole of Europe. St. Patrick went famously to Ireland. St. Augustine labored in England and St. David in Wales. St. Denis brought the faith to France and St. Boniface christianized Germany. St. Ansgar went as far as Scandinavia. SS. Cyril and Methodius journeyed to the Eastern localities. The efforts of these missionaries cannot be overstated. They encountered superstitious and often barbarous tribes, risking and even sacrificing their own lives to spread the faith. The vast majority of persons reading this article owe their faith to one of these men.

The influence of monasticism in the history of the church is often obscured in our activist age. St. Benedict in the West and St. Basil in the East, along with St. Anthony and St. Mary in Egypt, first attracted men and women of prayer who gradually formed the immense religious congregations of the early Middle Ages. The Benedictines, the Camaldese, the Carthusians, the Cistercians, the Carmelites — both men and women, monks and nuns — not only prayed but cultivated land, taught school, copied ancient documents, and offered hospitality in the countryside. Their preservation of learning and culture during the so-called Dark Ages literally saved Western Civilization. St. Bruno, St. Stephen Harding, St. Robert, St. Gertrude, St. Mechtilde, and scores of other contemplatives offered the church and world spiritual, intellectual and practical enrichment.

The great minds of the Middle Ages and the Counter-Reformation have left an extensive legacy that still enriches the Catholic Church. The teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Bonaventure, and St. Catherine of Siena, along with the zeal and insight of St. Charles Borromeo, St. Teresa of Avila, and St. Francis de Sales, as well as the charity of St. Vincent de Paul and St. Louise de Merrillac served and sustained a dramatically-changing European society while Jesuits, Franciscans and Dominicans brought the faith to the New World.

St. Alphonsus Liguori in the 18th century, St. John Bosco in the 19th century, and St. Katherine Drexel in the 20th century, among many others, have brought saintly example into our own day. Even now the Catholic world awaits the formal announcement of sanctity for Mother Teresa, Pope John Paul, Cardinal Cooke, Solinus Casey and Charles de Foucauld. The Catholic world is proud to honor this rich heritage of saintly lives on the first of every November.