|In Your Midst||
Heroes of Faith
Parishioners reflect on the Saints (and saints) who have guided their faith journey
On September 30 of this year, we had the privilege of blessing a new shrine honoring one of my heroes—the great and Blessed Pope John XXIII. Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, born to humble sharecroppers in a backwater northern Italian village, was hardly a likely candidate for Pope. He was old, for one thing, and while he had served the Church faithfully, he had done so in mostly marginal, second-rung assignments. When it came to Vatican politics, he was an outsider. When Roncalli was elected Pope at the age of seventy-eight, it was widely thought he would be a “caretaker” Pope, Imagine, then, the shock waves the new Pope unleashed across the world when, only three months after his election, he announced his intention to call a major Ecumenical Council—the first in more than a hundred years!
It was a dream come true for me to honor him in this Cathedral church and in this parish with a permanent shrine. To my way of thinking, both the Cathedral and the parish reflect in many ways Pope John’s remarkable vision for the Church. The Cathedral speaks of a his dream of a Church renewed, a Church where the people participate in worship actively and consciously and joyfully, a Church where all are welcome; and this parish community reflects his dream of a Church with a broad mind and a big heart, a Church committed to generous, wholehearted service to the world, especially the poor.
In this issue of In Your Midst, we explore the theme of “Heroes of Faith.” I’ve just said a word about one of my heroes. In the essays that follow, your fellow parishioners share stories of the Saints (and saints!) who have inspired them on their faith journey. I hope this will get you thinking about your own favorite Saints (and saints!).
Father Michael G. Ryan
St. Teresa was in my life long before I had any connection with the Church. When I was quite young I saw the famous Bernini statue in the Church of Santa Vittoria in Rome, which portrays the saint in a physical ecstasy from her contact with God. At the time, and for many years thereafter, I regarded the statue as an aesthetic object, and was perfectly opaque to any sense that God can touch us directly through our bodies.
Later, when I began writing fiction I used St. Teresa as a ghostly presence in the life of one of my characters. As an aid in this work I read her autobiography. Even though I was a registered heathen at the time, I could not help being affected by the simplicity and radical honesty of her style. It is possible to fall in love with a style.
What is most remarkable about her story was that although she had entered the convent when she was twenty-one, she was a failure at religious life until she was past forty, wracked by illness and a pervasive sense of her own sin. Then, the miracle: God spoke to her in the depths of her misery and she became the woman we know as St. Teresa. But she stayed herself—passionate, earthy, simple.
My favorite Teresa story of the many told is the one about her sisters discovering her missing from her cell one night. A search party found her in the kitchen, eating a pheasant. They stared at her. She asked what was wrong and they said they were surprised to see her there, for they imagined she would be at prayer. She replied, “When it’s time to pray, pray. When it’s time for eating pheasant, eat!”
The idea that saints are sometimes not naturally good people but quite wicked people transformed by grace was a inspiration to me then, and remains so in my spiritual life.
Of the multitude of Saints/saints, there are three I consider my friends and confidantes: Saint Thérèse, Saint Anthony of Padua--and Virginia Pullin.
Saint Thérèse and I share a common name, hers is in French and mine in Spanish. She is my adviser. When I am faced with a tough decision to make, I ask for her intercession. When in doubt, pray to St. Thérèse. She’ll send you a sign. My other friend is Saint Anthony. It seems that I’ve been calling on him more lately because things go missing and no matter how hard I search, I’ll never find them on my own. He has never failed me (although he still has to help me get back those three very dear items of sentimental value which went missing at the Cathedral Kitchen a few years back!).
And then, there’s the modern day saint, Virginia Pullin. I met her when I joined the EMs (Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion) in 1992. She was my model EM, pious, holy, prayerful, down-to-earth, and humorous. Yes, she had more than one funny bone in her body. She always had a funny story to tell every Sunday before the noon Mass. This lady, a former nun, was gentle yet strong, spiritually and physically. Her devotion to the Blessed Mother and her Son was amazing. She left the convent to raise the orphaned children of her sister and to take care of her aging parents. Although she left her religious order, she remained a nun, living her vows and performing her religious duties, praying and meditating. She lived simply, volunteered at the local food bank and attended to her neighbors’ needs. She walked from her apartment downtown to St. James to attend Mass and other services. Her death left a deep void in my life. Like Dorothy Day, Virginia shunned praise and public attention. She must often have “entertained angels” unknowingly for she treated strangers the same way she treated friends. Like Thérèse, Virginia “spent her heaven doing good on earth.”
At my mother’s funeral 29 years ago, the priest prayed that she might join the company of the saints, including “Saint Willis.” Willis was my father.
Baptized Presbyterian, he became an Episcopalian in his late teens, much to his father’s consternation, and eventually an Anglican priest. Later, though, he became convinced that only the Catholic Church could claim true authority, and, in the midst of the Depression, he converted. He’s the main reason that I’m still Catholic. I probably felt that his searching was good enough for me, and I never really had serious doubts about my faith.
A few years after his conversion, he married my mother, a daughter of Irish immigrants. My father was a “back to the land” adherent, and we lived on a very small farm growing vegetables and raising animals even as he taught at Notre Dame. We three children all had our farm chores. We said Compline almost every night. My parents loved each other very much, and I never heard a harsh word between them.
Once in the Church, though, my father wanted to change it. He was active in the Vernacular Society, promoting English in the liturgy, and he saw in Vatican II much of what he had wanted for the Church.
He was drawn to the National Catholic Rural Life Conference, and there he encountered Dorothy Day, who saw the rural life as a way to help the urban marginalized. Dorothy sometimes stayed with us when she visited South Bend.
But most of all, he and my mother were always there for me. I remember several years when I, their youngest, had them mostly to myself. That was wonderful! They never did anything that I ever saw as wrong or selfish. They were the saints who still guide me in life.
I have Holy Ones for all the seasons of my life.
St. Eanswythe of Folkestone: As a child I played in the stream that she, a young Anglo-Saxon abbess, stubborn and radical for her time, had miraculously made run uphill to bring water to the first women’s monastery in England. I was confirmed in her church 1350 years later.
Thomas Merton: A holy man full of contradictions. His Asian Journal expanded my vision of what catholic Catholicism might be. “This new language of prayer has to come out of something which transcends all our traditions, and comes out of the immediacy of love.”
Bishops who spoke out and paid a price: Bishop Pierre-Marie Théas protested the deportation of Jews in France; Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen, a living saint, withheld half of his income tax to protest the stockpiling of nuclear weapons; Archbishop Oscar Romero spoke out on behalf of the poor.
St. Benedict, whose Rule I studied with the help of Benedictine sisters, teaches me to know that all work is prayer, but more, that I come to God through working on my relationships with family and community, with any stranger who crosses my path.
St. Augustine of Hippo: his Confessions is an honest memoir and prayer offered up to God. I’m reminded to think of my art making and writing in the same way.
St. Mary Magdalene: An enigma, after studying her story. She has come to ‘symbolize’ the complexity and mystery of women’s role in the Church. Her icon is on my wall.
Thérèse de Lisieux was a prolific letter writer, as I seem to be becoming! She has been teaching me about the Presence of Christ in small and apparently insignificant actions. As I grow old I’ve come to love her “Little Way.”
The “Communion of saints”--Christ’s jewels enriching our lives! Saints like Thérèse of Lisieux, Thomas More, Anthony of Padua, and Mother Cabrini, discovered Jesus as their hearts’ home and gave him their all. Now enjoying perfect life, they inspire and guide us on our heaven-bound earthly pilgrimage. I recently met a new heavenly friend who has brought this truth home to me.
Once when I was at home, quite ill, the sound of a baby crying from a television movie distracted me. I was more and more fascinated as the story unfolded: a young, dying mother had left her child outside of a church, and then collapsed. She was taken to the hospital, where she was treated by an extraordinary doctor named Giuseppe Moscati. He was tirelessly devoted to easing the suffering of his patients. He not only treated them in the hospital; he transformed his home into a clinic for the indigent, needy and malnourished. Often paying for their groceries and prescriptions out of his own pocket, he also sold the paintings from his walls in order to continue to give his free services. He became known as the “Doctor to the Poor.”
As I watched, I thought: “This person is a saint; he should be canonized!” The movie’s ending thrilled me: “Giuseppe Moscati, born 1880, died 1927, beatified 1975, canonized 1987!”
Sick but uplifted, I went out to get my medication. Arriving home after narrowly avoiding an accident, I gratefully touched the Divine Mercy icon and asked Giuseppe’s intercession. Within the next hour I was almost better and steadily recovered. Deo gratias! I know that Christ, our Divine Physician, touched me through Dr. Giuseppe!
Exceptionally successful as a doctor, professor, and scientist, Giuseppe embodies Christ’s selfless, loving service, teaching us that it’s not our laudable accomplishments that lead us home to God but the love with which we use our talents and become Christ’s loving presence to others. Giuseppe’s deep faith, charity and devotion to the Eucharist deepened the faith of those whom he served, and even brought miracles, including some impossible cures. St. Giuseppe, Doctor to the Poor, pray for us!
On May 17, 1968, nine protesters used napalm, the incendiary substance used by the US in Vietnam, to burn draft board records. They were sentenced to jail in a highly publicized trial.
One of them was my first saint.
Daniel Berrigan, SJ has been protesting war for decades. His health has been compromised by long stretches in jail.
How many other saints have been on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives List?
Father Berrigan, like Archbishop Hunthausen, declined to pay war taxes. Father Berrigan, Archbishop Hunthausen, Oscar Romero and Dorothy Day led me to the Gospel. Years later I had the honor of telling Father Berrigan he was part of my Master’s thesis.
I attended my first anti-war protest in 1964. They are still on my calendar fifty years later.
A few years ago my wife Kathy, ever wise and caring, noticing that I was becoming increasingly depressed about war and violence promoted by our society, counseled that I needed to get back to my roots. And Patty Bowman recommended the writings on the spirituality of peace by John Dear, SJ, another trouble-making, peace-loving Jesuit who like his friend Daniel Berrigan, has spent decades getting jailed for protests. My spirits have soared ever since!
Sister Miriam Spencer of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace was 84
when she was sentenced to six months in prison for protesting the School
of the Americas in Georgia, where Central Americans are taught torture
techniques. I told Sister Miriam how much I admired her for her
witness. Her response: “I don’t know what the big deal was. I made so
many great friends in there!” Kathy and I recently became Associates of
Daniel Berrigan wrote:
“The Gospel of Jesus is spoken in a world intoxicated with death...convinced of the necessary rule of death… Jesus says no to this omnivorous power.
How wonderful that the saints intercede for us! It is a great comfort both in good times and bad. Tops on my list of favorites is Saint Anthony of Padua. I seem to call on him almost every day. Maybe it’s because as I grow older and experience more birthday “wonders”—wonder where my keys are, my sunglasses, that piece of paper that I just had in my office... I find myself in great need of his intercession. Faithful Saint Anthony is the patron of finding lost things. A friend gave me a plaque of Saint Anthony and the Christ Child. It resides in my office, a reminder that I can ask his help throughout the day. I also admire deeply Anthony’s dedication to Christ, his great knowledge of the scriptures, and his gift of preaching. During the last choir pilgrimage, we stopped in Padua and sang in the church where the jaw bone of St. Anthony is preserved uncorrupted. It was a very special moment that strengthened my faith.
When I first learned about St. Padre Pio, the thing that struck me most about him was his sheer devotion to the faith, and despite all of the suffering he endured throughout his life he always remained faithful to God. This is just one thing I’ve learned from Padre Pio that I must work on, always, no matter what the circumstances; remain faithful to God, for he will always be with you.
Another lesson I’ve learned from Padre Pio is patience. Patience in life and patience with God, for not all good things come right away. When I’ve read about how Padre Pio would sit in a confessional booth for ten to twelve hours per day hearing people’s confessions I stand and think in amazement of his great patience. Also, his endurance and patience throughout all of the criticism and rebuke thrown at him during his life amazes me to no end. But out of everything St. Padre Pio dealt with throughout his life, his endurance, patience, and faithfulness to God with the stigmata (the wounds of Christ on the cross) will always be the greatest, and the greatest lesson of all for me to learn. St. Padre Pio, I ask you, pray for us.
When I was asked to write about a Saint/saint in my life, a huge picture revealed itself like a tapestry in my heart, memory, and emotions. My first saints were my mom and dad and their profound faith in our simple and sometimes difficult life on the farm. When a hailstorm wiped out our entire crop for the year in just a minute, my dad said, with tears streaming down his face, “We just lost everything, but God will provide.” Twice mom almost died in childbirth; when she received the Sacrament of the Sick, she recovered immediately.
Mary and Joseph were the only saints I knew of as a child. When
I read about great women like Saints Catherine of Siena and Teresa of
Avila, I was so inspired. Those holy women of courage spoke out to
the hierarchy and gave me hope for women in the church as do many women
This parish, with the prayerful leadership of Father Ryan, has brought me new hope when sometimes I was on the brink of little hope. Jesus said to pray always. When we can talk to Jesus as a friend, believing that nothing is impossible for God, life is experienced at a higher, deeper level, and hope is renewed for a better world! TNKUGOD, as my license plate says!
St. Vincent de Paul, a 17th-century priest known for his service to the poor, is a familiar name to most of us. Blessed Frederic Ozanam is perhaps a less familiar, though no less important name.
As a 20-year old college student in the 1830s, Fredric Ozanam had his Catholic faith challenged when discussing the role of faith and charity in Catholic life. Frederic realized that he could provide few, if any, examples of putting his faith in action, and there began his life’s work—founding the Society of St. Vincent de Paul to promote Catholic lay persons’ service to the poor.
It’s only recently that I’ve come to know Frederic Ozanam and Vincent de Paul. But learning about them and their service to the poor has helped to open my eyes to the saintly people I meet daily, and also cast a new light on some of the saints of my past, including my own mother, a “saint” who continues to inspire me.
I didn’t make the connection in my youth, but both Ozanam and my
mother reflected similar values in making service to the poor a
priority. Each was able to clearly see the goodness of people, and
recognized that all individuals are people of God, regardless of
situation or status.
I would sometimes complain about going out of our way to pick these people up (and would sometimes resent being relegated to the back seat), but I can reflect back now and appreciate how privileged I was to be able to meet and spend time with these individuals. I can also look back and better recognize the “saint” my mother was to many people, providing face to face (or door to door!) service to those who need it, in the same spirit as Fredric Ozanam and Vincent de Paul. All saints worth aspiring to!
I went into the Oratory of Saint Joseph in Montreal as a tourist, simply to see a beautiful church, but I came out a Christian. Saint Brother André Bessette, who founded the chapel on the site of what is now the world’s largest shrine to St. Joseph, was said to have cured countless thousands through his prayers to St. Joseph. He insisted for 25 years that he was no miracle worker, but was only able to uplift the sick and broken-hearted through his prayers; it was God and St. Joseph who did the curing. He was not easy on those who sought him out. He demanded of them, “Do you have faith?” and told them, “Do not seek to have these trials lifted from you. Instead, ask for the grace to bear them well.”
To this day I can’t explain the mystical experience I had in that church, but when I walked into the chapel, which contains the tomb of Brother André and is covered in crutches and canes, I felt an overwhelming call to go towards the light of Christ. (I joined RCIA when I returned from that trip.) Brother André, now Saint André of Montreal, through his tireless dedication to the sick of heart and body, continues to inspire me. His good works ensured many years later that I would have the courage to regain my spiritual self and receive the grace to cure my own broken heart.
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