Strong saints for our doubting times

Archbishop Aquila

“I declare in truth and with joy in my heart — before God and his holy angels — that I have never had any motive in my work except preaching the Good News and its promises. That is the only reason I returned here to Ireland — a place I barely escaped alive.” These words from The Confession of Saint Patrick echo the strength of the Holy Spirit, which coursed through Jesus as he gave his life on the cross, animated St. Stephen the first martyr, and continue to move people around the world to give witness to Christ no matter the cost.

In the space of one week, we have observed the feast days of two strong holy men, Saints Patrick and Joseph, both of whom lived during trying times and sought to fully live the faith. The example of these two men, our forefathers in the faith, provides us with a model for a successful Lent, but also for evangelizing in a culture that doubts everything.

Saint Joseph was, according to Matthew’s Gospel, a “righteous man” (Mt. 1:19), whose desire to follow God in all he did was apparent in his actions. Under the Jewish law, Joseph was required to divorce Mary because she was found pregnant after they were betrothed but before they had lived together. And yet, Joseph saw how good and pure Mary was.

When an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him that Mary was pregnant through the Holy Spirit, he did not hesitate to bring her into his home, even though his fellow believers would certainly question his and her integrity. This is a valuable lesson for people of faith today. It is far better to follow God’s plan for us than to go along with what society considers wise.

We see this, too, in St. Joseph’s willingness to flee into Egypt at the prompting of another angelic dream. Perhaps he also had to conform his heart to the Father’s plan when he heard the prophet Simeon foretell that a sword would pierce Mary’s heart and that Jesus would be a “sign of contradiction” (cf. Luke 2:22-36). Surely his heart would have been moved to protect his wife and foster son, but he also could see God was at work in his family.

At the age of about 15, St. Patrick was captured from his home in western Britain by Irish pirates and sold into slavery. He spent six years as a slave tending the flocks of his master, but during that time he also progressively grew closer to God and the faith that he had previously cast aside.

Soon after returning home from escaping slavery in Ireland, Patrick had a vision in which the people of Ireland called out for him to come back. “Holy boy!” they cried out, using the nickname that he was mocked with as a slave, “Come here and walk among us.” Interestingly, rather than being angry, St. Patrick said his heart was moved by their pleas.

Saint Patrick knew what he was facing: a land populated by 150 tribes each led by a king, a society influenced by the Druids and other pagan religions and a Christian Church that likely numbered only in the hundreds. But St. Patrick was undaunted, and faithfully, joyfully made his way to Ireland.

There were many competing ideas vying for the hearts and minds of the people in Ireland, just as there are today, and many of them are harmful. As we make our way through Lent and seek greater intimacy with God — who is the Way, the Truth and the Life — let us ask for the strong faith of St. Joseph and St. Patrick to help us in our journey. Let us listen to the voice of God, to the voice of Jesus, and not that of the world, or worse yet, of the devil.

With the gift of faith and the courage of the Holy Spirit, may we say with St. Patrick, “God heard my prayers so that I, foolish though I am, might dare to undertake such a holy and wonderful mission in these last days — that I, in my own way, might be like those God said would come to preach and be witness to the good news to all non-believers…”

COMING UP: Five Hispanic-American saints perhaps you didn’t know

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The American continent has had its share of saints in the last five centuries. People will find St. Juan Diego, St. Rose of Lima or St. Martin de Porres among the saints who enjoy greater popular devotion. Yet September, named Hispanic Heritage Month, invites a deeper reflection on the lives of lesser-known saints who have deeply impacted different Latin-American countries through their Catholic faith and work, and whose example has the power to impact people anywhere around the world. Here are just a few perhaps you didn’t know.

St. Toribio de Mogrovejo
1538-1606
Peru

Born in Valladolid, Spain, Toribio was a pious young man and an outstanding law student. As a professor, his great reputation reached the ears of King Philip II, who eventually nominated him for the vacant Archdiocese of Lima, Peru, even though Toribio was not even a priest. The Pope accepted the king’s request despite the future saint’s protests. So, before the formal announcement, he was ordained a priest, and a few months later, a bishop. He walked across his archdiocese evangelizing the natives and is said to have baptized nearly half a million people, including St. Rose of Lima and St. Martin de Porres. He learned the local dialects, produced a trilingual catechism, fought for the rights of the natives, and made evangelization a major theme of his episcopacy. Moreover, he worked devotedly for an archdiocesan reform after realizing that diocesan priests were involved in impurities and scandals. He predicted the date and hour of his death and is buried in the cathedral of Lima, Peru.

St. Mariana of Jesus Paredes
1618-1645
Ecuador

St. Mariana was born in Quito, modern-day Ecuador, and not only became the country’s first saint, but was also declared a national heroine by the Republic of Ecuador. As a little girl, Mariana showed a profound love for God and practiced long hours of prayer and mortification. She tried joining a religious order on two occasions, but various circumstances would not permit it. This led Mariana to realize that God was calling her to holiness in the world. She built a room next to her sister’s house and devoted herself to prayer and penance, living miraculously only off the Eucharist. She was known to possess the gifts of counsel and prophecy. In 1645, earthquakes and epidemics broke out in Quito, and she offered her life and sufferings for their end. They stopped after she made her offering. On the day of her death, a lily is said to have bloomed from the blood that was drawn out and poured in a flowerpot, earning her the title of “The Lily of Quito.”

St. Theresa of Los Andes
1900-1920
Chile

St. Theresa of Jesus of Los Andes was Chile’s first saint and the first Discalced Carmelite to be canonized outside of Europe. Born as Juana, the future saint was known to struggle with her temperament as a child. She was proud, selfish and stubborn. She became deeply attracted to God at the age six, and her extraordinary intelligence allowed her to understand the seriousness of receiving First Communion. Juana changed her life and became a completely different person by the age of 10, practicing mortification and deep prayer. At age 14, she decided to become a Discalced Carmelite and received the name of Theresa of Jesus. Deeply in love with Christ, the young and humble religious told her confessor that Jesus told her she would die soon, something she accepted with joy and faith. Shortly thereafter, Theresa contracted typhus and died at the age of 19. Although she was 6 months short of finishing her novitiate, she was able to profess vows “in danger of death.” Around 100,000 pilgrims visit her shrine in Los Andes annually.

St. Laura Montoya
1874-1949
Colombia

After Laura’s father died in war when she was only a child, she was forced to live with different family members in a state of poverty. This reality kept her from receiving formal education during her childhood. What no one expected is that one day she would become Colombia’s first saint. Her aunt enrolled her in a school at the age of 16, so she would become a teacher and make a living for herself. She learned quickly and became a great writer, educator and leader. She was a pious woman and wished to devote herself to the evangelization of the natives. As she prepared to write Pope Pius X for help, she received the pope’s new Encyclical Lacrymabili Statu, on the deplorable condition of Indians in America. Laura saw it as a confirmation from God and founded the Missionaries of the Immaculate Heart and St. Catherine of Siena, working for the evangelization of natives and fighting or their behalf to be seen as children of God.

St. Manuel Morales
1898-1926
Mexico

Manuel was a layman and one of many martyrs from Mexico’s Cristero War in the 1920s. He joined the seminary as a teen but had to abandon this dream in order to support his family financially. He became a baker, married and had three children. This change, however, did not prevent him from bearing witness to the faith publicly. He became the president of the National League for the Defense of Religious Liberty, which was being threatened by the administration of President Plutarco Elías Calles. Morales and two other leaders from the organization were taken prisoners as they discussed how to free a friend priest from imprisonment through legal means. They were beaten, tortured and then killed for not renouncing to their faith. Before the firing squad, the priest begged the soldiers to forgive Morales because he had a family. Morales responded, “I am dying for God, and God will take care of my children.” His last words were, “Long live Christ the King and Our Lady of Guadalupe!”