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John W. DonohueMay 13, 1995
(iStock photo/JSSIII)

Editor’s note: The following essay was authored by John W. Donohue, S.J. in the May 13, 1995, issue of America. This article maintains the magazine style in use at the time of its publication.

In the summer of 1549, when the Society of Jesus was not yet 10 years old, Juan Alvarez, a Jesuit in Salamanca who had a flare for the needling phrase that could provoke even a saint, received a long and very stiff letter from Ignatius Loyola, the Society’s founder and first general superior, who was writing from his residence in Rome.

The letter was actually composed by Ignatius’ indispensable secretary, Juan de Polanco, who has been described by John W. O’Malley, S.J., in The First Jesuits (1993) as one of the two men (the other was the Majorcan, Jerónimo Nadal) who, after Ignatius himself, “most effectively animated the young Society and gave it shape.”

But in this letter to Alvarez, the secretary took care to put some distance between himself and the general. “I am merely the pen”, he wrote, “so that nothing should be taken as coming from me but as from our father,” that is, from Ignatius, “who has given the orders.”

That disclaimer is understandable, because the letter is strong indeed. There had been no need, wrote Polanco, either for greetings at the beginning or compliments at the end. The letter was intended to be a series of sharp raps for the outspoken Alvarez.

Some time before, he had been sent certain documents that were supposed to help him cultivate the powerful personages in his locality in order to obtain their favors for the work of the fledgling Society. Father Alvarez had replied rather too smartly that he thought behaving this way would be “bending the knee to Baal,” acting in a worldly fashion instead of relying on divine providence.

That phrase, picked up from Rom. 11:4, which has it from 3 Kgs. 19:18, pressed Ignatius’ button. The general’s letter advises Alvarez that he is taking “so spiritual a view of the matter as to lose all touch with reality in the case.”

Alvarez is reminded that using the help of the powerful and influential does not necessarily mean acting in a base and merely human manner. Joseph used his position at Pharaoh’s court to support the children of Israel. Paul appealed to his Roman citizenship to escape his enemies. In the first Christian centuries, the great Fathers of the church used “even the weapons of the powerful for the holy end of God’s service,” and “they never thought that they were worshipping Baal.”

True enough. But zealous Christians are always apt to be charged with bending the knee to Baal if they are good at fund-raising. For instance, this charge of unholy materialism was the main accusation leveled against the 84-year-old Mother Teresa of Calcutta in a 30-minute documentary telecast last Nov. 8 by Britain’s Channel 4.

Christopher Hitchens, a journalist with a pungent, not to say abrasive, style wrote and narrated the script for this program, which was agreeably entitled, “Hell’s Angel: Mother Teresa.” Born and educated in England, Mr. Hitchens now lives in Washington, D.C., and contributes regularly to Vanity Fair and The Nation, two magazines that are as oddly matched as Donald Trump and William Kunstler would be.

In “Mother Teresa and Me,” a short and spirited article in the February issue of Vanity Fair, Mr. Hitchens defines himself as a baby boomer who also happens to be both an atheist and “a materialist pro-lifer.” He has, in fact, on occasion written trenchantly against abortion.

His Vanity Fair piece is a chronicle of the making and broadcasting of “Hell’s Angel.” To put it mildly, the film was not well received, although Mr. Hitchens says some people stopped him in the London streets to say they had liked it.

Frances Gumley, television critic for the Catholic weekly The Tablet, was not one of these admirers. With a style just as lively as Mr. Hitchenss, she had no trouble puncturing the pretenses of what she called an “attempt to secure the tackiest programme of the year award.”


Even though all the canonized and the beatified had become great Christians by the time they died, none of them was beyond criticism at some point or other in his or her lifetime.

Cardinal Basil Hume, Archbishop of Westminster, made a measured statement that should have given Mr. Hitchens pause, although it did not. “Viewers of this film,” the Cardinal said, “will quickly recognize that it presents a grotesque caricature of Mother Teresa. She represents what ordinary people everywhere acknowledge to be genuine holiness.

“She has been able to plead with the rich and powerful on behalf of the poor. Her transparent goodness and practical compassion have, without words, spoken powerfully to millions.”

“It is a pity the film is so destructive. In being so it condemns itself.”


There have been saints who gave some people some trouble some of the time. On that account, their stories may provide ordinary Christians with more encouragement than St. Casimir does.

The chastised angel herself has made no rebuttal. However, Vanity Fair, in its notes on the contributors to its February issue, reports that “Mother Teresa recently issued a statement forgiving Christopher Hitchens for Hell’s Angel...an absolution for which he insists he never asked.”

There is little chance that the film will be broadcast in the United States any time soon. From that Vanity Fair article, however, those of us who have not seen it can acquire some sense of its flavor and some idea of the case Mr. Hitchens wants to make.

The principal charge against Mother Teresa is that of bending the knee to Baal, or as Mr. Hitchens put it, “groveling to earthly powers.”

The article ticks off various particulars and the film adds others. Mother Teresa praised the Duvaliers in Haiti; laid a wreath on the grave of Enver Hoxha, the long-time tyrannical dictator in Albania; chatted with Margaret Thatcher and accepted a medal from President Ronald Reagan. She also accepted money and the use of a private plane from Charles Keating, the savings and loan swindler, and had friendly dealings with the late Robert Maxwell, the press tycoon whose empire crashed so spectacularly.

Mr. Hitchens also thinks the care given in Mother Teresa’s clinics and hospices is medically primitive and he has the dark suspicion that she is “really a tireless and self-sacrificing campaigner for Vatican fundamentalism.” (At least, he credits her with some self-sacrifice.)

These cannonades produce more sound than sense. It is true, however, that those who have written about Mother Teresa have usually described her as a formidable personality. When she received the Nobel Peace Prize in December 1979, Michael T. Kaufman, who at that time was chief of The New York Times bureau in New Delhi, wrote for The Times Magazine a lengthy account of the foundress and her work.

This profile was admiring, but not idolatrous. “The source of her success,” Mr. Kaufman said, “I am convinced, rests in her own rare character, her strong pure passions and, yes, in her faith in God and love of Jesus.”

But the reporter was also well aware that Mother Teresa is a determined and unstoppable worker for the poor and outcast: “It is now accepted among those who know her that what Mother wants she gets....”

In pursuit of her goals, she may indeed have made some incautious moves. Perhaps she should not have met with the Duvaliers or flown in Charles Keating's jet, and surely she would have been wise to skip the visit to Enver Hoxha's grave. Most people, however, will not accept Mr. Hitchens’s claim that Mother Teresa has thoroughly compromised her reputation by meeting occasionally with dictators, politicians and unsavory entrepreneurs.

To put it in the most generous terms, when Mr. Hitchens sizes up Mother Teresa, he is inclined, to use Ignatius’ phrase, to take altogether too spiritual a view of the matter. Mr. Hitchens’ film, said The Tablets Frances Gumley, has “a sense of mission which would put the Albigensian crusaders to shame.... [It] tut-tutted while recording that Mother Teresa accepted money from the less than saintly or once sat on the same sofa as Robert Maxwell.”


Unfortunately, but not infrequently, Jerome was also a fiery controversialist who took no prisoners.

Mr. Hitchens seems to assume that no one who has ever made mistakes or even acted ambiguously deserves to be called saintly. If he were to coast through Butler’s Lives of the Saints, he might be surprised to find that even though all the canonized and the beatified had become great Christians by the time they died, none of them was beyond criticism at some point or other in his or her lifetime.

This multi-volume collection began with the 18th-century English diocesan priest, Alban Butler, and was first published in London between 1756 and 1759. During the years from 1926 to 1938, it was thoroughly revised by Herbert Thurston, S.J., and Donald Attwater. In the early 1950’s, Attwater, by judicious abridgment, reduced the original 12 volumes, one for each month, to four.

There are about 2,565 entries in this invaluable compendium; some of them are for whole groups of saints—bands of martyrs, for instance, in the first centuries. A number of these men and women were reputed to have led lives that were nearly flawless. This is particularly the case when their biographies read more like a legend than history.

For example, it was said of St. Casimir, a Polish prince who was 23 when he died in 1484, that “living always in the presence of God he was invariably serene and cheerful, and pleasant to all.”

On the other hand, there have been saints who gave some people some trouble some of the time. On that account, their stories may provide ordinary Christians with more encouragement than St. Casimir does. Here are a half-dozen in whose company Mother Teresa would look demure. Some of them are well known; others less so. They would all have given journalists like Christopher Hitchens plenty to write about.

First in line chronologically is St. Jerome. He was born about 343 in Dalmatia, a coastal strip along the Adriatic in what is now part of Croatia and was then part of the Roman empire. He was to become the most learned Scripture scholar of the patristic age and is honored not only as a “Doctor,” but also as a “Father of the Church,” the polymath who produced the “Vulgate,” the most famous Latin translation of the Bible from its original languages.

As a teen-ager in Rome, Jerome became a master of Greek and Ciceronian Latin. In his early 30’s he lived for four or five years as a recluse in a part of Syria that he called “a wild and stony desert.” It was during this period of solitude and prayer that he began the study of Hebrew, partly, he said, to distract himself from erotic temptations.


Cyril of Alexandria has also been recognized both as a doctor of the church and an unamiable personality.

He emerged from that sandy waste to devote himself to an intense life as a theologian, writer, teacher, consultant to bishops and spiritual director of wealthy Roman women, some of whom would themselves be acknowledged as saints. Unfortunately, but not infrequently, Jerome was also a fiery controversialist who took no prisoners.

The last 35 years of his life were spent in Bethlehem, where he lived in the manner of a monk, although not in a monastery, while completing his translation of the Old and New Testaments. By this time, he was one of the most celebrated intellectuals in the Mediterranean world; and, like many intellectuals and artists, he did not relish contradiction. What Philip Hobsbaum, the British critic, said of Dickens could have been said of Jerome: “Opposition, even of a trifling kind, was apt to arouse his fiercest passions.”

One case was particularly notorious. For many years, Jerome’s closest friend was a certain Rufinus from what is now northern Italy, who was, like himself, a theologian and translator. After a quarter-century, this great friendship was torn apart when Jerome and Rufinus disagreed about the orthodoxy of certain positions held by the third-century Egyptian theologian, Origen.

In the course of this dispute, Jerome wrote a brilliantly witty but mean caricature of Rufinus. Its rhetoric has had Latinists squirming with delight. For instance, Rufinus is described as snorting like a pig when he conversed and walking like a tortoise when he promenaded.

“It is a good piece of prose,” said Helen Waddell (1889-1965), the Oxford medievalist who was herself a master of prose, and Rufinus “walks his tortoise walk in it forever. But it would have been better for Jerome if he had never written it....” For Rufinus had died in 410 or 411, and Jerome knew that when he wrote so unkindly. This does not mean that Jerome, so austere and so tirelessly dedicated to the service of God, was not a saint. It only means that when he wept for his sins he had those seizures of irascibility to mourn.

Cyril of Alexandria, who was about 30 years younger than Jerome, has also been recognized both as a doctor of the church and an unamiable personality. He became archbishop of the Egyptian city of Alexandria in 412 and held that office until his death in 444.

There may well have been a general sigh of relief when Cyril was called to glory. Butler’s Lives judiciously observes: “He was a man of strong and impulsive character, brave but sometimes overvehement, indeed violent.”

As soon as he became archbishop, he used his authority to secure the closing of the churches of certain schismatic Christians called Novatians. He was also instrumental in having Alexandria’s Jewish population driven out of the city on the grounds of beating up Christians.

Cyril’s vehemence was most famously displayed in the unrelenting way he took after a fellow-archbishop, Nestorius of Constantinople, who was suspected of heterodoxy. Cyril was convinced that Nestorius denied the Incarnation by teaching that Jesus was only a man closely united to God and that Mary could not, therefore, be called the Mother of God.

Some historians have thought that Nestorius, unlike the heretics who were later on called Nestorians, did not really want to deny the unity of God and man in Christ but was unhappily maladroit in explaining his views. At the time, it did not much matter whether or not this was the case, so long as his Excellency of Alexandria believed that Nestorius was a danger to the church.

Cyril was largely responsible for the calling of a general council to decide the questions supposedly raised by Nestorius. It was held at Ephesus in 431 under the leadership of Cyril as the pope’s representative. He arrived in Ephesus with a gang of unruly followers and presided over some rowdy and divided sessions. Nestorius’s teaching was condemned by the larger part of the assembled bishops and he himself was deposed, excommunicated and sent into exile.

After Ephesus, Cyril appears to have been relatively quiet. Musing aloud during one of his lectures, the late Edward A. Ryan, S.J., who taught church history at Woodstock College, Md., once said: “We don’t know anything about the last 10 years of Cyril’s life. Those must have been the years in which he became a saint.”


“We don’t know anything about the last 10 years of Cyril’s life. Those must have been the years in which he became a saint.”

By fast-forwarding nearly a millennium and jumping from Egypt to Italy, one can meet Catherine of Siena, who was said to have been on her way to sainthood when she was only a child. She too is a doctor of the church, the second woman to be so designated. In 1970, Pope Paul VI awarded this title first to St. Teresa of Avila and then to St. Catherine.

Although she did not herself know how to write, Catherine dictated a great many letters, some 400 of which survive, as well as reflections on divine Providence that are known as her “Dialogue.” Presumably, these make up the deposit that qualified her to be called a doctor.

She was born in Siena, most probably in 1347, and died there of a stroke in 1380 when she was not yet 33. Between those dates, she led one of the most dazzling lives in the annals of the saints. She was the youngest of the 20 or more children born to her parents, Giacomo and Lapa Benincasa. When she was six or seven years old, she had the first of her many mystical experiences—a vision in which she seemed to see Christ blessing her.

From then onward, Catherine was determined to lead a life of prayer and penance. Her parents were equally determined to marry her off, but they were quite outmatched. They were finally forced to allow her to become a Dominican tertiary, that is to say, to wear the Dominican habit and follow the Dominican rule while living in the secular world rather than in the cloister.

From about 1366, Catherine had an extensive ministry. She nursed the sick, visited the imprisoned and counseled those whose lives required reformation. In this apostolate, she was assisted by a group of men and women, some of them lay people and some of them priests, who called her “Mama” and considered themselves her disciples. Several of the men, who might frivolously be described as devout thugs, made themselves her security detachment when she traveled about. That was wise, because in Siena Catherine was considered by some to be a saint and by others to be a nuisance.

From 1375 until her death, Catherine was also involved in secular and church politics. She tried unsuccessfully to be a peace broker when Perugia and Florence were in league against the Holy See. Then in the summer of 1376 she went to Avignon to persuade Pope Gregory XI to leave that French city and return to his see in Rome.

She had already written to the Pope in what has been described as a dictatorial tone. When they met, she told him that the vices of his papal court stank intolerably. Despite Catherine’s reputation for holiness, the Pope did not lose his presence of mind. He asked her how she could make this judgment when she had only just arrived in Avignon. Catherine assured him she had smelt the stench while she was still in Siena.

Perhaps she thought she had. David Hugh Farmer puts it neatly in his Oxford Dictionary of the Saints (1978) when he brackets Catherine with St. Bernard, the great Cistercian reformer who died in 1153. “Like Bernard,” he writes, “Catherine had prophetic vision and personal intransigence; these led both of them to identify God's cause with their own.” In any case, those characteristics prove that to be a saint one need not be either Caspar Milquetoast or Pollyanna.

St. John of Capistrano (1386-1456) was an emphatic witness to that commonplace truth. In the United States, this Franciscan is popularly associated with birds and springtime. He is the patron of an old mission church in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., to which migratory swallows are said to return precisely on schedule every March 19.


Those characteristics prove that to be a saint one need not be either Caspar Milquetoast or Pollyanna.

St. John, however, had no time for lyrical interludes spent in tracking the nesting habits of birds. He was born in the Italian town of Capistrano and as a young man he studied law in Perugia. In 1412 he became governor of that city and he also married a daughter of one of its leading families.

When he was 30, he decided to become a Franciscan. Presumably, as David Hugh Farmer conjectures, John and his wife had separated by mutual consent. Friar John was ordained in 1420 and from then until his death 36 years later he was awesomely energetic and fiercely mortified. He preached to huge crowds, helped to reorganize the Observants, his branch of the Franciscan family, and served on various papal missions.

In 1451, Pope Nicholas appointed John inquisitor-general to root our [sic] the Bohemian Hussites. Two years later, when Constantinople was taken by the Turks, John was delegated to rally the faithful against the Islamic threat. In his zeal, this little friar, described by a contemporary as “nothing more than skin and bone,” behaved at times more like General George S. Patton Jr. than Francis of Assisi.

The saints would be neither useful nor accessible exemplars if they had always been blameless and had always traveled over uplands in the sunlight.

When Belgrade was besieged by the Turks in 1456, John recruited troops and led them into battle. In a great Chicago church there used to be, and perhaps still is, a side altar dedicated to St. John of Capistrano and recalling his improbable military adventure. The altar was backed by a colorful mural that showed the saint flourishing a sword while keeping one foot firmly planted on the neck of a prostrate, scowling infidel.

Belgrade’s invaders were repelled but an infection spread from the unburied corpses left behind. One of its victims was John of Capistrano, who died a few weeks after the siege was lifted. He was canonized in 1724, and his feast is now celebrated on March 28, not long after the swallows return from Argentina to Southern California.

Both Catherine of Siena and John of Capistrano had reputations for prodigious holiness during their lifetimes and miracles were ascribed to their intercession. Nothing of the sort was said about the last two saints on this short list, James Lacops and Andrew Wouters. Quite the contrary.

They were two of the 19 priests and religious killed by Calvinists in the Dutch town of Gorkum in 1572, and in that company they were rather special. Butler’s Lives puts it discreetly. James Lacops was a Premonstratensian who “had been very slack and contumacious under reproof.” Andrew Wouters, a diocesan priest, had been leading “an irregular life,” that is to say, he had a concubine.

During the first days of July, 1572, they and their companions were seized by Calvinist soldiers who were opposing the Spanish rule of the Netherlands. In the presence of a Calvinist admiral, they were subjected to an all-night grilling by Calvinist ministers and promised their freedom if they would deny Catholic teachings about the Blessed Sacrament and papal primacy.

Nineteen of the prisoners refused and on the morning of July 9 they were hung from the beams of a barn. “The execution,” says Butler's Lives, “was sheerest butchery: all hung long before they were dead.”

With an admonition, this narrative underlines another circumstance: “It is a significant warning against judging the character of our neighbor or pretending to read his heart that, while a priest of blameless life recanted in a moment of weakness, the two who had been an occasion of scandal gave their lives without a tremor.”

James Lacops and Andrew Wouters may often have failed to conform their behavior to their belief, but in an hour of crisis they were able with divine assistance to put their sturdy faith into practice. They must have surprised themselves when by one act of heroism they pole-vaulted into the calendar of the saints.

What might Christopher Hitchens, or anyone else, conclude from this amateur canter through 15 centuries of Christian history? On the one hand, we should certainly not suppose that the saints were not greatly different from the rest of us. They were vastly different because by grace they really did give themselves wholly to God—either day by day like Catherine of Siena or in a single day like Andrew Wouters.

On the other hand, we should be bucked up when we realize that the saints sometimes faltered, that they too had to battle against their own hearts, and that not all of them had attractive personalities.

Francis de Sales, who humanly speaking was one of the most appealing of saints, touched on this point in lines that Donald Attwater quoted in his preface to the 1954 edition of Butler's Lives: “There is no harm done to the saints if their faults are shown as well as their virtues. But great harm is done to everybody by those hagiographers who slur over the faults, be it for the purpose of honoring the saints...or through fear of diminishing our reverence for their holiness.... These writers commit a wrong against the saints and against the whole of posterity.”

That is because those biographies not only dehumanize the saints, but also defraud the reader. The saints would be neither useful nor accessible exemplars if they had always been blameless and had always traveled over uplands in the sunlight.

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