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Two 18th-century expatriate Catholic priests living in the seminary at Douai in France produced some works that subsequently had a seminal impact on the lives of English-speaking Catholics that endures to this day. Richard Challoner (1691-1781) revised the old Douai-Rheims version of the Bible (originally little more than a paraphrase of Jerome’s Latin Vulgate), which then became the standard English version among Catholics until just after the Second World War, when Ronald Knox produced a new translation of the Bible for use in the United Kingdom. Challoner also compiled The Garden of the Soul (1740), a prayerbook that nourished generations of Catholics in a series of updated editions. My own father, using a copy inherited from his father, prayed from it regularly until his death in 1964.

The other great scholar of the period was Alban Butler (1710-73), who, after many years of traveling on the continent searching through archives and libraries, compiled the multi-volume Lives of the Saints (1756-59), which contained over 1,600 entries. Butler’s Lives, organized around the Roman sanctoral cycle of the church year, had edification in mind, so that what it lacked in scholarly rigor, judged by today’s standards, was made up for by its piety and earnest use of sources. After its original publication in London in the 18th century, Butler’s work never went out of print. It should come as no surprise that, as a product of British Catholicism, it pays special attention to the saints of the British Isles in general and, in particular, to those who died for their religion in the period after the Reformation. After all, many of the English martyrs had been trained at Douai before going back to the English mission. Regularly studding the entries for the calendar year are the stories of priests, religious and lay people who, after the Henrician split with Rome, mounted the wagons that would take them to the lugubrious rite of execution by hanging, disemboweling and quartering.

In the 20th century Butler’s Lives was updated by a team of scholars under the direction of the polymath Jesuit Herbert Thurston between 1926 and 1938. Donald Attwater made further revisions and published the work in four volumes in 1956. In the 1990’s the decision was made to redo the entire work under the general direction of the noted British hagiographer David Hugh Farmer, with an updating of the bibliographies, a rewriting of many of the entries for scholarly accuracy and the addition of new names of those who have been beatified or canonized in the past decades, even though the editors would be hard put to keep up with the vigorous canonizing activities of Pope John Paul II.

The new edition in 12 volumes (one for each month of the year) of Batler’s Lives of the Saints is now available from Liturgical Press. Through an unexpected, albeit modest, financial windfall, I was able to purchase the entire edition when it first appeared in 1999 and have read through all the volumes, with some discipline, by the simple expedient of starting each day with the entries for that day. I am now on my second round of reading, reacquainting myself with old favorites and learning more about some of the more obscure personages found in the text.

Since the entries for a given day include all the saints remembered on that daynot just those who are primarily honored in the liturgical cycleit is possible to watch the sweep of church history pass the reader by, as Butler leads us from the early patristic period right down to the present dayeven though he might not list his entries in chronological order. On Aug. 7, for example, he tells us about some third-century martyrs who died in Rome and some Capuchins who were martyred in Ethiopia in the 17th century, as well as some priests who were hanged, drawn, and quartered in Lancaster and Yorkshire in England in that same century. In between these sanguinary tales we also read about the founder of the Theatines, St. Cajetan, as well as a late medieval Sicilian Servite turned hermit, St. Albert, whose biography, Butler tells us, contains many impossible and dubious details.

At quite appropriate moments in the various entries, the editors, often quoting an earlier editor, intrude with an apposite remark or a somewhat humorous aside in an understated British fashion. Jan. 18 provides two examples. The fifth-century bishop, St. Volusian, had a terribly shrewish wife. When he wrote to a colleague telling him how much he feared the Goths, his friend wroteButler cites the Latin replythat with such an enemy in his household he should little fear enemies from without. In an entry on St. Elizabeth of Hungary on the same day, an account is provided about the aristocratic woman’s willingness to do the most disgusting chores for the sick and her own indifference to personal hygiene. The current editor cites the comment of an earlier editor: Many of the details are such as cannot be set out before the fastidious modern reader. I was also much amused when, in the course of an excellent essay on St. Francis of Assisi (Oct. 4), the current edition again cites the previous editor about some modern approaches to the saint: Religious and social cranks of all sorts have appealed to him for justification and he has completely won the hearts of the sentimental. Similarly, the editor is delighted that the 19th-century Passionist, Gabriel Possenti (1838-62), had a relatively happy childhood free from that precocious piety, unhealthy preoccupation with sexual purity and extreme asceticism often associated with young saints who die (typically of tuberculosis) in their 20’s.

If one feels deeply about animals (despite the remarks about the sentimental vis à vis St. Francis), Butler’s entries for March 5 ought to give great satisfaction. St. Mark the Hermit healed the blind whelp of a hyena who brought him a sheepskin as a reward, only to have the holy hermit chide him for stealing from the flocks of the poor. St. Gerasimus plucked a thorn from the paw of a lion (had his biographer been reading Aesop?), who then became his pet. On the saint’s death, the lion stretched out on his tomb and died of grief. The lion often seen in artistic representations of St. Jerome may be a borrowing from the life of Gerasimus. The fifth-century Irish abbot Ciaran of Saighar had as his first disciples a boar, a badger, a deer, a fox and a wolf. The fox, one of his hagiographers writes, ate the saint’s sandals in a fit of peckishness. Brother Badger brought the saint a new pair, and Brother Fox had to do a three-day fast as penance. Of course, the theme of animals tamed by hermits is a stock motif in early hagiography in order to show, among other things, that they were living an edenic life.

If one follows the entries for a year (I am now, as I said, on my second go around), what does one learn? Are there patterns to be discerned? Theological truths to be learned? Moments of edification or inspiration?

There are certain recurring motifs. For one, Butler is full of stories of people who go off to enter the solitary life as a hermit. This is a strong tradition found in both the British Isles and Ireland, as well as on the continent in late antiquity and the medieval period. Yet curiously, when people flee the world for solitude, the world comes seeking themeither to learn of their lives and become their subjects, or to entice or order them into the common life of monasteries or cities. The point is this: the ascetical desire to flee the world tends frequently to bring the world to the one who flees. In classical terms, flight from the world should also include compassion for the world. The current waiting lists for places in monastic guesthouses is a contemporary example of this phenomenon. Even that paradigmatic solitary St. Bruno (Oct. 6) had to leave the Grand Chartreuse in the mountains high above Grenoble at the command of the pope. After his duty in Rome he was summoned to Calabria, but after refusing the office of archbishop he settled in a remote valley in that area. Not even the great St. Antony of the Desert (Jan. 17) could escape far enough into the desert to avoid followers and suppliants during his lifetime. He, like the other early desert dwellers, attracted hordes of petitioners who sought a good word from these athletes for Christ.

Second, there are any number of saints in the history of the church who did nothing extraordinary in their lifetimes. What they did manage to do was serve in humble and ordinary capacities, but with an extraordinary fidelity. The secret of sanctity may be, in fact, just that: doing the ordinary in an extraordinary fashion. The paradigmatic example, of course, would be St. Thérèse of Lisieux (Oct. 1), whose fidelity to the Little Way was not only the key to her short life in the Carmel. Her doctrine was concentrated enough that John Paul II saw it as a spiritual teaching sufficiently persuasive to name her a doctor of the church. Thérèse stands in a tradition that would have to include her fellow Carmelite, the French lay brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, whose practice of keeping the presence of God was worked out as he labored as porter and cook for his friary after serving in the military, or those innumerable saints who did the same thing day after day and year after year in a fashion that is heroic.

There are, of course, saints whose lives provide us with cautionary tales against mistaking asceticism for sanctity or rigidity of orthodoxy for deep faith. One thinks of two Dominicans who might instruct us in this fashion. While granting that the grotesque ascetic practices of the Dominican tertiary Rose of Lima (Aug. 23) might well illustrate, as some contemporary critics allege, how Rose used her own body as a metaphor to write out familial, social and cultural comment, the editors do conclude that she is certainly no model for young women in the way she was presented in the past, but they are careful not to read back into her past the psychiatric wisdom of today. Pius V (April 30) is certainly to be praised for his reforming zeal; indeed, some commented that he wanted to turn the whole of Rome into a monastery. Nonetheless, he was staunchly anti-Jewish: he left some Jews to live in rather wretched ghettos in Rome and Ancona, while he expelled all the rest from the papal states. Pius V lived poorly and worked zealously for the salvation of souls, but he is most remembered today for such unappetizing activities as founding the Index of Forbidden Books. His Dominican heritage (Butler does not mention this) accounts for the papal custom of wearing white.

It is also possible, of course, to learn some odd pieces of information that satisfy the minds of those with an instinct for the curious and exotic. It is said of the Flemish St. Bertulf (Feb. 5) that from within the iron casket where his body was entombed in Ghent, one could hear the saint knocking on its walls when any danger was imminent. From reading the life of St. Dominic of Silos (Dec. 20) I learned that it was for this early medieval Benedictine that the far more famous St. Dominic was named. In addition, it was the custom, observed into this century, that his staff, for reasons that are not clear to me, was kept in the bedchamber of the queen of Spain while she was in labor. Who knew that Hildegard of Bingen (Sept. 17), although never formally canonized, is the patron saint of Esperantists? Who could not love the early seventh-century Irish saint, Cronan of Roscrea (Feb. 9), who multiplied beer for a feast to such an extent that the participants became inebriatedwhich, of course, reminds us of St. Brigid (Feb. 1), who prayed that heaven would be a feast that would include a vast lake of ale with Jesus Christ present.

Some of the entries are, of necessity, quite brief, since little or nothing is known of some persons whose names have been kept in various calendars. Where space is demanded, however, the new Butler does not stint. Under the collective rubric Martyrs of China (Feb. 17), Butler gives us nearly 10 full pages that trace the Christian presence in that country from the early Nestorian missionaries right down to the Communist period, with capacious lists of those who died for the faith in various periods. In a striking entry on the martyrs of Korea (Sept. 20), we learn that the first missionary there was a young Korean scholar named Yi Sung-Hun who in 1784 traveled to Beijing in China for instruction and baptism, subsequently returning to Korea, where he instructed and baptized people who then formed the first Catholic community in Korea. This is the first instance of a country being evangelized by someone who was not a foreign missionary. The owner of the house where they met, Kim Bon-U, was arrested, tortured and driven into exile. The group ordained themselves in order to have the Eucharist (a fact worthy of further investigation), but finally asked the bishop in Beijing to send a priest. Eventually, in 1794, one camebut not before a period of persecution by the authorities.

Beyond all these curious byways of information, of course, is the clear fact that certain persons in the history of the tradition have been able to illustrate that, to borrow a phrase from Karl Rahner, there are many concrete ways to be a Christian. The saints who have managed to do that are classics of the tradition in that they possess an excess of meaning. The greatest of them, or their early followers, provide a doctrine of prayer, practice and example that spills over into the tradition that we describe as a school of spirituality. Thus, in following the cycle of the saints we meet not only a Francis of Assisi, but over the centuries we also encounter others who, in the footsteps of the saints, give testimony to the power of his wisdom of evangelical poverty. Those schools are like great currents that run deep over the centuries. Once their doctrine enters the Christian tradition, they are received, as Gustavo Gutierrez once remarked, as a gift for the church.

In a given saint’s life one may watch as the person, in the process of his or her spiritual journey, tries out a series of evangelical models that come from the past. St. Ignatius of Loyola (July 31) was by turns a hermit and a pilgrim before priestly ordination. He wanted to go on the missions but ended his life in Rome, directing a new form of religious life that broke with older models to provide mobility in the apostolate. When one reads the stories of the desert ascetics, it is striking that many of them thought of their lives of asceticism as a new form of martyrdom after the period of the persecutions. These movements by which saints look back for models of life and forward by experimenting with new ways within the tradition are good examples of ressourcement.

Today many lament the decline in the number of candidates for most of the active congregations of religious women. When one reads about the canonized foundresses of these congregations, it is striking how modern they are. With rare exceptions, most of the congregations of women religious active in this country were founded in the period after the French Revolution. It took the church a long time to recognize that women could work actively outside the traditional cloister. Pioneers in this effort, like Mary Ward (d. 1639), suffered terribly at the hands of church authority as they attempted to bring to life a new way of living religious life. That this relatively new movement of women in active religious communities is now in decline only means, if one reads the tradition closely, that new forms, about which we now have only the slightest inkling, may be aborning.

In this last analysis, what one detects in reading the stories of the saints is that they come from all over the world, they tried various forms of life, they contributed to the succor of those in need, they perceived new riches in the Gospel and they reflected their own times. The last point is not without interest. The lives of the saints should teach us that every age must find its own way of discipleship. What was valid for the Baroque period might not be useful for the postmodern world. The saint represents a particular instance of Christian experience; to mistake the particularity for a general rule of life is to succumb to the most naïve form of imitation. St. Francis, for example, was a saint not because he spoke to birds or padded about barefoot singing to God in French, but because he recognized that the Incarnation was an exercise in humility and poverty by which Jesus emptied himself for our sake. In that sense, he was a commentator on the Word of God, not as an exegete, but as a performer.

Reading through these volumes is an exercise in catholicity in the sense that the saints come from every era, from different parts of the world, spent their lives in a whole range of evangelical activities while frequently testing their insights in Gospel living in either a hostile or indifferent culture. Many of the saints were lovable in their doctrine and their lives, while others were irascible, rigid and, worse, devoid of humor or humanity. Some were very much of their age, but many continue to speak to us down through the centuries. In their very weakness they demonstrate that saints were not made of plaster of Paris, but were people like us, with all the foibles and failures that statement implies.

Finally, the saints are part of us because we all belong to the communion of saints. That old truth means, in the concrete, that the saints are our contemporaries as much as they are our ancestors. For that reason we pray with them in the liturgy and await fellowship with them after death. They are part of that cloud of witnesses which surround us (Heb. 12:1). They pray with us and for us. They teach us how to reach up to the Word of God. In that surrounding they take part in the vast liturgy of the church, which raises up prayers and supplication to God through Christ in the dynamic power of the Holy Spirit.

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17 years 2 months ago
Lawrence Cunningham’s remarks on the saints (4/9), in reviewing the new edition of Butler’s Lives of the Saints, constitute a delightful piece. For a real eye-opener, check out the entry under March 2 for St. Chad. In light of what happened in the 2000 presidential election in our country, perhaps we can petition the Vatican to name St. Chad the patron saint of contested elections!

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