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How to Use This Book
You can read Voices of the Saints in a variety of ways.
The book presents the saints in chronological order from Mary, the queen of all saints, to Mother Teresa. Following this arrangement will give you a sense of where the saints fit into the flow of church history.
- You can read one selection each day through the year. To help you keep track, Voices of the Saints is numbered from 1 to 365.
- You can also read Voices of the Saints by topic. Just choose a theme from the chart of ninety-six themes and go to the saints that are listed for each topic. You will find subjects of perennial interest such as Angels, Prayer, and Suffering. And you may be intrigued by such topics as Married Saints, Feisty Saints, and Twenty-Something Saints. The themes begin on page 733.
- The book includes an alphabetical index so that you can find a saint that interests you. The index appears on page 785.
- By using A Calendar of the Saints, you may read this book through the year from January to December. Note that while the calendar is based on the liturgical year of the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church, only saints presented in Voices of the Saints are listed. A Calendar of the Saints begins on page 747.
Voices of the Saints is cross-referenced. When the name of a saint who is treated in the book appears within a selection, I have printed it in semibold type. For example, when St. Bernard of Clairvaux appears thus in the article on St. Malachy, you will find related information in the article on St. Bernard.
The saint’s feast day, canonization information, and patronage appears at the end of each daily reading.
If they, why not I?—If these men and women could become saints, why cannot I with the help of him who is all-powerful?
Saints intrigue us. We recognize something special about them that seems to set them apart. They have achieved an excellence that we admire, but that we suppose we can never reach. “Virtue is our Everest,” said saint-watcher Phyllis McGinley, “and those who climb highest are most worth admiring.” So we honor the saints by mentally placing them on pedestals that distance them from us, believing them to be the exceptional and we the ordinary.
When we get to know the saints a little better, however, that imagined distance shrinks. Observing saints more closely reveals that they were ordinary people just like us. I am inspired by seeing St. Teresa of Ávila scarfing down a partridge instead of fasting and St. Lutgarde interrupting her Eucharistic devotion to get a snack. I like noting the inconsistency of St. Sabas, who punished a disciple for looking at a beautiful woman that he also had apparently eyed with appreciation. I am relieved to discover that St. Bertilla, with whom I share not only a name but a persistent problem with anger, once had to repent for cursing a young nun who crossed her. Even saints who lived with Christ and personally experienced his heavenly invasion stayed earthbound. Only a week after Christ’s rising, for example, St. Peter got bored and said, “I’m going fishing,” and six other saints tagged along (John 21:3).
What distinguishes saints from most people is their life purpose. Simply put, more than anything else, they wanted to be saints. “May God keep us in his grace,” wrote fifteen-year-old Dominic Savio to a friend, “and help us to become saints.” Young Thérèse of Lisieux resolved to become a saint. She said, “I am determined to find an elevator to carry me to Jesus, for I was too small to climb the steep stairs of perfection . . . It is your arms, Jesus, which are the elevator to carry me to heaven.” And Ignatius of Loyola stated his intention in words that invite our imitation: “The saints were of the same frame as I. Why should I not do as they have done?” This compelling desire for sanctity motivated all the saints, and their resolve invited a divine touch.
But determination does not create saints. As the word saint indicates, only God makes saints. Saint comes from a Latin root that means “holy” or “reserved for God.” The presence of the divine in human beings causes them to be holy and transforms them into saints. In fact, Scripture calls all Christians “saints” because God dwells in us. We share with those we call saints a union with God that makes us more like them than we may realize. Grace gives us all the potential to become saints like Teresa, Ignatius, Thérèse, and Dominic Savio. If we don’t aim for it, we lose out. “The one sadness,” said Léon Blois, “is not to be a saint.”
Of the millions of saints who have preceded us, the church has formally identified some women and men to aid us on our journey. Over the centuries and throughout the world, it has in diverse ways recognized about ten thousand saints. The early church first recognized martyrs as saints—men and women who died for their faith. Christians began to remember the dates of the martyrs’ deaths as their birthday into heaven, visit their tombs to ask for their intercession, write their stories, and enroll their names on lists called martyrologies. About the fourth century, when the persecutions subsided, the church started to recognize women and men who had not been martyred, but who would have given their lives for Christ had they had the chance. For the next six centuries, holy virgins, monks, lay theologians, widows, priests, and bishops had their names added to the lists of saints everywhere.
Today we call the church’s way of making saints “canonization.”
The term literally refers to adding a name to a “canon,” or an official list of saints. But the term has come to refer more broadly to the process used to verify a person’s reputation for holiness. Today only the pope proclaims a saint after the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, the church’s official saint-making research group, completes a lengthy and rigorous examination of the person’s life.
However, canonization evolved slowly. The first official canonization occurred in 993 when Pope John XV canonized St. Ulrich. Only in the twelfth century was the process of naming saints reserved to Rome by Pope Alexander III. Four centuries later, in 1588, Pope Sixtus V established a formal office in Rome to investigate the lives of candidates and conduct the saint-making process. The church still uses that system today, although it has been much reformed and improved, especially in the last century.
Persons under consideration for sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church pass through different stages. Early on they are declared “Venerable,” meaning that they either had been martyred or had exercised Christian virtues to a heroic degree. Then the candidate may be beatified and given the title “Blessed.” When the pope beatifies someone, he authorizes the limited public veneration of the saint within a diocese, religious order, or perhaps a country. Canonization is the final stage of the process and occurs when the pope decrees that a person has already entered eternal glory and that the saint may be venerated universally. Over the years the church has canonized about eight hundred saints.
The church gives us saints as exemplars. When a pope canonizes a saint, he identifies the person’s life message so that we may imitate it. For example, in 1988, Pope John Paul II canonized Philippine Duchesne, a nineteenth-century French missionary to Native Americans. In the official decree, he recommended her “radical commitment to the poor and the outcast of society” as a “dynamic source of inspiration” and a “valid example for all” to follow. But the church also expects us to familiarize ourselves with the saints and to discern wisdom for our lives from their words and actions.
In these pages you will meet many people deserving of your imitation. Some you may know already, like St. Dominic and St. Jerome, both of whom once abandoned the study of the Bible in order to apply its teaching. When famine struck his town, Dominic sold his valuable parchments to aid the starving, saying, “I will not study on dead skins, when living skins are dying of hunger.” And when refugees who were fleeing barbarian invaders overran the Holy Land, Jerome put away his books and served them. “Today,” he said, “we must translate the words of Scripture into deeds, and instead of speaking saintly words, we must act on them.”
You will encounter here other saints that you may not know. Like Anne-Marie Javouhey, the Mother Teresa of nineteenth-century France, who once at the government’s request prepared six hundred slaves in Guiana for emancipation. You may become fascinated, as I am, with Roque González, a seventeenth-century Jesuit of Peru, who helped engineer thirty communities for thousands of Indians that provided them the precious gift of economic and political autonomy and prepared them for faith. And you will delight in Miguel Pro, a young priest and practical joker, who gave his life serving the persecuted poor in early twentieth-century Mexico. “If I meet any long-faced saints in heaven,” he said, “I will cheer them up with a Mexican hat dance!” We cannot misinterpret the message that all these saints declare: the joyful service of those in need.
The church also gives us saints as intercessors and as patrons. We are encouraged to ask the saints to pray with us for our concerns and to invite them to protect and guide us on our journey. Intercession and patronage involve us personally with the saints that we believe now live in heaven with God. From the earliest days, Christians have spoken about this “communion of saints,” as we still do when we recite the Apostle’s Creed. We earthly saints are linked with heavenly saints, who constitute a vast, but invisible, sector of the Christian community. But as brothers and sisters who are joined with us in the church, we can rely on them for prayer and support.
The saints themselves expected to be doing the work of intercession once they got to heaven. St. Dominic assured his friars that he could accomplish more for them after his death than he could in life. On his way to execution, St. Thomas More stopped to assure a man he had always prayed for that death would not stop his interceding for him. St. Thérèse of Lisieux promised to respond to requests by asking God to flood the world with little miracles, and thousands testify that she has kept her word. The saint we turn to most often for intercession is the Queen of All Saints, Mary, who was influential enough with her Son to get him at Cana to adjust the timing of God’s plan (John 2:4).
We still look to saints as patrons, but patronage for us has retreated considerably from its original meaning. In the early church, a patron acted as a protector and a guide. St. Paulinus of Nola believed that St. Felix, his patron, accompanied him through life, protecting him from dangers and ensuring his relationship with Christ. Our selecting a saint’s name for a child is distantly patterned on this ideal of patronage, but we expect far less of the patron for the child than perhaps we ought. We should anticipate much more spiritual support from our invisible, but powerful, partners in the communion of saints.
Voices of the Saints offers stories of the saints, one for each day of the year, to help you relate to the saints as exemplars, intercessors, and patrons. The daily articles show the human side of the saints, taking them down from their pedestals so you can more easily identify with them. Uniquely, each story features a substantial quotation by or about the saint, giving you a feel for what he or she was really like. A brief reflection concludes each day’s reading, either a Bible text, a quote from a saint, or a personal reflection by me.
A word on the selection of saints. I tried to include as many popular saints as possible, and I endeavored to include saints from many diverse backgrounds. Limiting my choices was the availability of material written by or about the saint. For some that I would like to have included, no quotable material was available. I also decided to include some not-so-well-known saints who are really worth knowing. While you may not choose to name a daughter “Syncletica” nor a son “Aelred,” you may enjoy getting to know saints like them.
My hope is that you will read Voices of the Saints with interest and expectation. I recommend that you approach your reading with this advice of St. Philip Neri: Imagine yourselves to be spiritual beggars in the presence of God and his saints. You should go round from saint to saint, imploring an alms with the same real earnestness with which the poor beg.
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour;
because he has looked upon the humiliation of his servant.
Yes, from now onwards all generations will call me blessed,
for the Almighty has done great things for me.
Holy is his name,
and his faithful love extends from age after age to those who fear him.
He has used the power of his arm, he has routed the arrogant of heart.
He has pulled down princes from their thrones and raised high the lowly.
He has filled the starving with good things, sent the rich away empty.
He has come to the help of Israel his servant, mindful of his faithful love
—according to the promise he made to our ancestors—
of his mercy to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.
—Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46–55 NJB)
Mary is the most significant woman in history. We honor her as the Virgin Mother of God, and we meditate on her unique role in God’s plan of salvation. Yet Scripture gives us only a few details about her life: the Annunciation, the visit to Elizabeth, the birth of Jesus, the prophecies at his circumcision, the flight into Egypt, the finding of the twelve-year-old Jesus in the Temple.
Then Mary disappears until Christ’s public ministry. We don’t see her again until she accompanies him at the Cana wedding. At Capernaum, he held her up as the example of a person who does God’s will. At the cross, he gave her to the beloved disciple, and she suffered with him there until his death. At Pentecost, she received the Holy Spirit with the other disciples. Tradition tells us further that at her death she was assumed bodily into heaven.
Among the many reasons we venerate Mary, three stand out: her submission, her intercession, and her collaboration with her Son.
Imagine Mary’s confusion when Gabriel told her that God wanted her to bear his Son. Her pregnancy would seem to violate the law and disgrace Joseph. Yet even without understanding how things would work out, she said yes to God’s invitation. Thus she is a model of submission for us, who often must wade through confusion and misunderstanding as we try to follow God’s will.
Mary is the intercessor par excellence. No saint even comes close to her influence with her Son. Mary’s intervention seems to have changed the timing of God’s plan. A mere hint at the wedding of Cana caused Christ to work an early miracle. So we confidently ask her to present our petitions to the Lord.
Mary plays a unique role in God’s saving plan. While Christ is the sole mediator between God and humanity, Mary is an extraordinary collaborator with him. At once she is the daughter and Mother of God, the Mother of the Redeemer, and the Bride of the Holy Spirit. Her cooperation allowed her Son to defeat our enemies—the devil, sin, and death.
The Lord gives Mary to us as the exemplar of a human being perfected by his grace. She who was to be the God-Bearer was born without sin. By anticipation of her Son’s Resurrection, she was transformed into the glorious condition we were all meant to share. So we look to Mary as a sign of hope, as we long for deliverance from the limits of our present circumstances.
The knot of Eve’s disobedience was untied by Mary’s obedience; what the virgin Eve bound through her unbelief, the Virgin Mary loosened by her faith.
September 8; January 1; August 22 (Queenship of Mary) / Patron of the United States of America
Grace; Intercession; Intimacy with the Divine; Simple Obedience
This is how Jesus Christ came to be born. His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph; but before they came to live together she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being an upright man and wanting to spare her disgrace, decided to divorce her informally. He had made up his mind to do this when suddenly the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because she has conceived what is in her by the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son and you must name him Jesus, because he is the one who is to save his people from their sins.” Now all this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken through the prophet:
Look! the virgin is with child and will give birth to a son whom they will call Immanuel, (see Isaiah 7:14)
a name which means “God-is-with-us.” When Joseph woke up he did what the angel of the Lord had told him to do: he took his wife to his home; he had not had intercourse with her when she gave birth to a son; and he named him Jesus.
—Matthew 1:18–25 NJB
A few verses in Matthew and Luke tell us all we know about St. Joseph. They provide just enough information to demonstrate why he was the divine choice to become the husband of Mary and the foster father of Jesus.
Joseph was genealogically perfect for these roles. A distant descendant of King David, he gave Christ the King his royal lineage. Joseph also came from the right hometown. He was from Bethlehem, the city that Scripture predicted would produce the messiah (see Micah 5:1). And as a carpenter (see Matthew 13:55), Joseph was poor—Christ’s condition of preference.
Scripture portrays Joseph as open to God, obedient, upright, and, above all, kind. The saint displayed all of these qualities in his handling of Mary’s surprise pregnancy. Imagine the confusion of emotions that must have flooded him when Mary confided that she was going to have a baby by the Holy Spirit!
As a devout observer of the law, Joseph knew that he might have to repudiate his betrothal. But his kindness and confidence in Mary prevented his taking such a harsh step, which would have shamed her. It may have even put her in danger of capital punishment (see Deuteronomy 22:20–21). Joseph must have agonized over his decision, praying intently about it. Finally he decided to divorce Mary quietly. But Joseph was open to God, and in a dream a divine messenger told him to take Mary home as his wife. Joseph did exactly as he was told. He showed the same virtues in his care for his family in the flight to Egypt and the return to Nazareth.
Devotion to Joseph became prominent in the Middle Ages when saints like Bridget of Sweden, Ignatius Loyola, and, especially Teresa of Ávila, promoted it. “I have never known anyone to be truly devoted to St. Joseph,” said Teresa, “who did not noticeably advance in virtue, for he gives very real help to souls who commend themselves to him.”
Joseph’s wise dealing with Mary is a model for us when we face complex moral and personal issues. He subordinated his feelings to do what God required. He was open to whatever God wanted, and when he sensed the divine will, he obeyed.
March 19 and May 1 / Patron of Fathers, the Church, Workers, China, and Peru
Dreams; Family; Kindness; Mere Christian Love
3. Joachim and Anne
Scripture does not mention Mary’s father and mother. But early Fathers like St. Jerome and St. John Chrysostom believed the second-century story that presented St. Joachim and St. Anne as Mary’s parents. However, today scholars regard this work, the Protoevangelium of James, as unreliable. But for centuries the popular tradition about St. Joachim and St. Anne has inspired Christians with a message of God’s tender love. It still inspires us today.
Joachim, a Galilean from Nazareth, married Anne from Bethlehem. They lived on one-third of their resources and donated the rest to the temple and to the poor. After twenty childless years, the couple promised God that if he would grant them a baby they would consecrate it to him.
Once when Joachim went to Jerusalem to celebrate a feast, he approached the altar to make his offering. However, the priest turned him away with an angry reproach. He said that no man subject to the Law’s curse may offer sacrifice, nor may a sterile man stand with men who fathered sons. Ashamed because of this public rejection, Joachim decided to avoid his family and friends. So he went to live with his shepherds. Anne worried about his absence, fearing he might be dead.
Then as Jacob of Voragine, the medieval hagiographer, tells it, God intervened:
An angel appeared to Joachim and said:
“I am sent to announce to you that your prayers have been heard . . . I have seen how you were put to shame, and heard the reproach of childlessness wrongly put upon you. God punishes not nature but sin, and therefore, when he closes a woman’s womb, he does this in order to open it miraculously later on. . . . So then, your wife will bear you a daughter and you will call her Mary. As you have vowed, she will be consecrated to the Lord from infancy and filled with the Holy Spirit from her mother’s womb. . . . Miraculously, the Son of the Most High will be born of her. His name will be Jesus, and through him all nations will be saved. And let this be a sign to you when you arrive at the Golden Gate of Jerusalem, Anne your wife will be there waiting for you. . . .
Meanwhile, Anne was weeping bitterly, not knowing where her husband had gone, when the same angel . . . revealed to her the same things he had told Joachim, and added that . . . she should go to Jerusalem’s Golden Gate, where she would meet her husband. . . . So they met as the angel had predicted, and were happy to see each other and to be sure they were to have a child. They adored God and went to their home, joyfully awaiting the fulfillment of the divine promise. Anne conceived and brought forth a daughter and they called her name Mary.
Anne and Joachim took Mary at age three to dedicate her to God at the temple. They set the child down at the foot of the temple hill and she climbed the fifteen steps like a grown-up. When the saints had made their offering, they left Mary to be raised with the other temple virgins and returned home, glad because of God’s great blessing to them. You know the rest of the story that continues when Mary became a teenager.
Faith is the unshaken stance of the soul and is unmoved by any adversity. The believing person is not one who thinks God can do all things, but one who trusts that he will obtain everything. Faith is the agent of things unhoped for. . . .
July 26 / Anne, Patron of Cabinetmakers, Canada, Housewives, Women in Labor
Angels; Married Saints; Perseverance
4. John the Baptist
One day an angel appeared to Zachary and announced that he was to have a son named John, who would prepare Israel for the messiah. Zachary doubted that Elizabeth, his aged wife, could bear a child. He asked for a sign, and the angel obliged. Zachary was struck dumb until John’s birth. When the baby was born, the old man cuddled him and celebrated with this prophetic song:
Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,
for he has visited his people, he has set them free;
and he has established for us a saving power in the House of his servant David,
just as he proclaimed,
by the mouth of the holy prophets from ancient times,
that he would save us from our enemies and from the hands of all those who hate us,
and show faithful love to our ancestors,
and so keep in mind his holy covenant.
This was the oath he swore to our father Abraham,
that he would grant us, free from fear,
to be delivered from the hands of our enemies,
to serve him in holiness and uprightness in his presence, all our days.
And you, little child,
you shall be called Prophet of the Most High,
for you will go before the Lord to prepare a way for him,
to give his people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the faithful love of our God in which the rising Sun has come from on high to visit us to give light to those who live in darkness and the shadow dark as death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.
—Luke 1:68–79 NJB
St. John began his ministry about three decades later. He called people to repent and baptized them in water as a sign of purification. Jesus himself approached John for baptism “Behold the lamb of God,” John declared to the crowds, “who takes away the sin of the world.” He resisted baptizing Jesus, but acquiesced when Jesus explained that he wanted to set an example of righteous behavior.
Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee, arrested John because he feared the Baptist might foment a rebellion. John had also embittered Herod by condemning his marriage to Herodias, his half-brother’s wife. While in prison, John was bothered with doubt about Jesus. He had expected the messiah to come more forcefully with a “winnowing fan in his hand to clear the threshing floor.” Thus, he sent his disciples to ask Jesus if he was really the messiah.
Jesus responded that he fulfilled all the messianic signs, healing the blind, the deaf, the lame, and lepers, raising the dead, and preaching good news to the poor. Then Jesus praised John to the crowds as “more than a prophet” and as the greatest man who ever lived.
One evening Herod threw a party for Galilee’s upper crust. Herodias’s daughter entertained, dancing so beautifully that Herod offered to reward her with anything she desired. Her mother told her to ask for John the Baptist’s head on a platter. Herod kept his promise. Without even a pretense of a trial, he gave the order and a soldier beheaded John at the prison.
John the Baptist expected people to act on their repentance by changing their behavior. “Produce good fruits as evidence of your repentance,” he said (Luke 3:8 NAB). He told all to clothe and feed the poor, tax collectors to stop cheating, soldiers to stop making false accusations. I know exactly what he might say to me. What do you think he might prescribe for you?
June 24 and August 29, the Passion of St. John the Baptist
Doubt; Prophets; Repentance
St. John’s gospel (1:35–42) reported that one day Andrew heard John the Baptist, his master, designate Jesus as “the Lamb of God.” Fascinated and curious, he and another of the Baptist’s disciples caught up with Jesus and visited with him the entire day. The next morning Andrew announced to Simon, his brother, that he had found the messiah. Then he presented Simon to Christ, who renamed him Peter. St. Mark (1:16–20) gave a different account of Andrew’s call. He says Jesus encountered Peter and Andrew fishing beside the Sea of Galilee. “Come after me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you into fishers of people” (v. 17, NJB). Abruptly, the brothers abandoned all and took off after him.
However it happened, Jesus made Andrew one of his first disciples. Later he chose Andrew as one of the Twelve whom he prepared especially to carry on his work. Andrew appears to have emerged as a leader among them. Twice in the gospels we see him directly involved in Christ’s ministry. He pointed out the lad with five loaves and two fishes at the feeding of the five thousand (see John 6:8–10). And at Jerusalem, Andrew presented to Jesus the Greeks who had asked to see him (see John 12:20–22).
Early sources, frequently judged as unreliable, disagree about St. Andrew’s Christian work. However, Gregory Nazianzen and Jerome favor the view that he went to cities in Greece. A medieval legend that Andrew founded the see of Constantinople became popular in the East in an effort to counterbalance Rome’s apostolic origins. A dubious tale that Andrew preached in Kiev justifies Russia’s claiming him as patron. And Scotland regards Andrew as its patron because St. Rule supposedly transported his relics to the spot now called by his name.
An apocryphal account of Andrew’s death says that sometime around AD 60 he was crucified at Patras in Achaia. Bound to an X-shaped cross, the apostle reportedly proclaimed the gospel from it for two days before he finally died.
Andrew’s yes to Jesus’ call has always inspired preachers. Here St. Gregory the Great stirs us from our apathy:
Dearest brethren, you have heard that at a single command Peter and Andrew, leaving their nets, followed the Redeemer. Up to that time they had not seen him perform any miracles. They had heard nothing from him concerning a reward of eternal joy, and still, at a single bidding of our Lord, they forgot about that which they seemed to possess. What great miracles have we seen, with how many scourges are we afflicted, by what great anxieties of threatening things are we disheartened, and yet we scorn him who calls us to follow!
He who counsels us in our manner of life already sits enthroned in heaven; . . . already, with the world’s disasters increasing more and more, does he announce the approaching day of his severe judgment. And yet our proud mind still does not wish to abandon freely that which it is daily losing unwillingly.
. . . But perhaps someone will say in his silent thoughts: “What or how much did either of these fishermen, who possessed almost nothing, forfeit at the call of the Lord?”
In this matter . . . we must consider the disposition rather than the personal wealth. He forsakes much who keeps nothing for himself. He forsakes much who gives up every little thing, his all. But we, on the other hand, hold with love the things we have, and even out of desire seek those things which we do not have. Therefore, Peter and Andrew forsook much when both forfeited even their desire to possess.
November 30 / Patron of Fishers, Greece, Russia, and Scotland
The Cost of Discipleship; Vocation
The New Testament leaves no doubt that St. Peter was preeminent among the Twelve. Upon meeting him, Jesus gave him the name of Cephas that means “rock.” Later Christ unpacked the meaning of the name when he told Peter that he was the rock upon which he would build his church.
Peter heads every New Testament list of apostles. Jesus included him in the select group that witnessed the Transfiguration, the raising of Jairus’s daughter, and the agony in the garden. After the resurrection, Peter led the early church. He guided the church in choosing a successor for Judas, preached at Pentecost, worked the first miracle, defended the apostles before the Sanhedrin, and condemned Ananias and Sapphira. Most significantly, he decided it was the divine will to welcome gentiles into the Christian community.
Thankfully, Scripture does not lionize Peter as a superhero, but portrays his weaknesses. Jesus had to rebuke Peter’s attempt to dissuade him from the cross. We also see Christ rescuing him when he tried to walk on water and forgiving him for his threefold betrayal.
One of the last times we meet Peter in the Bible is Luke’s account of his escape from prison. Herod had beheaded James, and had arrested Peter:
On the night before Herod was to try him, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, fastened with two chains, while guards kept watch at the main entrance to the prison. Then suddenly an angel of the Lord stood there, and the cell was filled with light. He tapped Peter on the side and woke him. “Get up!” he said, “Hurry!”—and the chains fell from his hands. The angel then said, “Put on your belt and sandals.” After he had done this, the angel next said, “Wrap your cloak round you and follow me.” He followed him out, but had no idea that what the angel did was all happening in reality; he thought he was seeing a vision. They passed through the first guard post and then the second and reached the iron gate leading to the city. This opened of its own accord; they went through it and had walked the whole length of one street when suddenly the angel left him (Acts 12:6–10 NJB).
Then Peter went to a house where members of the community had assembled to pray.
He knocked at the outside door and a servant called Rhoda came to answer it. She recognized Peter’s voice and was so overcome with joy that, instead of opening the door, she ran inside with the news that Peter was standing at the main entrance. They said to her, “You are out of your mind,” but she insisted that it was true. Then they said, “It must be his angel!” Peter, meanwhile, was still knocking. When they opened the door, they were amazed to see that it really was Peter himself. He raised his hand for silence and described to them how the Lord had led him out of prison. He added, “Tell James and the brothers.” Then he left and went elsewhere (Acts 12:13–17 NJB).
Tradition has it that “elsewhere” meant Antioch, where Origen says he founded the Christian community, and ultimately Rome, where he was crucified during the persecution of Nero, around AD 64.
The end of all things is near, so keep your minds calm and sober for prayer. Above all preserve an intense love for each other, since love covers over many a sin.
—1 Peter 4:7–8 NJB
June 29 / Patron of the Fishing Industry
Angels; Miracles Do Happen; Spiritual Warfare
7. James the Great
Before Jesus called him as one of the Twelve, St. James worked with his brother St. John as a fisherman. The hard manual labor of rowing against the wind and hauling fish gave him both a rugged body and a rugged disposition. Jesus recognized James’ roughness when he nicknamed him and his brother “Boanerges,” the “Sons of Thunder” (Mark 3:17). Once when a Samaritan town rejected Jesus and his followers, James hotly desired to call down fire to destroy it, and Jesus had to rebuke him (Luke 9:52–55).
But flaws and all, Jesus made James a leader among the Twelve. Jesus included him in his inner circle along with St. Peter and St. John. James accompanied him when he raised a girl from the dead (Mark 5:37), when he was transfigured on Mount Tabor (Mark 9:2), and when he suffered his agony at Gethsemane (Mark 14:33). That’s why we call him “the Great.”
Shortly before the crucifixion, James and his brother boldly asked Jesus for places of honor in his kingdom (Mark 10:35–38). Reflecting on the event, St. John Chrysostom cautioned us not to be surprised at their perverse inclination as they had not yet received the grace of the Holy Spirit. Chrysostom then showed how Jesus seized the opportunity and gently prepared the Sons of Thunder for their transformation and deaths:
I conjecture that they had heard that the disciples were to be seated on twelve thrones and they wished to ask for the place of honor in this assembly. They knew that at other times they were given precedence over the rest, but fearing that Peter might be put before them, they were bold enough to request, “Allow us to sit one at your right hand and the other on your left” (Mark 10:37 NJB). . . . And what did he say? That he might show that they sought nothing spiritual, and did not even know what they were asking—for had they known they would not have asked it—Jesus said to them, “You know not what you ask. You don’t know how great, how admirable a thing this is! . . .”
And he added further: “Can you drink the cup that I shall drink, or be baptized with the baptism with which I shall be baptized?” (Mark 10:38 NJB). Notice how he moves them from their present state of mind by bringing to their attention things entirely contrary. “For,” he says, “you ask me for crowns and honors, but I speak to you of struggle and perspiration. This is not a time for rewards, nor will my glory appear at this time, but the present is the time of death and dangers.” But observe how by his very manner of questioning he exhorts and consoles. He did not say, “Can you undergo suffering? Can you shed your blood?” But he said, “Can you drink the cup?” Then by way of consolation he adds, “that I shall drink.” So that by their very union with him they might become more eager for hardships.
James said that he was ready to drink the cup, and Jesus promised him a share in his chalice of suffering and in his baptism in blood (Mark 10:39). Around AD 44, Jesus’ prophetic words about James were fulfilled. Out to kill certain leaders of the Christian community, King Herod Agrippa chose James as his first victim and had him beheaded (Acts 12:2).
Perhaps Herod regarded James as dangerous because as a transformed Son of Thunder he preached powerfully and radiated a strength that attracted people to the church. May our transformation in Christ also make us dangerous.
July 25 / Patron of Pilgrims
St. John, along with St. James the Great, his brother, and St. Peter, was part of Jesus’ inner circle, disciples to whom he gave special attention and privileges. Jesus wanted John with him at significant moments. He invited John, for example, to be with him for the raising of Jairus’s daughter and for his Transfiguration. And as Christ approached his passion, he sent John along with Peter to arrange for his final Passover and allowed him to witness his agony in the garden. Perhaps John’s sense of being favored had prompted his presumptuous request for a place of honor next to Jesus in his kingdom (Mark 10:36).
Traditionally, Christian writers have identified John as the Beloved Disciple, who leaned on the Lord’s breast at the Last Supper; stood by him at the foot of the cross; accepted responsibility to care for his mother; and was the first apostle to arrive at the tomb, realize what had happened, and believe in the resurrection. But Catholic Scripture scholars now say that the Beloved Disciple is an anonymous follower of Christ, left unidentified so that we could identify with him. I think John would like to see us placing ourselves as beloved disciples near the Lord during his passion, death and resurrection.
After the Lord’s resurrection and the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost, John played a significant role in the early Christian community. For instance:
Once when Peter and John were going up to the Temple for the prayers at the ninth hour, it happened that there was a man being carried along. He was a cripple from birth; and they used to put him down every day near the Temple entrance called the Beautiful Gate so that he could beg from the people going in. When this man saw Peter and John on their way into the Temple he begged from them. Peter, and John too, looked straight at him and said, “Look at us.” He turned to them expectantly, hoping to get something from them, but Peter said, “I have neither silver nor gold, but I will give you what I have: in the name of Jesus Christ, the Nazarene, walk!” Then he took him by the right hand and helped him to stand up. Instantly his feet and ankles became firm, he jumped up, stood, and began to walk, and went with them into the Temple, walking and jumping and praising God. Everyone could see him walking and praising God, and they recognized him as the man who used to sit begging at the Beautiful Gate of the Temple. They were all astonished and perplexed at what had happened to him (Acts of the Apostles, 3:1–10 NJB).
From ancient times, Christian leaders have regarded St. John as the author of a gospel, three letters, and the book of Revelation. But some scholars now assert that the gospel and letters were probably written by someone informed by the witness of the Beloved Disciple. And they also say that another person named John wrote Revelation. This questioning of the authorship of St. John does not question the authority of these books and their inspiration by the Holy Spirit.
St. Irenaeus received a tradition from St. Polycarp that John lived at Ephesus until the time of the Emperor Trajan at the turn of the second century and that he died peacefully around the year 100.
When St. John was too feeble to preach, he used to be carried into the assembly at Ephesus where he always said the same thing: “My little children, love one another. When asked why, he said: “Because it is the word of the Lord and if you keep it you do enough.”
Mere Christian Love; Miracles Do Happen
9. Mary Magdalen
St. Mary Magdalen was a member of the community that traveled with Jesus. She had suffered with serious problems, which he cured by casting seven demons from her. After her healing, Mary Magdalen became an eminent disciple, one of his intimate companions alongside the Twelve. With other women, she took care of the Lord’s practical needs on the road (see Luke 8:1–3).
We may customarily identify Mary Magdalen with the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears (Luke 7:39) and with the woman who anointed his head with expensive ointment (Matthew 26:6–8; Mark 14:3). And we may believe that she is Mary of Bethany, the sister of Lazarus. We may envision her sitting before Jesus as the first contemplative (Luke 10:39–42). We may also see her just before Christ’s death, anointing his feet and wiping them with her hair, a preparation for his burial (John 11:2; 12:3). While these beliefs have ancient roots, today scholars say that the Bible does not support the identification of all these women with Mary Magdalen.
However, this interpretation need not diminish the saint’s significance nor our admiration for her. Mary Magdalen was faithful to Christ to the end. She stood courageously beneath the cross (John 19:25) and lurked near the sepulchre (Matthew 26:61) to be sure she knew where he had been buried. With other women she prepared spices and ointments to anoint the Lord’s body. She was the first to discover the empty tomb (Luke 23:55–24:11). And, appropriately, Jesus, risen from the dead, appeared first to her:
But Mary was standing outside near the tomb, weeping. Then, as she wept, she stooped to look inside, and saw two angels in white sitting where the body of Jesus had been, one at the head, the other at the feet. They said, “Woman, why are you weeping?” “They have taken my Lord away,” she replied, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” As she said this she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, though she did not realize that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have taken him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will go and remove him.” Jesus said, “Mary!” She turned round then and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbuni!” —which means Master. Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go and find my brothers, and tell them: I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” So Mary of Magdala told the disciples, “I have seen the Lord,” and that he had said these things to her (John 20:11–18 NJB).
We may know less about Mary Magdalen than we thought. However, what we do know is enough for us to honor her and to love her.
St. Mary Magdalen,
You come with springing tears To the spring of mercy, Christ. . . .
What can I say, how can I find words to tell About the burning love with which you sought Him Weeping at the sepulchre And wept for Him in your seeking? . . .
For the sweetness of love He shows Himself Who would not for the bitterness of tears.
—Anselm of Canterbury
July 22 / Patron of Repentant Prostitutes and Hairdressers
Courage; Intimacy with the Divine; Valiant Women
10. James the Just
Among first-century Jewish families, “James” was a very popular name. This has contributed to longstanding confusion about men named James in the New Testament. Here are the facts. When Jesus called his apostles, he chose James the son of Zebedee and James the son of Alphaeus (Matthew 10:2–3). Zebedee’s son is now known as James the Great. There are four passing references in the gospels to a James whose mother is named Mary; Mark refers to him as James the younger or “the less” (Mark 15:40). Then there is the James that Scripture says was a “brother” of Jesus (Matthew 13:55). Christian writers have nicknamed him James the Just. And the author of a New Testament letter identifies himself as “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (James 1:1 NJB).
While James the Great has maintained his separate identity, early Christian writers lumped the other four into one James. But scholars now contend that James the son of Alphaeus, James the younger, and James the brother of Jesus were distinct individuals. They also assert from internal evidence in the letter of James that it is improbable that any of the three was the author of this letter. Once they are separated, we know next to nothing about all of them except for James the Just.
Catholics hold to the perpetual virginity of Mary, so we do not regard James the Just as the natural brother of Jesus. Following St. Jerome, some believe that James was Jesus’ cousin, because the Hebrew and Aramaic words for “brother” could also mean “cousin.” Others suggest that James was a son of Joseph from a previous marriage. Very likely, Mary and Joseph raised James and Jesus together as “brothers.”
We bump into James the brother of the Lord several times in the New Testament. Paul mentions him in his letters to the communities at Galatia and Corinth. He says that he met James twice in Jerusalem. He also mentions him at Antioch when he confronted Peter about his refusing to dine with gentiles (Galatians 1:18, 2:9 and 12). Paul hints that James was married (1 Corinthians 9:5) and says that the risen Jesus appeared to him (1 Corinthians 15:7). Some spiritual writers speculate that shortly before his ascension, the Lord visited James to affirm his leadership in the early church.
We meet James in the Acts of the Apostles as the leader who governed the Christian community at Jerusalem. In AD 49, the apostles convened a council there to consider whether gentile converts had to become Jews. James presided over that important meeting and rendered its final judgment. Both Paul and Peter addressed the issue, and the apostles and elders engaged in a full discussion.
When they had finished it was James who spoke. “My brothers,” he said, “listen to me. Simeon has described how God first arranged to enlist a people for his name out of the gentiles. This is entirely in harmony with the words of the prophets, since the scriptures say:
After that I shall return and rebuild the fallen hut of David;
I shall make good the gaps in it and restore it.
Then the rest of humanity,
and of all the nations once called mine,
will look for the Lord,
says the Lord who made this known so long ago.
My verdict is then, that instead of making things more difficult for gentiles who turn to God, we should send them a letter telling them merely to abstain from anything polluted by idols, from illicit marriages, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood” (Acts 15:13–20 NJB).
Eusebius, a fourth-century bishop, writes in his History of the Church that in AD 62, scribes and Pharisees martyred James for proclaiming Jesus, throwing him down from a parapet of the Temple and stoning him before beating him to death with a fuller’s club.
Blessed is anyone who perseveres when trials come. Such a person is of proven worth and will win the prize of life, the crown that the Lord has promised to those who love him.
—James 1:12 NJB
Christian Unity; Mercy