Yesterday evening I gave a short talk as part of the Faith Matters series, a catechetical series put on in the Westminster Diocese which this month is entitled “Last Things First”. It was great to be at this event with a wonderful group of people, on the feast of All Saints. Fr Stephen Wang gave some theological reflections on the communion of saints, and I followed up with some real-life examples of saints of the 20th Century. I chose three examples, all lay saints of the Church, and linked each example to our lay baptismal vocation to share in Christ’s priestly, prophetic and kingly role. Here is the first saint I spoke about:
Saints are great gifts to us in our life of faith – and not just because they pray for us. When God took on human flesh he revealed to us who he is. How is this related to the saints? When saints allow God to fill their life with his life, they are giving him, so to speak, “another humanity”, another little “incarnation”, so that in their own humanity, people may glimpse God. Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity (a French Carmelite nun of the late 19th Century) prayed to the Holy Spirit to “create in [her] soul a kind of incarnation of the Word: that [she] may be another humanity for Him in which He can renew His whole Mystery.” It is God’s holiness that is radiant in them – so through their character, and the events of their life, we catch a glimpse of him.
So that is the first point. Saints give their humanity to God, and they make him visible. We know well that, although we might know our faith very thoroughly – and that is good, we need to – we only really know it – deeply and tangibly – in our experience. Particularly in our own experience, but also in the experience of others: this is where truths that we know come alive. This is another way of saying the same thing: in the lives of the saints, in the experience of others, we glimpse the deep realities of our faith in a way that makes them alive and real to us.
The numerous saints of the 20th Century are vivid images to us of God’s holiness – perhaps more so than earlier saints – because their world seems closer to ours: we have photographs and even videos of them which make them more real to us. What I want to do is use three examples of 20th Century saints – two Italians and one French-Canadian married couple – to show what holiness means, in concrete ways. These points are not even necessarily the most important points about holiness, but they are points that shine vividly in the three examples. I have also chosen only lay saints – I think it’s important that, as lay people, we have strong examples of what holiness looks like in a lay life, and indeed, that it is possible. The overarching theme in all three examples is that Christ’s holiness shines through a person’s personality: his holiness does not obscure or obliterate that person’s character, but rather makes it bloom, makes them fully alive.
My first example is a married woman from Milan, a wife, mother and doctor: St Gianna Beretta Molla. In St Gianna’s life, we see that holiness means loving those who are given to us to love. These can sometimes be the hardest people to love! In Gianna’s life, in her twenties, this initially meant those she served in her professional life as a doctor. We know that she gave free medical treatment to the poor, often giving them money as well as free examinations and medicine, and helping those who could not continue with their work because of their health to find new jobs.
She married at 33 and as a wife and mother Gianna devoted herself to her husband and her children: for her, this was taken to the extreme when, at the end of her life, she loved her child even above her own life. She knew that the continuation of her fourth pregnancy meant that her own life was in danger, and on the way to the hospital, she made clear to her husband: “if they should ask you which of the two lives they should save, do not hesitate…first, the life of the child”. Throughout her pregnancy she had been aware of this risk, suffering without complaint but constantly speaking with God in prayer. She suffered seven agonising days after her daughter’s birth, telling her husband, “it is not just that we should appear before the Lord without much suffering”.
What can we learn from this? Because we are baptised, we share in Christ’s role as priest, prophet and king. And when we offer sacrifice in our lives, we are exercising our priestly role. When we do our work well and offer it to God the Father, when we love and sacrifice for those in our lives, when we offer our sufferings to the Father, we are acting as priests – sanctifying and consecrating the world to God. For Gianna, this offering became the offering of her life itself, and it is clear that in this, she sanctified the world around her. After her death, countless people came to see her, all of them aware of the sacrifice she had made, and many going to Confession before they entered her room.
The two other examples will be posted soon!