Tag Archives: saints

Marriage as a path to holiness

I have already written about this from different angles. In this post, I want to offer a married couple as a model for holiness. Louis and Zelie Martin, the parents of St Therese, are often referred to, and when I was researching for the recent Faith Matters talk, I came across this inspiring, French-Canadian couple (not yet beatified) who were in the diplomatic service: Georges and Pauline Vanier.

This couple shows us that holiness means fulfilling the duties of your state in life and your profession to the best of your ability. Georges Vanier went into the diplomatic service after the First World War in which he had served. During the War, he had had his right leg amputated and suffered pain from the wound for the rest of his life. When he was invited to become the Governor-General of Canada, he accepted this appointment despite his constant pain. One friend commented: “Good heavens, Vanier, you’ve already got one foot in the grave,” to which Georges replied, “I know, but it’s been there 41 years.” He said, “If God wants me to do this job, he will give me the strength.” This sense of service marked the Vaniers’ public and private lives. Recognising the importance of family life and discovering great joy in it themselves, they established the Vanier Institute for the Family, to give aid to families in need.
 
The Vaniers lived a life of entertaining prime ministers and dining with royalty and when, in the 30s, they lost much of their wealth, they had to continue to keep up appearances within all of these duties. Pauline Vanier stated that the hardship of these years had in fact been the best thing that happened to the children. She suffered from her own personal problems, tending to be highly strung and suffering from depression. Yet, without being overly pious, the couple quietly devoted time each day to prayer, meditation and spiritual reading. In relation to prayer Georges told his daughter: “We can all find time to do what we want.”
 
In the 50s, most of the Vanier children had grown up and left home – one became a doctor, one became a Cistercian monk, and one became a painter. Their fourth son, Jean, who had studied philosophy in Paris, later found his own vocation – he bought a house near Paris and took two men with mental disabilities to live with him – this was the beginning of the L’Arche community, where Pauline Vanier herself would go to live towards the end of her life.
 
There is nothing remarkable in the Vaniers’ life, which I think should be encouraging for us. As husband and wife, they were faithful in carrying out their duties both within their family and professional life. In this faithfulness, we can see what the kingly aspect of our baptismal vocation looks like – to govern and bring order within our lives and the field in which we work. Lumen Gentium explains this by saying, “it belongs to the laity to seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God’s will” (LG 31).
 
Finally, it could be said of the Vaniers that they grew in holiness together. Georges experienced a spiritual awakening in 1938, after which he resolved to accompany Pauline to Mass each day and did so until his last days. Their friends said of them, “We always think of them together”. It is true of all of us – whether married or single – that we grow in God’s life with others. In relationship with others we are in the image of God because that is who God is – an eternal relationship of three Persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – a life of endless joy we are invited to share.

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More Saints

Continuing the theme of some wonderful twentieth-century saints, here is some more on my personal favourite, Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati. Again, I gave this talk at the Faith Matters series.

My second example is a young man from Turin, Italy, who was blessed with many qualities that are valued in today’s world: a great personality, good looks, a strong education, athletic ability, social status and wealth: Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati. In Blessed Pier Giorgio’s life, we see that holiness means witnessing to Christ in every part of your life – even the hidden parts. The Church teaches us in Lumen Gentium that when lay people witness to Christ it has “peculiar efficacy because it is accomplished in the ordinary circumstances of the world” (LG 35) and this was definitely true of Pier Giorgio. His life was filled with parties, mountain-climbing and practical jokes – and yet all of this, because of his faithfulness to Christ, was marked by a deep holiness. I think his witness to Christ was stronger precisely because of his great passion for life.

It is true that Pier Giorgio achieved many heroic things: fascism was coming to power in Italy and he was known to be a political activist, often getting arrested in the midst of protests. He showed unbounded generosity towards the poor – for whom he saved the little money he was given by his father. His family and circle of friends suspected the kindness and charity he showed towards the poor of Turin, but little did they know of the vast number of poor he had helped: on the day of his funeral, a flood of the city’s poor came to pay their respects.

However, I want to suggest that what cost Pier Giorgio even more than this, were the more hidden sacrifices that he made. He came from an unhappy, rich and not very religious family – an authoritarian father and a highly critical mother. And in this context he suffered a lot. He relinquished his strong desire to marry a young woman of whom he knew his mother would disapprove, saying, “Why create one family to tear apart another?” Again, when his father planned a career for his son at the newspaper he owned, Pier Giorgio accepted despite this path being contrary to everything he wanted for himself: “Do you think this will please Papa?” he asked the friend who passed on the news. When he nodded, Pier Giorgio replied, “Well, tell him I accept.”

In Pier Giorgio’s life we see the prophetic role of our baptismal vocation. When we proclaim Christ in the ordinary circumstances of our lives, when we evangelise very simply through friendships and through showing the attractiveness of the Christian life, and when we are unashamed to defend our faith, we are acting as prophets, the second part of our baptismal calling.

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I would add to this that I highly recommend the book written by his sister Luciana Frassati on his life, A Man of the Beatitudes. Many incidents in this book show with poignancy the deep emotions Pier Giorgio felt, especially towards those he loved. Often we think of Christian love as predominantly charity and rarely hear about the saints’ deeply emotional (or what would be classed as eros) love for those in their lives. Pier Giorgio was definitely a saint who loved much.


The Holiness of God in the Lives of His Saints

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!