As Catholics approach the Solemnity of All Saints, which comes this year after months of harrowing news of scandal and crisis within the Church, there is hope to be found in looking to the saints of history, as well as at the spiritual weapons available to Catholics to combat evil and grow in holiness.
Holiness in History
Christopher Blum, a professor of history and theology at the Denver-based Augustine Institute, considers this time in history to be an “opportune moment” for Catholics. By encountering the saints, Catholics find “examples of Godly living and forthright testimony to keep us steadfast” in troubling times, he told the Register.
Blum thinks that recalling the lives of saints, like St. Charles Borromeo, who confronted sin and sought purification within the Church can be helpful for laypeople today.
“When [St. Charles] arrived in Milan as its new archbishop, he found a presbyterate suffering from several generations of absent or poor episcopal leadership,” Blum elaborated. “He steadily worked to reform the Church in his archdiocese and set a quiet but compelling example of holiness through his simplicity of life, mortification, prayer and works of mercy.” In her “Novena of Saints for a Church in Crisis” on her Instagram platform (@mhunterkilmer), Catholic blogger and speaker Meg Hunter-Kilmer retold the stories of additional saints whose examples serve as powerful witnesses: “St. Catherine of Siena was an uneducated laywoman who followed the call of the Holy Spirit to challenge the Pope himself,” Hunter-Kilmer wrote. “He had left Rome for Avignon, and St. Catherine rebuked him with respect and fearlessness, demanding that he sacrifice his comfort to obey the Lord.”
Hunter-Kilmer looked at St. Catherine of Siena’s bravery and holiness alongside that of St. Catherine of Genoa, who also reached sanctity during a scandalous time in Church history but is most remembered for another way of addressing evil and corruption. As she posted: “St. Catherine of Genoa lived a few centuries later, during a time of profound corruption in the Church. Weak bishops had refused to make the necessary sacrifices to implement the reforms of the Fourth Lateran Council, but this St. Catherine brought about reform through calling individuals to holiness rather than appealing to the hierarchy.”
“Each of these saints offers us hope — hope that the weak and wicked and corrupt can be converted, hope that survivors can be healed, and hope that each one of us can find radical holiness in the midst of all this mess,” Hunter-Kilmer told the Register.
Not only can Catholics look to the saints of the past for applicable lessons today, but they can also reflect on key moments in Church history that are relevant to the current crisis. “I have found it helpful to remember Julius II (1503-1513), the so-called warrior pope,” Blum explained. “Julius spent his cardinalate and his pontificate effectively ignoring the need for deep and serious reform in the Church. We have largely forgotten him today and instead remember the great reform of the papacy in the mid-16th century and the Council of Trent that was its fruit. The lesson is that the Church can survive a compromised pontificate — or two — and be renewed by God’s providence.”
Weapons for Spiritual Battle
It is the job of the laity, Blum asserts, to “renew the temporal order.” So how can the laity engage in spiritual battle against the evil that exists within and outside of the Church today, renew the Church and the world, and become saints for these modern times?
Paul Thigpen, the director of adult faith formation for St. Catherine of Siena parish in Kennesaw, Georgia, encourages people in the pews to equip themselves with both knowledge about spiritual warfare and with weapons to fight spiritual battles. In his book Saints Who Battled Satan (TAN Books), Thigpen illustrates how certain spiritual “weapons” were effective in the lives of exemplary saints throughout the history of the Church.
“St. Paul says that ‘the weapons of our warfare are not worldly, but have divine power to destroy strongholds’ (2 Corinthians 10:4),” Thigpen wrote. “Our ultimate arsenal must be spiritual, and it’s available to every Catholic: prayer and fasting, worship and Eucharistic adoration, Scripture, the sacraments and sacramentals. Certainly in the present crisis, if we neglect [these] weapons, the Enemy of our souls will find ways to weaken and defeat us.”
Faithful clergy are employing these weapons, too, joining the laity in the effort to grow in personal holiness, fight spiritual battles and renew the Church. The friars of the Dominican Province of St. Joseph pray Psalm 52 together weekly in reparation for the sins of clergy. “Many of us together and individually are also setting aside days for fasting and prayer not only in reparation, but in prayer for the Church’s renewal,” Father Thomas Petri, dean of the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C, told the Register.
Father Petri believes that a recipe for sanctity amid crisis involves “cooperat[ing] with the graces that God gives us even though we are sinners.”
“God is the agent of holiness, yet we often resist the inspirations he sends us — inspirations to love, to forgive, to pray,” Father Petri pointed out. “I think we can all be encouraged to follow those inspirations more each day. The saints are people who have done this even when they were often suffering in the Church. Their trust in God never wavered in spite of the struggles.”
A Time for Heroes
Edward Sri, host of the All Things Catholic podcast and author of Into His Likeness: Be Transformed as a Disciple of Christ (Ignatius Press), was taking a walk with his wife, Beth, and talking about the challenges the Church is facing currently when Beth said, “You know what? Now is the time for heroes.”
“It got right to the heart of what we were discussing,” Sri told the Register. “God always gives the Church heroes in times of crisis and confusion. He gave us St. Athanasius during the Arian heresy; St. Thomas More during Henry VIII’s separation from Rome; St. Catherine of Siena during the Avignon papacy; and St. John Paul II under communist-[run] Poland. Certain men and women pierce through the darkness with their clarity and courage.”
The question that Sri asks during the current challenge in the Church is: “Who will be remembered 500 years from now as having had the wisdom and fortitude to help us through our own troubled times?”
Sri emphasizes the impact that personal holiness has on the Church in hard times. “We may not have committed any of these horrendous crimes. But when any part of the Body suffers, we all suffer,” he stressed. “Similarly, when love grows in one part of the body, it benefits the other parts. So by growing in my personal holiness and by offering prayer, fasting and almsgiving, we can ask the Lord to comfort, heal and strengthen the parts of the Body that need his mercy most.”
Thigpen agrees that God can bring great good out of adversity, offering Romans 8:28 as hope. As he told the Register: “‘We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.’ The crisis can help us clarify the Gospel truths that we must know and live by. It can press us to choose between truth and falsehood, right and wrong, integrity and compromise. If we make the right choice, we will become more holy.”
On All Saints’ Day, Catholics celebrate the heroism of sanctity, the beauty and transformative nature of personal holiness. We remember that God chooses ordinary men and women to shine light into darkness and to become beacons of holiness in both good and troubled times.
“Saints are the true path to reform. They are all the true heroes,” emphasized Sri. “Let us pray for God to send us those heroic saints now.”
Katie Warner writes from Georgia.
Her website is KatieWarner.com.