Each issue carries an imprimatur from
the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Reprinting prohibited
Saints of the
Who is a saint? One third-grader offered this response that I transposed into a poem:
A third-grader got it right.
“A saint is someone that
the light shines through.”
She was looking at a stained-
the one St. Francis inhabits.
Every morning the light comes
and St. Francis lets it pass through.
Saints are bearers of light
Just ask any third-grader.
Three saints of the 20th
century were special bearers of
God’s light, love and life: Katharine Drexel,
Maximilian Kolbe and Faustina. They,
as all saints, received God’s grace and
transmitted that life to those they met.
Sainthood is as “simple” as that: receiving
and sharing God’s incredible love, light
and life. Pope Paul VI maintained that
the two great needs for the Church and
the world are mentors and models,
teachers and witnesses. Saints teach us
by sharing their wisdom; saints guide
us by living the gospel in heroic ways.
Through Baptism, all of us are called to
be mentors and models for others.
In her book Saint-Watching, Phyllis
McGinley wrote: “When I was seven
years old I wanted to be a tight-rope
dancer and broke my collar bone practicing
on a child’s-size high wire. At twelve
I planned to become an international
spy. At fifteen my ambition was the
stage. Now in my sensible or declining
years I would give anything (except my
comforts, my customs, and my sins) to
be a saint.”
What Katharine Drexel wanted to
be at age seven or 12, we
do not know. But that she
eventually wanted to be a
saint, of that we can be
assured. Her life was one
of generosity and service,
of commitment and love.
It was a life rooted in Jesus,
especially in devotion to the
Blessed Sacrament. It was
a life that bore abundant
fruits because of her spirit
of tremendous sacrifice.
Minding the margins
Katharine Drexel’s ambition
was not for the stage but for
helping two groups of people
who were marginalized
from our culture: Native
Americans and blacks.
The daughter of a
wealthy Philadelphia banker
who had left her and her
siblings an inheritance in
the millions, Katharine used her portion
to establish Xavier University, the first
Catholic college for blacks, in New
Orleans. Her assistance to Native Americans
resulted in 145 Catholic missions and
12 schools. Over the years, $12 million
from the Drexel estate went to this
This 20th-century saint, who was
canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2000,
is a model for our 21st century. Just as
St. Katharine responded to the diversity in
the culture of her day, we are challenged
today to reach out to the immigrants and refugees looking for a home. So many of
the residents in our country are on the
margins, struggling to find work and
shelter and safety. So many of those who
live in our culture face discrimination
and intolerance. And we need not only
individuals and communities, like St.
Katharine and the community she founded,
the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. We
also need to change systems that deny
people basic human rights.
Giving up much to do more
The ministry to the Native Americans
and blacks that Katharine Drexel began
must continue to be a major concern
as we respond to the call for a “new
evangelization.” In our day, the Good
News of God’s love and mercy in Jesus
needs dedicated witnesses—individuals
as committed as the heiress who gave
away her wealth, her energy, her very
life. In 1878, when Katharine Drexel
asked Pope Leo XIII to assist her work
with Native Americans, the pope told
her to become a missionary herself.
And she did!
Two virtues are evident in the life
of Katharine Drexel, as they are in the
lives of all saints. One is obedience,
that graced listening to God’s will. The
second is self-giving, that costly sacrifice
of one’s life for others. These virtues
characterize the life of a eucharistic
person, one who through the Liturgy
of the Word hears God’s call, and
through the Offertory, Consecration and
Communion of the Mass, participates
in the self-giving of Jesus. St. Katharine
was such a eucharistic person.
Phyllis McGinley thought about being
a tight-rope dancer, an international spy,
an actress. Katharine Drexel probably had
her daydreams and fantasies growing up,
but in the end she gave up her comforts,
her customs and her sins to be a disciple
of Jesus. She said yes to what God asked
of her. That’s “all” a saint has to do.
St. Maximilian Kolbe (1894-1941)
Even in the darkest of times, God’s
light keeps breaking forth. In the
darkness of the Second World War, a time of incredible suffering and human
anguish, a light broke forth through a
Franciscan priest named Maximilian
Kolbe. He gave his life so that another
man might be spared and eventually
return to his wife and children.
The story is poignant. Ten prisoners
in the concentration camp in Auschwitz
were chosen at random to die because
a fellow prisoner had escaped. One of
the 10, Francis Gajowniczek, was a
husband and parent. When Father
Kolbe heard of the man’s plight, he
volunteered to take Gajowniczek’s place.
Eventually, all 10 individuals died,
Father Kolbe and three others by means
of lethal injections. The date was
August 14, 1941.
This bare outline says something of
the heroic charity and graced courage
of Maximilian Kolbe. We must pause
to ponder how similar Kolbe’s love is to
that of Jesus. Both gave their very lives
for another; both made manifest the
fortitude that says that faith is stronger
than death. Saints are individuals who
are willing to sacrifice all; saints are
individuals who do not allow fear to
govern their destiny.
Model of selfless love
Maximilian Kolbe was born in Poland
in 1894. He became a Franciscan at
age 16. Early on, he knew sickness
(tuberculosis) and the meaning of
suffering. His devotion to Mary was
strong and traditional. His zeal drew
many others into an appreciation of
the role of Mary in the Christian story.
Surely it was Mary’s obedience to
God’s word and her giving of self that
prepared Kolbe to eventually follow
her example. Maximilian was obedient
and self-giving, the essence of discipleship
In 1982, Pope John Paul II canonized
his fellow Pole in Rome. Francis
Gajowniczek, the husband and father
for whom Father Kolbe gave his life,
was present at the ceremony. Forty-one
years after the supreme act of love and
courage was made, a saint/martyr was
Sharing the light
In his classic work, The Varieties of
Religious Experience: A Study of Human
Nature, William James captures so much
of what sainthood is all about:
The saints, with their extravagance of
human tenderness, are the great torchbearers
of this belief [the sacredness of
every individual], the tip of the wedge,
the clearers of the darkness. Like the single
drops which sparkle in the sun they
are flung far ahead of the advancing edge
of a wave-crest or of a flood, they show
the way and are forerunners. The world is
not yet with them, so they often seem in
the midst of the world’s affairs to be preposterous.
Yet they are impregnators of
the world, vivifiers and animators of
potentialities of goodness which but for
them would lie forever dormant. It is not
possible to be quite as mean as we naturally
are, when they have passed before
us. One fire kindles another; and without
that overtrust in human worth which
they show, the rest of us would lie in
St. Maximilian Kolbe, priest and martyr, is a “clearer of darkness” and a
bearer of God’s love. Although few of us will ever be in circumstances similar to those that Father Maximilian had to face, all of us are called to bear God’s love and be agents of God’s light. Our vocation is
essentially the same: to be recipients and
transmitters of grace. St. Maximilian did
this in a heroic way; we will be asked to
do this in more humble circumstances.
But in the end it is all for the glory of
God and the salvation of the world.
St. Maria Faustina Kowalska (1905-1938)
On April 30, 2000, Pope John
Paul II canonized Maria
Faustina Kowalska, a Polish
nun and mystic. Seven years earlier,
Faustina had been beatified and
recognized as a woman outstanding
in holiness and for her dedication to God’s mercy revealed in Jesus. Although
she died at age 33, her influence has
One of the influences has been the
publication of her diary, Divine Mercy
in My Soul: The Diary of St. Faustina.
In this diary, she records her inner
experiences of Jesus and of the Blessed
Virgin Mary. For some time the diary
was misinterpreted and even questioned
for its orthodoxy. But when Pope John
Paul II came upon the scene, Faustina
was vindicated, and her writings were
presented as worthy of study and
Speaking of God’s mercy
Another influence of St. Faustina is
liturgical. The Second Sunday of Easter
has been designated as Divine Mercy
Sunday. Now the universal Church has
been asked to ponder the mystery of
our merciful God. How fitting that
this celebration is given to our world.
In Secularity and the Gospel: Being
Missionaries to Our Children, Father
Ronald Rolheiser writes: “In a world
and a culture that is full of wounds,
anger, injustice, inequality, historical
privilege, jealousy, resentment, bitterness,
murder, and war, we must speak always
and everywhere about forgiveness,
reconciliation, and God’s healing.”
Indeed, of God’s mercy!
The third of 10 Kowalska children,
Maria Faustina experienced wounds,
jealousy, resentment and much more:
Her parents tried to prevent her from
entering religious life; as a religious, she
was often ridiculed and laughed at for
her claim of seeing Christ; she was not of
robust health and contracted tuberculosis,
which led to her early death. In other
words, Faustina participated in the
sufferings of Christ and understood
from the inside the transforming power
of love and mercy.
Confidence in God’s goodness
It is interesting that another religious
and mystic, St. Thèrése of Lisieux (1873-1897), now a Doctor of the Church,
would also write a “diary,” The Story of
a Soul, in which she would say that her
God was a God of Love and Mercy.
Again and again, we find the great saints
confirming one another’s experience
and driving home the point that our
God is total self-gift.
And just as St. Thèrése, the Little
Flower, claimed that her mission of doing
good on earth would continue in heaven,
so St. Faustina would write: “I feel certain
that my mission will not come to an
end upon my death, but will begin. O
doubting souls, I will draw aside for you
the veils of heaven to convince you of
God’s goodness” (Diary, 281).
Another Doctor of the Church,
St. Bernard, wrote: “The prophet does
not exempt himself from the general
wretchedness, lest he be left out of the
mercy too.” Maria Faustina Kowalska
was keenly aware of her own unworthiness,
but she was even more keenly aware
of God’s mercy. She was open to this
grace and devoted herself to helping
others experience God’s merciful love.
Our 21st century is in special need
of the grace of mercy. We are a blaming
society, seeking again and again to assign
guilt and responsibility in an undue
fashion. True, we are free and responsible
to a large extent. But it is equally true that
we are weak and limited creatures, in need
of forgiveness and mercy. St. Faustina
knew this and will intercede for all of us
to be open to this grace.
Next: Women Who Knew Jesus
Bring God’s light, love and life to your corner of the world! Follow in the footsteps of...
St. Katharine Drexel, who responded to the diversity in her culture with generosity and a spirit of sacrifice. Initiate a conversation about diversity and prejudice within your community. Commit to action that promotes the dignity of all God’s children.
St. Maximilian Kolbe, who cleared the darkness of death and despair by sacrificing his life for another. What darkness can you help clear by your own acts of sacrifice?
St. Maria Faustina Kowalska, who was devoted to helping others experience God’s merciful love. Where are you being called to share God’s mercy and love? Who in your family most needs to experience the compassion, healing and freedom offered by God? What can you do to bring this about?
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