LEFT TO RIGHT: Francisco de Goya, “San Luis Gonzaga”, c. 1798; Guercino, “Saint Philip Neri”, 1656; José Salomé Pina, “Charles Borromeo Handing out Alms to the People”, 1853.
These are three saints who uniquely knew how to inspire holiness in others
By Shaun McAfee, National Catholic Register, 3/16/18
If you’ve ever read about the lives of more than one saint you probably picked up on a few things. You realized their lives contained several common experiences: they accepted suffering, they strived for holiness, they deeply loved Christ, and much more. But you also realized that they were each so diverse. From their age to their works to their personal philosophies, their idiosyncrasies set them apart from one another. This individualism is highly attractive as we look for peculiarities to choose patron saints, but their sameness echoes the universality of the Communion of Saints.
I’ve recently studied the Counter-Reformation saints of the 16th century, and this concept of diversity complimenting similarity was the refrain of the period. Apprehending their varying strengths has been highly influential to me, and I’ve realized, daily, the many ways I can put that inspiration into my faith life. So I’ve applied five such saints to reflect on the final weeks of Lent, and hoping they might help you, the reader, decide how to spend the remaining few weeks.
St. Charles Borromeo
The first time I took a look at Borromeo’s saint card, I admit, I was assuming he was stern, unemotional and intimidating in person. But in fact, he was known by his peers and biographers to be jovial and kind, always reaching out to invite others to dialogue and friendship. But he was strict. He had a keen sense for reform and always knew the right actions to take as a leader. After all, he was chiefly in charge of carrying out the reforms of the Council of Trent. Strict and cheerful, he balanced his personality effectively. Each Lent, he would ensure the rarest and most ancient of relics were displayed in procession through the streets of Milan and Turin. In fact, it is though his influence that the Shroud of Christ remained in Turn after he convinced the princes of Burgundy to bring the relic for viewing after a devastating plague was finally gone from the region. I like to think that during Lent, Borromeo would want us all to have our faith and reflections lifted through the various relics available for our viewing and veneration.
St. Philip Neri
This saint is so unpredictable, and his peers and disciples knew him to be the same. You might very well know him to be the patron saint of humor, but did you know he is the official patron saint of Special Forces in the U.S. Army? Unpredictable. Stories survive of his attendance in Rome to councils with the pope and other high-ranking figures. He would show up with half his beard shaved. Unpredictable. He didn’t do this to be a clown, but for the dual purposed of increasing in personal humility, and also to bring a light-hearted mood anywhere he went. During Lent, while solemnness and reference are supreme, Neri wouldn’t want us to forget to endure our afflictions and penances with joy, even if it means enjoying a few good jokes or moments of unpredictability.
St. Aloysius Gonzaga
The kid whose dad was a marquis in the Spanish army almost killed himself when his toy gun blew up in his face after a misfire. His father, who had given him the toy pistol, was regretful of his decision and also for the carelessness of his child. Determined to regain his repute, the young Luigi snuck out in the middle of the night to set off the artillery, sending the whole army into a confusing panic. They assumed the enemy was in their camp, sabotaging their stockpile, only to find the little prince as the smoke cleared. Father was furious, but the soldiers were so stirred by the guts and courage of the child, that they talked out of any punishment. These would be among the final mistakes and disobedience the young saint ever committed to, eventually becoming known throughout the world as the holiest of persons, ever. He is still regarded as one of the purest saints to walk the earth. His secret? No secret. He was positively open about his practice of self-mortification. He remarked often that the only thing that helped him to any level of holiness was fasting and penances—and he was particularly committed to, as St. Paul says, “pounding” his flesh. Without hesitation, he would recommend for our Lenten journey to ensure fasting, penances, and mortification with guts and courage in order to suffer with Christ and gain holiness.
While there’s more than three approaches to observe and endure Lent to the benefit of our souls, these are three saints who uniquely knew how to inspire holiness in others, and their example and words command our discernment and prayer. I hope you have a productive final couple weeks of Lent.
For more on these saints and others who will help you deepen your faith and practice daily conversion, check out my new book Reform Yourself! How to Pray, Find Peace, and Grow in Faith with the Saints of the Counter-Reformation, available now at Catholic Answers Press.