Watching Bishop Robert Barron’s new series Catholicism: The Pivotal Players which focuses on the Saints can be an antidote to the poison that is sometimes in our culture. The wise people at a local parish, St. Ann’s in Flushing, Queens, had the stroke of genius to show it recently.
I and many of the other viewers were mesmerized as we watched the eloquent presentation and stunning photography. I recalled St. John Vianney’s words “In admiring the virtues of the saints, we are only admiring the different virtues of Jesus Christ.”
The Saints and the remarkable people in this series, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Catherine of Siena, Michelangelo, Bl. John Henry Newman and G.K. Chesterton are fine role models we can aspire to, to counter the vitriol and acid that our culture these days calls “news” and “discussion.”
One of the Saints: The Jolly Warrior
My favorite of the pivotal players is Chesterton, the jolly warrior who loved debating—in print or in person. The prodigious British author debated atheist and socialist George Bernard Shaw many times. Their disagreements were liberally infused with rollicking good humor and deep respect for each other. Afterwards, they went to a pub together for dinner and camaraderie, probably carrying on their discussion for hours. Something you won’t see much of today. Chesterton also was a convert, and when Shaw learned of this he dryly quipped, “Now, Chesterton, you have taken this too far.”
Chesterton said of his conversion, “There are ten thousand reasons why I converted to the Catholic Church, but the main one is because it’s true.
All these figures dealt with disorder in their society, and in the Catholic Church, that was somewhat similar to our own time. Secularism, superficiality, materialism, hedonism, the much too often elevation of man over God. All had vitally different ways to restore mankind and the Church. Each of us has our own unique way to express God’s will on earth. We are each called to be saints.
“The only real sadness, the only real failure, the only great tragedy in life, is not to become a saint,” said Léon Bloy.
“Why? Because to be anything less than holy is to remain unactualized.” –Matt Fradd.
St. Francis: When the World was Disordered, He Reformed Himself
Francis transformed his worldly ways and wild partying lifestyle, when he heard the Lord speaking to him to “rebuild my Church.” He started to rebuild it physically, with stones collected from the villagers. He saw that some of the clergy had gotten worldly and decadent and needed reform, but he didn’t deal with them—he reformed himself! A vital lesson we can learn today. G. K. Chesterton says that “every generation is converted by the saint that contradicts it the most.” This was Francis. At a time of materialism and hedonism, he took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. “He devoured fasting as a man devours food,” wrote Chesterton. “He plunged after poverty as men have dug madly for gold.”
He constantly humbled himself, placing the needs of others before his own. He never even became a priest—he thought he was unworthy of that noble vocation.
His Purpose: To Put Us on the Road to Christ
St. Thomas Aquinas devoted himself to writing. His monumental Summa Theologica was a detailed explanation of theology, and he refuted all the arguments of the heretics and non-believers. Bishop Barron said that “the purpose of all of his writing was to put us on the road to Christ.” Let’s ask ourselves if the purpose of some of our endeavors is to put others on the road to Christ. If not, why not?
Christ is waiting on that road for each and every one of us with open arms, like the father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11–32).
This Illiterate Woman Demanded to See the Pope
St. Catherine dedicated her life to Christ while still a child. She vowed to never marry. She had mystical experiences with her beloved Jesus. One of her prayers was “Jesus, let me talk to you and Mary and the saints as casually as I talk to friends.” She spent her life helping the poor and the sick, and when the Pope had moved from Rome to the more luxurious setting (at the time) of Avignon, France, she knew that it was wrong. She went there and demanded to see his Holiness. Now she was a poor woman who couldn’t read or write—she wasn’t even a nun, she was a Third Order Lay Dominican—but because of her stature as a holy woman of the city, he gave her an audience. He listened…and he obeyed! This illiterate woman would become a doctor of the Church, dictating her prayers and reflections to others.
Do we talk to Jesus and Mary and the saints as casually as to our friends? We could—they are our friends.
He Responded to a Secular Time with Beauty
Michelangelo would convert countless people with beauty. His frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and his breath-taking sculptures The Pieta, and David, and Moses are probably converting people at this moment.
“Beauty is not the icing on the cake; it is one of the 3 layers of the cake. It is the child of the marriage of truth and goodness. It is ‘the splendor of truth’ (to quote John Paul the Great’s great title) that attracts us to truth, and it is the ‘beauty of holiness’ (Psalm 29:2) that attracts us to holiness. Beauty is one of the things God is. It is ‘the glory of the Lord’ (to use von Balthasar’s title), the ‘divine Beauty ever ancient yet ever new’ that won Augustine’s restless heart. Beauty is a magnet and our souls are iron filings, and when we sense beauty we speed home.”
~~Peter Kreeft, Jesus Shock
All of his works have deep theological meaning. For example, in his fresco of God extending his finger to Adam (the most famous painting in the world) I was astounded to find out that God’s other arm is around a woman (Eve), and the index finger of that hand is pointing to, and touching, a child. That child is Jesus—the New Adam, the one who obeyed God rather than disobeyed. I was also enlightened to know that in The Pieta, Mary’s left hand is reaching out in a gesture of offering—offering her son as reparation for the sins of the world. Her right hand is cradled under his head, but she is not touching his holy body directly; it is separated by a cloth, perhaps an obeisance to that very holiness.
He Gave up Status, Career, and Peace of Mind for the Church
Bl. John Henry Newman was a renowned Anglican priest, with great respect as a spokesman. He taught at Oxford, and his lectures and sermons were highly prized, but he had a voracious appetite for the truth, no matter what. His search led him to the Church Fathers, and after studying and pondering them, he came to the realization that the Catholic Church was the one Christ founded. “To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant,” he said. He also realized that in disputes on matters of faith and morals there had to be a final authority on earth—the Pope. Otherwise, each priest or preacher would be his own authority which would lead to the confusion that he found in the Protestant churches.
He gave up his fame, his position at Oxford (at the time, Catholics could not teach there) and he converted and became a Catholic priest. His elegant writings are still studied today and are prescient. Many of his ideas are in Vatican II. He also wrote on the idea of a university. He said that religion should be at the center of studies, theology the pivotal subject. Today God is hardly mentioned in many colleges, and the dominant majors are science and economics. While these are noble professions, to omit theology and philosophy leaves our students open to secularism and relativity.
My own conversion ten years ago was ignited by my lifelong search for truth. I was vitriolically anti-Catholic at the time, but then I saw Johnnette Benkovic the host of Women of Grace on EWTN talking about something, I can’t remember what, but she said it so eloquently, and with such conviction, and she referenced it with either a Bible quote, or a quote from a saint, I just thought, “That sounds true.” I was intrigued, and to paraphrase Augustine, “I hungered for more.”
My hope is that some of these Pivotal Players will “put someone on the road to Christ.” Because he is breathlessly waiting, yearning for our return, like the father in the Parable.
“My son was lost, but now he is found.”