Kevin Di Camillo writes regularly for The National Catholic Register and is a Lecturer in English Literature at Niagara University. His latest book is Now Chiefly Poetical, and with Rev. Lawrence Boadt he edited John Paul II in the Holy Land: In His Own Words. His work has been anthologized in Wild Dreams: The Best of Italian-Americana, and he was awarded the Foley Poetry Prize from America Magazine. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame, he regularly attends Yale University’s School of Management Publishing Course.
It’s not easy becoming a priest, deacon, or religious brother or sister. And remaining in a particular state or religious order is no given, either.
Numerous holy men have changed their religious orders or states of life on their paths to sanctity. I offer this representative sampling to reassure anyone going through a midlife shakeup that even saints have sometimes had to hit the “restart” button.
#1. Saint Anthony of Padua (1195-1231; feast day June 13)
A Doctor of the Church and the patron of lost things, he is always associated with the Franciscan Order and, as his name states, the Italian city of Padua. However, he was originally a native of Lisbon, Portugal and long before he was the glory of the Franciscan Order (and the first member of it to teach theology to his brethren), St. Anthony was an Augustinian Canon Regular. His reason for obtaining leave was to become a missionary—something that Canons Regular didn’t then embark upon. The Augustinian loss was certainly a Franciscan gain, and though St. Anthony never did become a missionary (even with the Franciscans) he did become one of the best-known and most-beloved saints in the long history of the Church.
#2. St. Romuald (951-1027, feast day June 19)
St. Romuald was born in Ravenna, an Italian city not only famous for its beautiful mosaic artwork, but its import as the bridge between East (Constantinople) and West (Rome). He joined the Benedictine Order at the Abbey of San Apollinare-in-Classe at the age of twenty, but Romuald seems to have had a hankering for a stricter interpretation of the Rule of Benedict so he traveled, not without adventure, to Venice, where he placed himself under an anchorite. This still did not quiet his desire for what was more and more a pure eremetical life, something simply not obtainable for a Benedictine according to their Rule (which is intended, for the most part, for Cenobites).
St. Romuald seems to have traveled about the Italian peninsula and at some point built five cells for hermits, which, with the monastery at Fontebuono, became the famous mother-house of the Camaldolese Order. In 1013 he retired to Monte-Sitria. However, in 1021 he was back on the road, this time to Bifolco. Five years later this “wandering-hermit” returned to Val-di-Castro where he died, as he had indeed prophesied, alone in his cell, at the age of 120 according to St. Peter Damian. In a sense he presaged the work of the great Carthusian founder, St. Bruno, who was born three years after St. Romuald’s death.
#3. St. Cajetan (1480-1547, feast day August 7)
Of noble Italian birth, Cajetan took degrees in Civil and Canon Law at Padua before becoming a Senator in his hometown of Vicenza. That didn’t last long: he went to Rome, where he was in short order made a Protonotary Apostolic (“Monsignor”), even though he’d not yet been ordained a priest!
Before returning to Vicenza, Cajetan re-founded the “Confraternity of Divine Love” in Rome, which consisted of clerics (he’d since been ordained) whose dearest concern was the welfare of souls.
Back in Vicenza, Cajetan joined the Oratory of St. Jerome whose main concern was the poor, the sick, and the dying. He founded a similar Oratory at Verona before endowing a hospital in Venice.
But it was at Rome that St. Cajetan, with the input of John Peter Caraffa (the future Pope Paul VI), came up with the concept for the Congregation of Clerics Regular of the Divine Providence — or “Theatines” as they came to be known. Their aim was to restore to the clergy the initial ardor of the first apostles.
The Theatines spread throughout Italy thanks to St. Cajetan’s tireless travelling and spreading of the Gospel.
#4. St. John Eudes (1601-1680, feast day August 19)
“God writes straight with crooked lines”: Perhaps never has this phrase been more true than with St. John Eudes. Though he studied under the Jesuits at Caen in France, he first intended to join the diocesan clergy and not the Society of Jesus. However, he instead became a member of the still-new (founded in 1611) Congregation of the Oratory of France and remained with them until 1643. It was at this time that St. John Eudes founded the Congregation of Jesus and Mary, which, while modeled on the Oratorians, devoted itself to reclaiming women who had once lived as prostitutes but who wanted to reform their lives. This was ultimately done by the Refuge Sisters (at first the work had been handled by the Visitandine sisters of Caen), who see St. John Eudes as their founder.
While St. John Eudes had founded a couple of seminaries (at Lisieux and Rouen, in 1653 and 1659, respectively) he had trouble obtaining papal approval, so great was the blowback not only from the Jansenist heretics who were ravaging France, but also his own former confreres in the Oratorians. However, formal approbation did eventually come and the Congregation of Jesus and Mary (and Our Lady of Charity of the Refuge) are with us to this day.
#5. St. Peter Julian Eymard (1811-1886, feast day August 1)
St. Peter Julian was first ordained as a secular priest in Diocese of Grenoble, France. Six years later he left the diocesan life and joined the Marists. In 1856 he obtained leave from the Marists to found the Congregation of Priests of the Blessed Sacrament, and later the Servants of the Blessed Sacrament (a congregation of women religious). Though it is never easy to found a new religious order (especially in pre-Revolutionary France), St. Peter had a particularly bad time of it according to Alban Butler, who tells us that “the adverse criticism he was subjected to at the congregation’s very inception, because he had left the Society of Mary, and detractors of the work were not wanting when it was started.” In fact, St. Peter did not live long enough to see final official ecclesiastical approbation for his new community dedicated to love of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament—that followed nine years after his death. And his own canonization did not come about until the opening session of the Second Vatican Council in 1962.
#6. St. John Nepomucene Neumann (1811-1860, feast day January 5)
Born in Bohemia, St. John was a bit of a theological and philosophical savant and showed signs of such during his studies in Budweis, the diocesan seminary, and the Ferdinand University of Prague. However, in “one of those good problems to have” there were actually too many priests in his home diocese, so St. John, instead of retreating to an academic ivory tower, decided to brave the North Atlantic and become a missionary to America in 1835.
Much of his work was done in New York State — he was ordained a priest in New York City — especially Niagara Falls and Buffalo, where he is still revered as a local patron. After four years toiling in the blizzard conditions native to Western New York he joined the Redemptorists and was briefly in charge of the American vice province of that order. Though he’d been groomed for the priesthood in Bohemia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, ordained in the New World, was a missionary to the Niagara frontier, and then a member of the Redemptorists, for the last eight years of St. John’s life he served as the Bishop of Philadelphia, where he died suddenly and alone (like St. Romuald) on a street.
#7. Servant of God Isaac Thomas Hecker (1819-1888)
A convert to Catholicism (at the age of 25), this New York native was part of the “Brook Farm Movement”, a sort of Unitarian-Utopian experiment that didn’t take. After his conversion and ordination (in London), Fr. Hecker joined the Redemptorists.
However, Fr. Hecker was expelled from the Redemptorists—an expulsion he took before Pope Pius IX, who dispensed him from that congregation—so that he and four former Redemptorists could found the Paulists (formally known as the Missionary Society of Saint Paul the Apostle).
Fr. Hecker could never be accused of being “low energy”. Not only did he burn with the zeal of the convert, and of proving the Redemptorists wrong in wanting to expel him, he also saw the very real need for American-born missionaries in America. (Today, this seems like plain common sense but at the time it was a concept that kept getting Fr. Hecker into hot water with ecclesiastical authorities.)
Fr. Hecker’s efforts at evangelization would finally take physical form (after his death) with Paulist Press, at one time the largest Catholic publisher in America, as well as “Paulist Centers” located throughout the United States and Canada.
Though reduced to just about 100 members now, Fr. Hecker was (and is) an important bridge between post-Civil War American Catholicism and the waves of Catholic immigrants who were soon to follow.