For the past 20 years, Dr. Matthew E. Bunson has been active in the area of Catholic social communications and education, including writing, editing, and teaching on a variety of topics related to Church history, the papacy, the saints and Catholic culture. He is faculty chair at Catholic Distance University, a senior fellow of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, and the author or co-author of over 50 books including: The Encyclopedia of Catholic History, The Pope Encyclopedia, We Have a Pope! Benedict XVI, The Saints Encyclopedia and best-selling biographies of St. Damien of Molokai and St. Kateri Tekakwitha.
The month of August boasts several important days on the Church's Calendar, including the Transfiguration of Our Lord and the Assumption. It is also a month filled with feast days of some great saints, such as Dominic (August 8), Stephen, King of Hungary (August 16), Bernard of Clairvaux (August 20) and King Louis IX of France (August 25).
But for those who take the time to study the Calendar even more closely each month, there are some interesting details that can deepen our appreciation of both the saints and the faith that they loved and for which so many gave their lives. August, for example, has an interesting harmonizing of feast days for six saints. The synchronizing of the feasts creates three pairs of saints who deserve our attention because of their intriguing relationships to each other and also their relevance to today.
Two Great Saints of Penance
Start, for example with the first few days of August. Two great saints – St. Alphonsus Liguori (August 1) and St. John Vianney (August 4) – are only a few days apart and yet they are also closely connected by the esteem we hold for them as giants in the moral life and as models of zeal in bringing Catholics to the sacrament of confession. A Doctor of the Church and founder of the Redemptorists, Alphonsus earned a doctorate of law at the age of sixteen. In 1723, however, he lost a very important case and abandoned a career in law for the priesthood. In 1745, he wrote his first devotional works and in 1748 published the first edition of his guide to moral theology. Alphonsus is ranked as one of the greatest moral theologians in the history of the Church, and he sought to reverse the dangerous trend of the period toward excessive rigorism that had been promoted by the Jansenists and that often discouraged Catholics from repentance because of its harshness. In 1950, Pope Pius XII declared him the patron of confessors and moral theologians.
Jean-Batiste Marie Vianney, the Curé d'Ars, is also honored as one of the foremost of confessors and the patron saint of parish priests. The son of farmers near Lyons, France, he struggled for years through the terrible wars of Napoleon Bonaparte that prevented his entry into the seminary. When he was finally able to study for the priesthood, his progress was much hindered by his total inability to learn Latin. At last ordained because of his goodness, he was sent to the village of Ars-en-Dombes, where his superiors assumed he would do no harm. People soon flocked to the village for confession, his counsel and his preaching. In time, he spent up to eighteen hours a day in the confessional. Like Alphonsus who was eventually forced out of the very congregation he had founded, Vianney earned the jealousy of some fellow priests who complained to their bishop that he was insane or mentally unstable. The bishop famously replied that he wished all his priests suffered from the same insanity. The Curé of Ars died while listening to a repentant sinner.
At a time when the world is trying very hard to forget the reality of sin and its terrible effects upon our lives and souls, Alphonsus and the Curé of Ars tell us that the moral life is attainable, that we can recognize and turn away from sin and that the sacrament of penance, God’s loving mercy, is there for us, no matter how long we have been away.
Saints of the Concentration Camp
On August 9 and 14 respectively, we honor two saints who were victims of the Nazi horror and who are both in their own ways saints for the modern age: St. Edith Stein and St. Maximilian Kolbe. St. Edith, known also as Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross was a Carmelite nun, convert, philosopher and spiritual writer. Born into a Jewish family, she made the long and dark journey of abandoning Judaism for atheism and then finding her way through philosophy to Catholicism. She was brought there by the philosophy of phenomenology, Thomism and reading the autobiography of St. Teresa of Ávila. She entered the Carmelites in 1934 and was smuggled out of Germany into the Netherlands in 1938 to escape the Nazis. In 1942, however, with Germany occupying Western Europe, she was arrested with her sister Rosa (also a convert) as a part of the Nazi decree to against all non-Aryan Catholics. She died in a gas chamber that same August. Pope St. John Paul II canonized her in 1998 and the next year named her a co-patroness of Europe, with St. Bridget of Sweden and St. Catherine of Siena.
St. Maximilian was a Franciscan priest, theologian and martyr. A native of Poland, he entered the Franciscan Conventuals in 1907, he studied in Rome and was ordained a priest in 1918. Like St. Edith, he possessed a remarkable intellect and was a gifted mathematician and scientist, as well as a journalist. He earned the hatred of the Nazis for his writings, and when Poland fell in September of 1939, Kolbe was arrested several times and was eventually sent to Auschwitz. As prisoner 16670, he was tortured by the SS guards because he was a Catholic priest, but he never stopped helping his fellow prisoners. He died on August 14, 1941 by volunteering to take the place of Franciszek Gajowniczek, a onetime sergeant in the Polish army who was married and had been sentenced to death.
Both St. Edith and St. Maximilian grappled with the crises of modernity. Edith journeyed through atheism and doubt to the faith while Maximilian fought the terrible atheist ideology of National Socialism with prayer and all the means of social communication at our disposal. Both understood the importance of suffering and of love. St. Edith once taught, “We cannot separate love for God from love for man. We acknowledge God easily, but our brother?” And Maximilian once said, “The most deadly poison of our times is indifference. And this happens, although the praise of God should know no limits.”
A Holy Mother and Her Prodigal Son
August comes to an end with two back-to-back feast days for St. Monica (August 27) and her son St. Augustine (August 28). For many long and tear-filled years, Monica prayed that her brilliant but wayward son would come to his senses and repent of his dissolute life that was wasting his towering intellect. She never stopped praying and hoping, remembering the words of the bishop of Tagaste to whom she had told her seemingly hopeless troubles, “It is impossible that the son of so many tears will be lost.” And in the end, her prayers were answered, although it took another saint and Doctor of the Church to play a key role. Her son’s final conversion came under the influence of St. Ambrose of Milan, and she was there to witness his baptism at Ambrose’s hand. She died in Ostia, near Rome, on August 27, 387, while trying to return to her native Africa with Augustine.
Augustine, of course, is considered the greatest of the Fathers of the Western Church who exercised an enormous influence on the formation of Christian theology and Western civilization. None of that would have happened had his mother given up on him.
The journey of Augustine is worth studying for any young person struggling with the glamor of the modern world and its distractions for the soul. Monica is also especially a patron saint for any parents who have spent sleepless nights in tears that their children have left the faith. Both Augustine and his mother are saints for the modern family. As Pope Benedict XVI taught in August 2009:
Monica never ceased to pray for him and for his conversion and she had the consolation of seeing him return to the faith and receive Baptism. God heard the prayers of this holy mother…His last spiritual conversations with his mother in the tranquility of a house at Ostia, while they were waiting to embark for Africa, are moving and edifying. By then St Monica had become for this son of hers, “more than a mother, the source of his Christianity.” For years her one desire had been the conversion of Augustine, whom she then saw actually turning to a life of consecration at the service of God…St Augustine used to say that his mother had “conceived him twice.”
September will bring its own surprises on the Calendar. Stay tuned!