Most of the years the saints walked the earth were much like our own: hidden, spent in quiet, ordinary duties of serving others and working. Jesus himself spent most of his earthly life — the first 30 years — working alongside St. Joseph as a carpenter before his three greatest years of ministry and mission of salvation.
The majority of our lives are spent in humble service through our daily duties. Why are these years so important in our spiritual formation? How have some used these mundane experiences to become saints? They looked beyond the everyday toil toward eternity.
Calling her a “model for all mothers,” Pope John Paul II canonized Gianna Beretta Molla in 2004. In 1962, the 39-year-old Italian wife, mother and physician gave her life to save the life of her unborn fourth child, refusing to have a hysterectomy to ensure her own survival due to a uterine tumor.
“By holding up this woman as an exemplar of Christian perfection, we would like to extol all those high-spirited mothers of families who give themselves completely to their family, who suffer in giving birth, who are prepared for every labor and every kind of sacrifice, so that the best they have can be given to others,” said Pope John Paul II at the saint’s beatification in 1994.
St. Gianna’s life was one of heroic virtue, rooted in faith, love and service to God. Her writings show the depth of her spirituality, which was lived out in her vocation as wife and mother, as well as in her work as a pediatrician. She is an example of holiness and virtue, showing how an ordinary life can be extraordinary when one lives out God’s will.
“Jesus, I promise you to submit myself to all that you permit to befall me. Make me only know your will,” the saint wrote.
St. Francis de Sales encouraged spiritual growth in souls but warned of the temptation of discouragement from failings and shortcomings along the path toward holiness.
“Be patient with everyone, but, above all, with yourself,” he wrote, as noted in Golden Counsels of Saint Francis de Sales. “I mean, do not be disturbed because of your imperfections; always rise bravely from a fall. ... There is no better means of progress in the spiritual life than to be continually beginning afresh and never to think we have done enough.”
Perhaps the simplest advice he has to offer, though, is to: “Live joyfully!”
On Feb. 11, 1858, at the age of 14, Bernadette Soubirous had the extraordinary privilege of seeing the Blessed Mother in Lourdes, France. Following that first apparition while gathering firewood, “the Lady” would appear to her 17 subsequent times that year. From that time of great grace, as well as through persecution by the authorities, townspeople and her family, Bernadette went on to the next, longer and final chapter of her life as a sister of Nevers, never speaking again of the apparitions, as instructed by her superiors. She took the name Sister Marie-Bernard and served as a nurse in the infirmary for 15 years, quietly caring for others while she herself suffered from tuberculosis. She did so until her death on April 16, 1879, at the age of 35. Today, we know her as St. Bernadette of Lourdes.
St. Catherine Labouré, to whom Our Lady appeared at the Sisters of Charity convent at Rue de Bac in Paris in 1830, was unknown as a visionary to her fellow sisters in the convent (except to her spiritual director and her superior). After she received the personal instruction from Mary to produce and promote the miraculous medal, she spent the next 46 years of her life taking care of the aged, sick and dying. Only on her deathbed in 1877 did she reveal to her sisters the three visions she had seen.
In his 1981 papal encyclical Laborem Exercens (On Human Work), Pope John Paul II explained that work is our sanctification; it is redemptive in nature.
“The Christian finds in human work a small part of the cross of Christ and accepts it in the spirit of redemption in which Christ accepted his cross for us,” he stated.
The sanctification of ordinary work was the cornerstone upon which St. Josemaría Escrivá founded Opus Dei, an apostolate dedicated to spreading the message that work and the circumstances of ordinary life are occasions for growing closer to God, serving others and improving society.
“For the ordinary life of a man among his fellows is not something dull and uninteresting,” preached the saint in a homily recorded in his book Christ Is Passing By. “It is there that the Lord wants the vast majority of his children to achieve sanctity.”
“Either we learn to find Our Lord in ordinary, everyday life, or else we shall never find him,” St. Josemaría said in a homily entitled “Passionately Loving the World,” which is included in In Love With the Church, a book of his homilies.
John Coverdale, a Seton Hall University law professor and author of Uncommon Faith, which chronicles the early years of Opus Dei from 1928-1943, spent eight years in Rome working as a lawyer; while there, he frequently interacted with St. Josemaría. The saint made a lasting impression on Coverdale.
“I think what I learned the most was the importance of really caring about the actual people that are around you,” Coverdale recalled. “I remember his warmth. He was genuinely happy to see me. Probably he was that way with anyone who knew him.”
“St. Josemaría talked about the virtue of sincerity, sincerity with ourselves, with God and with other people,” said Coverdale. “He insisted on doing things well because we offer them to God. He was insistent on little things, like closing the door so it didn’t slam.”
Lisa Hendey, creator of CatholicMom.com and author of Book of Saints for Catholic Moms: 52 Companions for Your Heart, Mind, Body and Soul (Ave Maria Press, 2011), said that two things stood out to her about the saints’ daily lives.
“They are our prayer intercessors when we are overwhelmed by life and we need spiritual support. Another important aspect is the role models they provide,” Hendey said. “They were ordinary men and women who lived lives like us, overcame challenges and lived sanctity. They went before us and provide an example — that is a reason to study their stories.”
These examples are important for Catholics on their faith journeys.
“The saints are a living version of Jesus’ parables,” said Father Jonathan Morris, parochial vicar of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral in New York City and a Fox News analyst. “In the grittiness of their lives, they illustrate what life is all about and how we can become the happy and holy people God created us to be.”
Lisa Socarras writes from Annandale, Virginia.