When Pope Francis canonized child seers and siblings Francisco and Jacinta Marto May 13, the centenary of the first apparition of the Virgin Mary at Fatima, he added to a long list of children and young people who are at some point on the road of sainthood. Granted, the number of child saints is a small percentage of the 10,000 saints and blesseds recognized by the Church.
Still, at more than 400 souls, the number of known saintly children is substantial. This figure includes “Servants of God,” “Venerables,” “Blesseds” and saints. It encompasses both those who lived truly heroic lives and those counted as martyrs simply because their parents held them at the moment of martyrdom. According to an analysis by the Register using the most readily available sources, there are 429 children and youth — including teenagers — who can roughly be called sanctus, Latin for “holy,” from which we get our word “saint.” This list includes 210 Servants of God, 15 Venerables, 84 beati and 120 saints.
This does not include the Holy Innocents, because we can’t know how many children were in that group. It does include, however, the 110 children martyred during the French Revolution, who are all counted as Servants of God.
Roughly 40% of the saints are female. The sex of one beatified child is unknown because the infant underwent martyrdom (technically, death in odium fidei, that is, in hatred of the faith) inside its mother’s womb just days before the expected delivery, along with six siblings.
Indeed, were it not for martyrdom, we would have very few child saints. Of course, in the early Church, there were martyr saints such as Tarcisius, Agatha, Agnes and Faith. Even then, however, children accounted for just a few handfuls of saintly souls. And between 400-1499, the Church gained at most three child saints per century.
Starting in the 1500s, however, the number of child saints rose sharply, mostly due to martyrdom.
Of the eight saintly children who died in the 16th century, only St. Stanisław Kostka did not die a martyr. In the 1500s, we see the Americas’ first martyrs, three boys in Mexico, who will be canonized in October.
In 1597, the Church gained huge numbers of martyrs of all ages in Japan, where authorities executed up to 50 people in a day. Of the 46 children eligible for sainthood from the 17th century, all but three died in Japan. And of those three, one has never even had his beatification cause introduced. He is simply considered a saint in the Philippines.
The Japanese martyrdoms were particularly brutal. Like those in France nearly 200 years later, authorities would execute parents and the children in their arms. Some babies were just days old.
In the 1700s, there was only one potential young saint (not including the 110 French children). But starting with Korea in 1800, we see 27 martyrs among the 19th century’s 31 candidates. One of these came from Vietnam. Born into a Christian family in 1820, Thomas Thien Tran was accepted into Di-Loan, a Catholic college, after he graduated high school. Upon his arrival for classes, however, authorities arrested him and other indigenous Christians. A local official tried to persuade Thomas to apostatize by offering him worldly inducements. When Thomas refused, the man had him caned 40 times. Thomas mocked every blow. He said he was glad to shed blood for his Savior. The official then tried a different tactic. He had had more success with some of Thomas’ classmates, and they came to him with promises of great riches if he followed their example. The youth wouldn’t budge.
In the face of his intransigence, the official had Thomas beaten so badly that his skin was flayed. The boy was then strangled to death on Sept. 21, 1838.
The 1900s were even worse for Christians. The century started with hundreds losing their lives during China’s Boxer Rebellion, including 12 young people. Spain’s Civil War cost 57 youth their lives, all but seven of whom died in 1936, with 27 perishing in August alone.
The 20th century, however, is also when the Church began to welcome non-martyr saints from the ranks of children. Until roughly 1950, a divide existed amongst theologians. Some believed children could show heroic virtue, the key quality sought in so-called “confessor” causes. Others said children weren’t capable of the maturity needed to rule their passions, which they considered the pivotal component of such virtue.
With the canonization of Sts. Maria Goretti and Dominic Savio in the early 1950s, that began to change, albeit slowly. Then, with changes in the sainthood-making process initiated by Pope St. John Paul II, causes of young saints began to proliferate.
Currently, there are more than 150 before the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints.
To demonstrate the change in the type of potential saint being considered today, the 20th century produced 153 children who have at least reached the Servant of God stage. Of those, 83 are martyrs, including 12 who died in defensum castitatis (in defense of chastity).
That means 73 youth died as confessors of the faith, more than in any other century. In what may be a first, these modern saints include best friends Carlo Grisolia and Alberto Michelotti, who died a month apart from one another in 1980. There is also the young Czech girl Annie Zelíková who died in 1941 and wanted to be a Carmelite nun. The Carmelites compare her to St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Realizing she was dying, she offered her suffering for unborn children. Or consider the Hungarian István (Stephen) Kaszap. An incredible yet humble athlete who went from being a poor to good student, he was also a Boy Scout and a member of the Sodality of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
By 16, he recognized his vocation to the priesthood, so he entered the Jesuit novitiate. Not long thereafter, however, he contracted an infection of his tonsils, leading to his death in December 1935.
Perhaps the most famous of the recent young saints at present is Chiara Badano, an Italian who died of cancer at age 18. She was a normal teenager. She didn’t get the best grades. She loved dancing, singing, hanging out with friends and playing tennis. But mostly she loved Jesus, and as a member of the Focolare movement, she had a strong devotion to “Jesus Forsaken.”
She wrote that she had “discovered that Jesus forsaken is the key to unity with God, and I want to choose him as my only spouse.” She died Oct. 7, 1990.
Two more children might see their names added to this list. The first is Ellen Organ, better known as “Little Nellie of God.” She showed great reverence before the Blessed Sacrament. Of ill health, she was taken care of by the Good Shepherd Sisters. Nellie told them she wanted to receive Communion. The sisters sought the bishop’s approval, and Nellie received her first Communion in December 1907, a few months before her death at age 4. Her life inspired Pope Pius X to lower the age for first Communion. Given the Irish child’s love for the Eucharist, John Paul II may have had her in mind when he said, “For how many children in the history of the Church has the Eucharist been a source of spiritual strength, sometimes even heroic strength?”
The other is Audrey Stevenson, an American-French girl who died in 1991. Before her death, she singlehandedly evangelized her parents to a fervent practice of their faith.Several priests also count her prayers as the cause of their vocation. Child saints, pray for us!
Brian O’Neel writes from