WATERBURY, Conn. — On a cold New England night last February, Venerable Father Michael McGivney was standing in the sanctuary of the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Waterbury, Conn., speaking about saints.
"God desires nothing less than that all of us be saints," he said to hundreds of young and old filling the pews. Then he hinted how several experts can help the faithful achieve that goal: "Now saints of the Church have come to visit."
Indeed, he had brought with him the likes of Teresa of Avila, Jean Marie Vianney, Irenaeus of Lyons, Catherine of Siena, Gregory the Great and others. For three nights, the saints took turns answering questions from individuals on how we should live a good Catholic life despite the world's challenges to faith today.
Okay, so it might not have been the Father McGivney, John Marie Vianney or Catherine of Siena, but they were exceptionally fine actors bringing these saints to life for a new major series broadcast on EWTN, starting Sept. 4, called Saints Alive!
The format is a radiant reminder not only that the saints are alive with God in heaven, but that the saints are alive with us right now through their timely spiritual insights and teachings.
"We wanted to do a series that would help people to understand why we're in the hard times we're in, and who better but holy people from the past who have lived a Christian life and sacrificed, some even with their own lives, to explain the importance of living that life now more than ever," said Richard Payne, the co-producer/writer and host for the shows.
He added a second purpose: "It's to give people hope to persevere living our Christian faith now more than ever, and to remind them they're not alone. These saints we're bringing back to life are heroes for hard times. So, be not afraid."
Through their Arcadia Films, father and son co-producers Richard and Stephen Payne already brought to television three popular series — Saints Speak, Eucharist, and Parable. In the latter two, saints appear at a retreat for young people speaking on the meaning of the Eucharist and Christ's words.
EWTN began with Saints Speak, bridged into the next two, then wanted to continue the apostolate the Paynes have, explained Doug Keck, EWTN's executive vice president and Chief Operating Officer.
The next natural step was Saints Alive!
Keck explained how the concept originated: "I thought it would be a great thing for people in the Church to see saints speaking to them today and to realize the saints are saying the same today, no different than what was said, whether 500 years or a thousand years ago. Those truths of the Church are still there."
He remembered both Steve Allen's Meeting of the Minds, a show where famous historical figures discussed issues, that PBS began airing in 1977 and the Bravo TV series Inside the Actors Studio.
Keck envisioned the possibilities: "Instead of an actor being interviewed, why not the stars of the Church, and have them talk about their life and explain the teachings of the Church from their time frame and how they apply to us today?"
Because they had decided to film at the basilica, the Paynes decided to have Father McGivney, founder of the Knights of Columbus, as the dramatic intermediary to bring the people from heaven. Visiting his parents' graves, he meets some saints and leads them to the parish where he was baptized.
A grant from the Knights' headquarters added to the beautiful production values.
Richard Payne, who wrote the scripts, was founding editor-in-chief of the 100-volume The Classics of Western Spirituality series and has devoted much of his life to recovering the classical heritage of the witness of the saints.
"They live with us," he said. "We just have to open our eyes to see that intimacy that we have and their intercessory role of bringing grace into the world."
The audience asks the saints a variety of questions:
To John Vianney: "How can we avoid sin and practice virtue in a world like ours?"
Teresa of Avila, a doctor of the Church, fields questions like: "I believe that in the '60s the decline of Mary as the maternal model of femininity left us vulnerable to the combined forces of the sexual revolution, the feminist movement and radically undermined our culture. Would you comment?"
Their answers give new insight into perennial problems.
"A great thing the saints allow us to do is realize there are no new heresies," Keck said. "All the things we deal with today the Church has dealt with over different times, and, ultimately, all the answers are the same."
"It's important," he said, "for people to know that they stand on the shoulders of the great thinkers, in many cases some of the greatest thinkers in the world, in the last 2,000 years."
"We get the sense how relevant even politically and economically the saints are to our lives today," noted Richard. "The saints return us to the spiritual life focused on the liturgy and the primacy of the Eucharist and help to bring us home to Nazareth and living the simple life," he said. During the filming itself, people were moved by the question-and-answer sessions."Because we're actually 'seeing' them, that will help me remember more about their life and help me act in my life," said teenager Mary Claire Morlino, who asked St. Catherine of Siena a question.
She attended a special preview of three episodes in August in Waterbury with her family.
Cheryl Rozint found that the episodes are "an affirmation the road I'm walking on is the right path. Films of this nature are so rare and unique. We need more like these to educate and lead us."
Joe and Marilyn Giuliano drove over 50 miles to the preview.
Marilyn observed the series brings the saints "into a modern perspective, and it offers us a good, holy perspective in situations we face in our daily lives."
Joe was equally enthusiastic. "By bringing the saints to life, you realize your own joys and struggles living the Catholic faith are something we share with the saints."
From first responses, the series is right on track as "a call to come home to God through the family of the Church, in communion with our brothers and sisters who have lived the fruitful life and found the superabundance of life," said Richard Payne. "We need that hope today."
Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.