10 of the Very Best Books About the Saints

Starting with the unparalleled ‘Butler’s Lives of the Saints,’ here are ten recommendations for further reading

(photo: Register Files)

Hagiography (or Hagiology) is a fancy word for the study of the lives of the saints. But with thousands upon thousands of canonized saints, where does one even begin to learn more about these sacred men and women who are examples that we should follow? My advice: start (small) with any of the following:

1. Butler’s Lives Of The Saints. Perhaps the gold-standard of Saints’ Lives in English—and first collated by the inimitable Fr. Alban Butler in 18th-century England (a daring move for a Catholic priest), its first edition came out in 1756-59. Basically, Fr. Butler took the massive Acta Sanctorum, truncated it, and then translated it into English. A major reworking of “Butler’s Lives” (as it is universally known) was undertaken by Fr. Herbert Thurston, SJ in the 1920s. This resulted in the famous four-volume edition which many of us remember from our Catholic school library. A one-volume edition carefully edited by Michael Walsh first appeared in 1991 and I recommend it, if only for the sake of convenience. Warning: on the other end of the spectrum: a twelve-volume (one for each month edition) appeared from Burns & Oates in England, and simultaneously from The Liturgical Press in the U.S. in 1999. I’d stay away from it though: not only is it unwieldy, its grasping-at-straws-attempts at ecumenism—especially with the Church of England and the Lutherans—as well as the fact that it lacks an imprimatur, makes it a case of false advertising: it’s no more “Butler’s” lives than it is a thinly-veiled attempt to use Butler’s name to garner readers (and book-buyers), by nodding to the late Cardinal Basil Hume as their patron (who lent his imprimatur to the one-volume edition by Michael Walsh, but not this 12-volume edition).

2. Saint of The Day edited by Leonard Foley and revised by Pat McCloskey. Self-proclaimed as “The Definitive Guide To The Saints” (pace Butler’s), Saint of the Day, when it is good, is very good. However, it also tends to be a bit uneven: for one thing, there is not an entry for every single day of the year—which makes the title “Saint of The Day” a bit of a misnomer (as one can go days at a time with no entry at all). However, Frs. Foley and McCloskey did an excellent job of making short bios for the saints included, along with a “Comment” on the saint, as well as a quote (usually from the Saint, but sometimes from other Church documents).

3. Dictionary of Saints (abridged edition) by John J. Delaney. This one-volume paperback is a distillation of Delaney’s huge, hardcover work. Set up as a true “Dictionary” in alphabetical order, it draws heavily on Butler’s (and The Golden Legend and The Martyrology, see both below). However, it also contains a list of patron saints, including those of places and countries, and a separate section on how saints are represented in artwork. A good, solid reference work which was revised and updated in 2004 and included a Byzantine Calendar of the saints as well.

4. Saintly Companions: A Cross-Reference of Sainted Relationships by Fr. Vincent O’Malley. A unique take on how saints are “related”—and not just by blood. Fr. O’Malley painstakingly researched and pieced together saints who were married, those who were co-workers, co-founders (of religious orders), and co-martyrs; saints who were in a student/teacher dynamic (think St. Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas), and those who were master/disciples (Pope Gregory the Great and Augustine of Canterbury), as well as those who were simply “friends.” Replete with a thorough bibliography and a chart at the end as to which saint falls into what category, the book oddly lacks an index, which would have made it almost perfect. Not exactly a book you can’t put down, but once you start seeing the connections between the saints, it does have tendency to pull you into its fascinating premise that NO saint acts completely alone.

5. The Doctors of The Church: Thirty-Three Men and Women Who Shaped Christianity by Bernard McGinn. The term “doctor” is now so overused—everyone from a university professor to a chiropractor and even physical therapists style themselves with this title—that is easy to forget its basic meaning: “teacher.” McGinn’s book does an admirable, and more importantly, readable, job of explicating (A) What a “Doctor” of the Church is, and (B) Who these Doctors are. Further, the book is structured into the Patristic Doctors (Sts. Athanasius to Leo), Medieval Doctors (Sts. Gregory to Catherine of Siena), and finally Modern Doctors (Sts. Teresa of Avila to Therese of Lisieux), so the reader gets a sense of the sweep of history and the development of church doctrine. Adequately illustrated, and expertly-researched, the book also contains a “Dictionary of Heresies,” a list of ecumenical councils, and the “Use of The Doctors in Recent Church Teaching.” All done in under 200 pages!

6. The Roman Martyrology edited by Canon J. B. O’Connell. I’ve written elsewhere and at length on the import of The Roman Martyrology. Suffice to say that this particular book holds pride of place as it is the official church document on the Apostles, Martyrs, Confessors, Virgins, and Holy Men and Women (along with the Holy Family, naturally!), and it is still read at Prime (the second morning “hour” of prayer in the Extraordinary Form of The Divine Office). Arranged according to the Church Calendar, it begins with the words: “A Martyrology is a book of the anniversaries of the martyrs and other saints, and of the mysteries and events that are commemorated yearly in the Church.” Composed in an incomparable Baroque—at times even Rococo—prose-style that leaves absolutely nothing to the imagination when it comes to the suffering of the saints, it is a must for anyone wanting to understand the mystery of suffering for the True Faith.

7. Warriors of God: The Great Religious Orders and Their Founders by Walter Nigg. One of my top-10 favorite books of all time, period. Walter Nigg—a German Protestant—produced an outstanding volume on eleven of the most seminal saints in the history of the Latin Church—not all of whom you’d immediately expect: St. Anthony [of the desert], Saint Pachomius, St. Basil, St. Augustine, St. Benedict, St. Bruno, St. Bernard, St. Francis, St. Dominic, St. Theresa, and St. Ignatius of Loyola. Nigg puts the saints in the context of their place and times—and then explains why they are important not just as individuals, but as institutions themselves, and ultimately founders of Religious Institutions. One could wonder aloud “Where is St. Norbert and the Premonstratensians?” or “What about St. Anthony Maria Zaccaria and the Barnabites?,” but part of the charm of this tome is the author’s argument for who he included (he does not claim to be a completist). Contains some stunning full-page black-and-white photographic plates, too.

8. Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes by Eamon Duffy. So many popes have been saints—especially in the early Church—that a good narrative on sainthood-in-the-papacy is always in order. Of the many books out there on the subject, I prefer Duffy’s Saints and Sinners, mainly because he writes good, clean, clear historical prose without over-embellishment or grinding an ax. Further, the book was conceived not as a “reference work” (as are most of the ones in the list above), but as a continuous narrative of the papacy and the men—both saint (like St. Peter himself) and sinner (like the notorious Borgia, Pope Alexander VI) alike. While there was a lull in pope-saints—from St. Pius V (in 1572) to St. Pius X (in 1914!) where no pope was raised to the altars, the 20th century has produced Sts. John XXIII, John Paul II, Blessed Paul VI (who will be canonized this fall), along with Venerable Servants of God Pius XII, and John Paul I. One may not agree with every word Duffy writes, but no one can accuse him of not being even-handed, erudite, and an excellent hagiographer and historian.

9. The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks, edited by Benedicta Ward. Technically, this isn’t a book about saints and their lives, per se, but about the early “Desert Fathers” (St. Anthony, St. Pachomius, St. Basil, et. al.) and the nuggets of wisdom they chunked out after spending years—sometimes decades—of an ascetic life in the desert. The English text is based on the venerable De Vitis Patrum, sive Verba Seniorum, Liber V. by Pelagius and John. And instead of being arranged by author—Sts. Jerome, Athanasius, John Cassian, Simon Stylites and the rest—it is broken up by subject matter, namely: “Progress in Perfection,” “Nothing For Show,” “Self-Control” and of course “Unceasing Prayer,” along with 14 other chapters. Edited and translated by Benedicta Ward—a “Sister of the Love of God” (an Anglican religious community)—her work clears up a lot of the arcane original without losing the fervor of the initial flavor.

10. The Golden Legend: Readings on The Saints: edited by Eamon Duffy (see Saints and Sinners, above) I’ve written at length on this book, too. In good news, Duffy has taken a one-of-a-kind classic, putatively by Blessed Jacobus de Voragine, and fashioned it into a one-volume text. In not so great news: the book is over 800 pages long with print so small one practically needs a magnifying glass to read it! No matter: for over 400 years The Golden Legend was the source of all things hagiographical and reading it puts any number of paintings, mosaics, statues, and/or frescoes of saints into perspective and, more importantly, understanding.

Happy Reading!