Talking Seriously With the Saints

“When the saints entered into the joy of their Master, they were ‘put in charge of many things.’ Their intercession is their most exalted service to God’s plan. We can and should ask them to intercede for us and for the whole world.” (CCC 2683)

Philippe de Champaigne, “Anne of Austria With Her Children, Praying to the Holy Trinity with St. Benedict and St. Scholastica,” 1640s
Philippe de Champaigne, “Anne of Austria With Her Children, Praying to the Holy Trinity with St. Benedict and St. Scholastica,” 1640s

For the past few years I’ve been working with the archives my late, great-aunt Theresa Di Camillo-Hargrave left of our family’s 100-year-old (and still going!) bakery here in Niagara Falls, New York. From 1996 pretty much up until her death in 2017 Aunt Tre spent her time at the bakery starting a file on every member of the family in particular, and the family business in general.

One of the most endearing and enduring of the characters chronicled is my great-grandmother, Addolorata Di Camillo, who died in 1968. With her husband, Tomaso, she had 12 children, all of whom were named after saints.

This wasn’t exactly unique for its time, but reading more about my great-grandmother and talking with my father about her, it seems she had a very close relationship with the saints. And where 99% of us would pray to a saint, Addoloratta would literally have conversations with the saints as if they were, in fact, real people.

To her credit (and sanity), well, the saints were real people — despite our attempts to valorize them as hagiological icons and pretty much almost untouchable angelic creatures, laminated on a card, staring up into Heaven rapt in otherworldly ecstasy.

However, one need only look at almost any longish book of the Old Testament to see that even the Hebrews regularly spoke with angels — or in Jacob’s case literally wrestled with one. And had it not been for an angel, Abraham would have surely sacrificed his son (albeit in good faith) Isaac. Furthermore, Tobias, without the Archangel Raphael, would have been literally and figuratively lost, and his father Tobit would have remained blind. (See the delightful story in the Book of Tobit).

In all of these cases historical personages spoke with angels as if they were real people. Now angels are real but they aren’t human people, but saints are. So my great-grandmother carrying on a conversation with St. Anthony (a devotion she passed on to Aunt Theresa and Aunt Angelica, who, until her retirement from our bakery, kept a statue of him by her desk) seems a little less odd.

And a lot more commonsensical. While the saints fascinate us, they can, at times seem too remote for the rest of us to identify with them, let alone speak with them. 

But we do this already whenever we recite a prayer to one of our favorite saints. The genius of the Old Testament — and while we’re at it, my great-grandmother — is that they spoke with the saints as confreres, or friends. This is what I think we may have lost somewhere: the idea that the saints are our friends in Heaven, always pulling and rooting for us, and probably putting in a good word for us.

St. John Paul II used to bemoan the fact that, as he saw it, the United States lacked saints, and maybe he felt this void left us empty of someone to speak to. After all, when one thinks about it, St. John Paul talked to many of the people he wound up canonizing — Padre Pio and Mother Teresa come to mind — while they were alive, so it must have seemed perfectly plausible to keep the conversation going once they experienced the beatific vision.

But what does this talking to a saint do for us, really? For one thing, I think it helps our (and here I feel obliged to use a word I am most wary of) “relationship” with the saints in general and any one saint in particular. Why remember them at all, if they are just a framed picture or hollow statue? And I’m not talking about badgering the saints to help us find a better job or some miracle to occur, but everyday conversation: what’s going on in Heaven today? When my uncle Rocco died my cousin of the same name feared that his dad “would eventually get bored” in Heaven — which is not an unreasonable fear seeing that even the greatest poet to have held a pen, the immortal Dante, couldn’t quite get down on paper what Heaven is like.

But why not ask St. Rocco himself? And here comes the hard part: in a society that hears but doesn’t listen — in fact, more and more you’re fortunate if you simply find someone who is waiting their turn to talk while you yourself are still speaking — we have to listen to the saints. That first word of St. Benedict’s Rule — not “love,” not “obey,” not “believe,” not even “God,” but “Listen my son…”

The more I muse on it, the more I think talking to the saints could benefit us all greatly if we listened with the ear of our hearts to what they were saying to us. Again, I’m not speaking of some theophany or Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus life-changing event, but something more along the lines of, “St. Joseph: I really need your help on this job: the deadline is tight, I’m already behind and you know what it’s like to work for a living.”

Some saints I’d just like some simple answers from: “St. Thomas Aquinas: what did you experience that it caused you to give up writing and call all of your works — most of which have become Church dogma — ‘so much straw?’” To St. Maximilian Kolbe I’d have to ask, “How hard was it for you to step forward and take another man’s place in Auschwitz knowing that you were going to die?”

And to God’s Fool, the man who found it impossible and impolite to be in the company of someone poorer than oneself (so he became the poorest of all), I’d ask “What do you think of a pope finally taking your name?”