The Difference Between English and American Saints

The concerns of this world are put into perspective by the lives of the saints.

St. Rose Philippine Duchesne
St. Rose Philippine Duchesne (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Although I was born and raised in Pennsylvania, I spent more than 25 years living in England. After being received into the Catholic Church I started to learn more about the English saints.

As an Anglican I had already come to know and love the English saints from before the Reformation — St. Alban, the Venerable Bede, St. Etheldreda, Thomas Becket and many more.

Apart from St. Thomas More, however, the Anglicans are understandably silent about the huge number of Catholic saints from England and Wales. That’s because they were martyrs — slaughtered under the Tudor regimes for their loyalty to the Catholic faith.

After returning to the United States as a convert I had the chance to learn about the American saints. 

The difference between the English and American saints is that (for the most part) the Americans were missionaries and the English were martyrs.

Missionaries and martyrs! Take St. Rose Philippine Duchesne — what a life! She comes to the new world from France, winds up in New Orleans and travels up the river to St. Louis where she starts a school in a log cabin. The bishop asked what she was seeking. She said, “A cross.” He said, “That’s all I have to offer you!”

The Native Americans named her, “Woman Who Prays Always.” This tall, dignified Frenchwoman would pray all night straight-backed and watching and waiting for the Lord. Once a school girl crept in and placed paper scraps on the back of the saint’s legs as she knelt. They wanted to see if the paper would be moved by morning when the saint got up. It was still there in the morning.

Think of the other missionaries of the Americas: Isaac Jogues, Francis Xavier Seelos, Bishop John Neumann, Elizabeth Ann Seton, Damien of Molokai. Their example and their lives remind us what true missionary work consists of. If it is not literal martyrdom, it is the martyrdom of self-sacrificial service.

In England, on the other hand, the most memorable saints are literal martyrs. We remember Margaret Clitherow (crushed slowly for hiding a priest) and Ann Line (who before she was hanged for harboring a priest cried out that she would gladly have harbored a thousand priests).

We remember Ambrose Barlow (the Benedictine), Cuthbert Mayne (the convert priest) and Nicholas Owen (the dwarf and master craftsman who was tortured and killed for crafting nooks and crannies for hiding priests).

Read the lives of the saints! They will spur you on and cheer you up and help you to see the world’s true priorities. This is what I so love about reading the lives of the saints. They stand the world on its head. The concerns of this world are put into perspective. The yawn-inducing cowardly conformity of most people is shown to be shallow and dull as death. The saints show us the way to heaven, and the way is one of excitement, miracles and marvels.

Missionaries to remind us that the world still needs messengers of the gospel who will give all to spread the Catholic faith. Martyrs who remind us that persecution is always surrounding the Church and that the ultimate sacrifice is what is demanded of every follower of Christ in one way or another. He does not say, “You may take up your cross and follow me — if you like.” The cross is part of the way of the disciple.

How different it is today. St. Rose Philippine Duchesne’s bishop said, “A cross is all I have to offer you.” In modern America we religious people offer everything but the cross. Here a wonderful liturgy, there a zesty youth group, here a splendid choir, there a hip-hop pastor with a line in groovy sermons, here a parish self-help group, there an apologetics cruise, here a mission trip to Disneyland…

Pope Benedict XVI said, “Scripture can only be interpreted through the lives of the saints.” When we study the saints the Sacred Scriptures and the Catechism come alive. 

The saints are lived theology. They are the Catechism come alive, the Scriptures living and breathing and walking among us. The saints show us that Christianity is not an idea. It is a Life. Christianity is not an ideology. It is a Person and a family of persons.

The saints show us that Christianity is not a theory. It is a historical reality.