If They Could Do It, We Can Too


by Thomas J. Craughwell

Doubleday, 2006

191 pages, $15.95

Available in bookstores

Whenever my Southern Baptist mother received news that one of her elderly friends had died, she would sigh and murmur sweetly, “Ah, another saint gone home.”

Those east Texas “saints” were kindly ladies and gentlemen of the sort you would love to know — folks who were, as Mama often observed, “all wool and a yard wide.”

So it came as a surprise, when I converted to the Catholic faith as an adult, to learn that some of the canonized Catholic saints gone home had once been more like the people whom “nice families” in my town didn’t have much to do with.

But even those initial discoveries didn’t prepare me for some of the unvarnished stories retold by Thomas Craughwell in Saints Behaving Badly. The book’s subtitle — The Cutthroats, Crooks, Trollops, Con Men and Devil-Worshippers Who Became Saints —  is just a warm-up. In histories ranging from the well-known St. Augustine and St. Francis of Assisi to the less familiar St. Camillus de Lellis and Venerable Matt Talbot, there is much to deplore.

Craughwell first explains that Mary Magdalene is not among the dramatis personae of this showcase of bad boys and girls for a very good reason: She was not a notorious sinner, as so many mistakenly believe. Then he presents a stunning lineup of hell-bound individuals whose daily routines included extortion, theft, embezzlement, promiscuity, bigamy, addiction to blood sports, rape, murder, idolatry …

Where did Craughwell unearth such scandalous tales? A five-page bibliography lists a broad range of sources. He notes that, unlike hagiographers of early Christian and medieval times, writers for the past two centuries have sanitized the lives of saints, creating the misperception that these were naturally good people and that achieving sanctity is easy. The truth, of course, is quite different.

Forty pages into the book, you are convinced that these saints are ordinary humans who, in diverse ways, encountered the living God, chose to follow him and never looked back. Why look at their worst, pre-conversion behavior? 

“The point of reading these stories is not to experience some tabloid thrill, but to understand how grace works in the world,” writes Craughwell. “Every day, all day long, God pours out his grace upon us, urging us, coaxing us, to turn away from everything that is base and cheap and unsatisfying, and turn toward the only thing that is eternal, perfect, and true — that is, himself.”

The mini-biographies also encourage and reassure. “If these people can be saved,” we read, “so can you!” Craughwell carefully points out that, “just as the old storytellers did not whitewash the misdeeds of the saints, neither did they minimize the effort involved in conversion. A conversion experience is not magic; it is only the first step in a lifetime of striving to avoid the old sins, grow in virtue and conform one’s unruly, rebellious will to the will of God. And that is hard to do, as these stories will show.”

Thomas Becket, for example, was still a hedonistic, prideful man following his decision to follow Christ. His road from selfish pleasure to martyrdom was gradual and arduous. And Mary of Egypt said that, for 17 years after her conversion, she craved rich foods, couldn’t get lascivious songs out of her head and felt strong sensual desires.

Besides being a fascinating, inspiring read for any Christian struggling to live a holy life, Saints Behaving Badly gives fresh hope for the eventual conversion of those most in need of God’s mercy.

Ann Applegarth writes from

Roswell, New Mexico.