Saints of the Century
God's intervention in human affairs is always personal, and his intervention in the 20th century has taken a familiar form: He has sent saints.
“Man is called to victory over himself,” said Pope John Paul II on his 1983 visit to Czestochowa, which for six centuries has stood as a center of strong devotion to the greatest saint, Mary. “It is the saints and beatified who show us the path to victory that God achieves in human history.”
As dark as the 20th century as has been, things might have been worse if not for countless prayers to the saints. It would not be difficult to imagine a scenario where the Church limped toward the turn of the century exhausted from persecution, paralyzed by dissension and division, timid in the face of a dismissive world and retrenching herself to weather a seemingly never-ending storm.
Yet on many fronts it appears the storm is lifting — and as the clouds break up, they reveal the Church's recent saints. Thanks to their faith, the advent of the third millennium is blessed with a Church that is resilient, prophetic and ready for the new evangelization of the 21st century.
Our Holy ‘Role Models’
The lives of the saints remind us that sanctity does not simply co-exist in the world with adversity and suffering — it directly confronts and counters evil in the drama of conversion and redemption. From Golgotha to the Nazi Holocaust to the tragedies of the present day, the cross of Christ triumphs.
The cross reminds us that while saints are real men and women — neither ideas nor spirits persevere through hardship and suffering — we cannot look at their lives in the manner of ordinary biography. It is important to remember that the saints did not overcome difficulties and face obstacles of a purely human nature. They were caught up in a battle that is fought in the world, but reaches beyond it. As St. Paul teaches, in the struggle for sanctity we are not “contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places”(Ephesians 6:12).
“It is so stupid of the modern world to deny the existence of the devil, who is the only explanation for it,” Msgr. Ronald Knox commented.
In an age in which previously unimaginable evils have become routine, it is not unreasonable to look to diabolic explanations. It is recorded that on Oct. 13, 1884, Pope Leo XIII had a vision while standing at the foot of the altar in his private chapel. He later said that he had seen the demons of hell and heard the voice of Satan issuing this challenge to God: “Give me a century and I will show you that I can destroy your Church.” Satan was granted a century — the 20th century. Shaken by what he had seen, Pope Leo then composed the “Leonine prayers” for the protection of the Church that were recited after every Mass until the reforms which followed the Second Vatican Council. More commonly known as the Prayer to St.
Michael the Archangel, the language is martial: O thou, Prince of the heavenly host, by the power of God, cast back into hell Satan and all the evil spirits who prowl the world seeking the ruin of souls.
It is not necessary to believe in the veracity of Pope Leo's vision, but that the devil is active was taught matter-offactly just last month by Leo's successor, John Paul II. “Evil is a topic that profoundly touches our experience,” he said. “The whole of personal and communal history is, to a great extent, a struggle against evil. …
In the Our Father there is explicit reference to evil. This is caused in the world by that spiritual being called in biblical revelation the devil or Satan, who has placed himself deliberately against God. Human malice, constituted by the devil or inspired by his influence, is manifested even in our times, in an attractive way, seducing minds and hearts until one loses the very sense of evil and sin.”
They Fight the Good Fight on Our Behalf
The saints of our time confronted that manifestation of human malice, and also supernatural trials. In their lives we see the cosmic drama of the fight between good and evil most vividly, and we have a preview, as it were, of the final victory of those who have fought the good fight, run the race to the finish, and kept the faith (cf. 2 Timothy 4:7). And they did it in our own cities, in our own times, demonstrating that even if Satan did get his century, the Church got enough saints to see her through the crisis.
The English poet Francis Thompson, perhaps most famous for The Hound of Heaven, wrote another poem, The Kingdom of God: In No Strange Land, which was only discovered among his papers after he died:
The angels keep their ancient places;-
Turn but a stone, and start a wing!
'Tis ye, 'tis your estranged faces,
That miss the many-splendoured thing.
But (when so sad thou canst not sadder)
Cry; — and upon thy so sore loss Shall shine the traffic of Jacob's ladder
Pitched betwixt Heaven and Charing Cross.
Yea, in the night, my Soul, my daughter,
Cry, - clinging Heaven by the hems;
And lo, Christ walking on the water
Not of Gennesareth, but Thames!
The angels are all about us, and the saints too, even if we often “miss the many-splendoured thing.” Jacob's ladder is indeed betwixt heaven and Charing Cross — and also betwixt heaven and the mission schools of the American West, and the fields around Fatima, and the monastery of San Giovanni Rotondo, and the home of a wealthy Milanese publishing family, and the slopes of Mont Royal, and the modern-day ark built in France, and the salons of Paris and the Sorbonne, and the clergy safehouses of the Spanish Civil War, and an Italian maternity ward, and the slave markets of Sudan, and the catechism classes of the Papua New Guinea missions, and the slums of Calcutta, and indeed, even the Apostolic Palace.
Join us as we look for Christ in all those places, and many others, living in the saints of this, the 20th century — to whom we look for help and guidance as we move into the 21st.
Raymond de Souza writes from Rome.
As a response to the Holy Father's invitation to see our own times through “the eyes of faith,” the Register begins, with this overview, a series of weekly reflections on the saints of our century. Each week, we'll report on the action of the Holy Spirit as revealed in those men and women of our time who have responded generously and heroically to the stirrings of grace sent by God.
One of the Church's newest saints, Edith Stein, reminds us in her religious name, Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, that the saints participate in the triumph of the Cross. That's fitting, because this series begins as the Church celebrates the feast of the Triumph of the Cross (Sept. 14). The series will culminate in the Christmas season, when, with the opening of the Holy Year on Christmas Eve at St. Peter's, the Jubilee will begin.
Next week: Pope St. Pius X.
- September 19-25, 1999