In my experience, Protestants have a lot of questions about the veneration of saints. I have had to explain to more than one person what a “patron saint” is, and why anybody would want one. I explain that your patron saint is your prayer partner, someone in Heaven to whom you can go when “the prayers of a righteous man” (or woman) are crucial. A patron saint also functions as a role model; Catholics strive to conform their behavior to that of their patron saint, hoping with his or her prayerful help to emulate the saint’s virtues. I also think of patron saints as great teachers, and it is a wonderful aid if a collection of their sayings or a book they wrote is available – it’s like taking them as a spiritual director. Some saints have been given the title “Doctor of the Church” because of what the Church calls their “eminent learning and high degree of sanctity.” From these men and women especially the whole Body of Christ is called to learn. If your patron saint happens to be among them, you’ve got a whole lotta reading ahead of you – those considering apprenticing themselves to St. Augustine of Hippo, take note! On the other hand, if you take St. Augustine’s mother, St. Monica, as your patron, you won’t be reading any of her writings. There aren’t any – everything we know about her comes from her son. Yet her resolute example as a parent devoted to praying her child back into the Church is something St. Augustine can’t teach you; he can only recount it secondhand….
To give an example from my own life, my patron saint is Thomas Aquinas. It is said that one day his sister asked him how to achieve sanctity. St. Thomas’ answer is a two-word revelation:
Taking my cue from the life of my patron saint and from his instruction, I have a very clear goal that I’m aiming for. When I wake up each morning, I needn’t ask myself what my goal should be for that day – it’s already been spelled out for me. My single-minded focus has to be on becoming a saint. Everything in my day needs to be ordered to that end. Asking the intercession of St. Thomas, I strive to imitate his intense devotion to Christ.
But why imitate a saint when you can just follow Jesus?
Well, several reasons – first of all, because there’s biblical precedent for it. St. Paul, patron saint of many, himself said, “Imitate me, as I imitate Christ.” Taking a saint as your model can make certain elements of Christian doctrine more comprehensible. This is because the light of Christ shining through a saint is like light shining through a prism – it is broken down into its components, becoming easier to understand. WWJD is a great question, but it can be hard to come up with a great answer in every situation. How would Jesus, for example, be a good student? By familiarizing myself with the holy example of St. Thomas Aquinas, student and teacher par excellence, and with his oft-quoted “Prayer Before Study,” I can gain a clearer idea of what Jesus would have me do.
This is how we learn from our patron saints, profiting from their teachings as well as their life experiences. If your patron is St. Teresa of Jesus, you might take her famous advice as your motto: “Let nothing disturb you, let nothing frighten you. All things are passing away. God never changes. Patience obtains all things. Whoever has God lacks nothing. God alone suffices.” Her reforming spirit and her rejection of spiritual mediocrity will challenge you to change the way you live. If you are one of those who have chosen St. Francis de Sales as your patron, you can read his very detailed instructions on holiness in his Introduction to the Devout Life. His success in leading tens of thousands back into the Catholic Church, and the techniques he employed, might be equally inspirational to you. Each saint is an individual with his or her own individual approach to and relationship with God; we can learn much by asking the saints for their “take” on living for Christ!
So, how is this supposed to play out in an individual’s life? July 20 marks the first anniversary of the homegoing of Andrew Moore, the 20-year-old college student who was hit by a car and killed last year as he walked in the Crossroads Pro-Life Walk Across America. His father, Joseph, who blogs at Yard Sale of the Mind, has made a special “In Memorium” page for Andrew in which he recounts details of his son’s life and links to articles discussing the events surrounding his death. He mentions that Andrew had taken St. John Bosco, the 19th-century Italian founder of the Salesians, as his patron saint. If it is our goal to conform to the piety of our chosen patron, it seems that Andrew, knowingly or unknowingly, did an extraordinary job, as evidenced by the following quotes from Don Bosco, juxtaposed with excerpts from a news article discussing the life of Andrew Moore. See how compellingly the wisdom of St. John (who loved to instruct young men) was exemplified in the life of his “son” Andrew:
“Be guided by reason and not by passion.”
Love — and logic — are what made Andrew Moore spend untold hours praying the rosary in front of the Planned Parenthood clinic in Concord, where abortions are performed a little more than a mile from the home in which he grew up, much loved in a lively, critical-thinking and faith-filled family of five children.
“Even in boys, love of God should express itself in zeal.”
Andrew, as a very young kid, says, ‘If these babies in the womb are human beings, and they’re killing them right down the street, how can I sit at home and let that happen?’
“Gentleness is the favorite virtue of Jesus Christ.”
Nancy Tomsic, director of religious education, recalled that Andrew tried to energize some of his fellow students in Confirmation class at Queen of All Saints to join him.
“He would say the rosary out there all the time,” she said. With his peers, however, the “very gentle soul” did not get far.
“He was very present to the daily Mass crowd,” Tomsic recalled.
And from that group emerged people with whom he could share prayerful moments on a sidewalk a couple of blocks from the church.
“Be brave and try to detach your heart from worldly things. Do your utmost to banish darkness from your mind and come to understand what true, selfless piety is. Through confession, endeavor to purify your heart of anything which may still taint it. Enliven your faith, which is essential to understand and achieve piety.”
“Everyone at the College could see that he was very devout, and was deeply dedicated to pro-life work. But what was not readily apparent were the pains he took to avoid even the slightest bit of discrepancy between his conscience and his behavior. His devotion and work for life was not for show, but because he realized he would never be at peace until he carried through on what he knew to be true. He was a good and pure soul, seeming to be headed for a religious vocation. Both us Dominicans and the Norbertines were after him!”
“Purity is the special reward of being humble.”
“Andrew was somewhat shy at first, about approaching women and offering them a pro-life brochure,” Zarri said. “But his confidence grew, along with his wonderful prayer life. He had certain innocence about him, and was very humble, yet he had a great way of engaging people in conversation.”
“I do not fear at all what men can do to me for speaking the truth. I only fear what God would do if I were to lie.”
Some people could not be engaged. “After enduring an especially hateful and personal verbal attack from a middle-aged man, I saw tears in Andrew’s eyes,” Zarri said. “I tried to comfort him and reminded this special young man of how the disciples considered it a privilege and a joy to suffer ‘for the sake of the Name.’ He took that to heart.”
Crabtree, a retired firefighter, described the prayerful vigils outside the abortion clinic as “very humbling.” The honking and the cursing of passers-by could be hard to take, Crabtree said. His former student turned teacher.
“He taught me to keep quiet, be humble and take insults,” Crabtree said. “He was very sensitive and he was not afraid to show what he was feeling.”
St. John Bosco emphasized to the boys under his care the importance of living single-mindedly for Christ. Andrew lived and died in that spirit.
Love made him hand out pamphlets to pregnant women, and their spouses or friends, when they’d accept them. Andrew wanted them to know there was another way.
And that love put him on a highway in central Indiana, in the early-morning hours of July 20, more than halfway across America on a Crossroads pro-life walk, where, while praying the rosary, he was struck by a car and killed instantly.
He was 20 years old.
“Do good while you still have time.”
Refracted through the prism of St. John Bosco, we see the “colors of God” playing across the life of Andrew Moore. Andrew was still a work in progress when his time on earth ended, but most folks my age would envy what he had achieved.
St. John Bosco, patron saint of Andrew Moore, pray for us that we, too, may heed your words and do good in the name of our Lord while we are still able. Pray also, St. John, for the soul of Andrew Moore, and for all those who love him. May his life be an inspiration to many. We ask this to the eternal glory of the One both you and he serve forever and ever. Amen.
On the memorial of St. Ambrose Autpert
Deo omnis gloria!
Photo credits: Light dispersion of a mercury-vapor lamp with a prism made of flint glass by D-Kuru/Wikimedia Commons