A Mother’s Love: Saint Monica

I was sixteen-years old when I was going through the Confirmation program. When it came time for me to pick a saint, I was torn between all the single saintly ladies: Teresa of Avila and Catherine of Siena were my top picks, but so were Agnes of Rome, Maria Goretti, and Cecilia.  Joan of Arc is cool, but Lucy of Syracuse is like a sister to me.  Then there’s my parish patron Kateri Tekakwitha to consider, but then again, Faustina Kowalska is the patroness of the Divine Mercy!  AAAAHHHHH!!!!
As you can see, I was quite stressed.  So many awesome ladies to choose from and I only had so much time.  I remember flipping through my Saints book in a panic.  I ended up dropping it and watched it cracked open on the tile.  When I picked it up, I saw the page on Saint Monica.
I skimmed through her chapter, “She doesn’t seem very interesting.”  She wasn’t a soldier like Joan or a martyr like Lucy, Maria or Agnes.  I put Monica on the backburner for a while.
However, the longer I resisted, the more she crept up on me.  One night I went online and read up on Monica.  I scratched my head, “God, why should I pick her?  We have nothing in common.”
At first glance, Monica and I were incompatible as candidate and patron.
She was a married woman.  I am single.
She lived in Africa.  I am a born-and-raised California girl.
She was an obedient old woman.  I am a headstrong young woman.
In spite of all these differences between us, I couldn’t bring myself to click out of her info page just yet.  So I sighed and took a second look at her story.

Saint Monica portrayed by actress Monica Guerritore in Restless Heart.
Saint Monica portrayed by actress Monica Guerritore in Restless Heart.

Saint Monica was born in 331 AD in Tagaste, which is now known as Souk Ahras, Algeria.  Not much is known about Monica’s childhood, but we do know that she was born after Constantine legalized Christianity.
You may have noticed that in a lot of my Saints bios, many of these guys and gals were either in arranged marriages (ex. Cecilia) or were arranged to be married to somebody (ex. Lucy).  Monica is no exception.
She was twenty-two (a year younger than me) when she was betrothed to a Pagan man named Patricius.  By all accounts, Monica was a generous and obedient girl, so she was married off without hesitation.
To put it simply, Monica got a pretty raw deal because Patricius was the biggest jerk in Tagaste.  Violent, with an explosive temper, he verbally and physically abused Monica during his outbursts.  To add insult to injury, he was the kind of guy who would be a regular Ashley Madison customer if he lived in the year 2015.  Oh, and did I mention that his mother/Monica’s mother-in-law also worse than Nurse Ratchet from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest?”  Needless to say, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree.
Now, you’re probably thinking, “Ditch this guy, Monica,” but divorce court wasn’t a thing in AD Tagaste.  These were the days where a man could leave his wife if she wasn’t a virgin, but a woman was stuck with a hot-headed cheater.
Monica was a Christian and she was especially drawn to Christianity’s emphasis on kindness and humility.  She was also very smart, so she figured that if she couldn’t leave Patricius, she would kill him with kindness.  She knew she couldn’t fight back when he hit her because she would end up on the streets as a beggar woman, so she said her prayers aloud, ignoring him as he stormed off.   When he came home after visiting one of his “lady friends,” Patricius scratched his head when he saw a lavish meal prepared for him by the wife he was betraying.
Monica’s charitible approach won over Patricius’ respect and admiration, to where his punches became less frequent and he began walking out of the room instead of screaming at her.

Monica had three children with Patricius; Augustine, Navigius and Perpetua. There’s very little info on Navigius and Perpetua (I did find out that Navigius entered the monastery), but Augustine–oh, yes–there is a plethora of info on Augustine.  Why?  Because her Augustine just so happens to be THE great Saint Augustine of Hippo.  What a twist!
Monica did the best job she could at raising her children in the faith, but remember, Patricius was an aggressive Pagan and it was his way or the highway. Augustine was the oldest son and it’s not uncommon for the oldest son to gravitate towards his father.  This means that Augustine was very much his father’s son in his actions…and in his beliefs.
Monica knew that her son was a fast-learner, but her heart broke when she saw how disinterested he was in her Christian faith.  She was even more distressed when she realized that Paganism was more enticing to her impressionable son.

After years of being bound to his sinful ways, Patricius converted to Christianity on his deathbed.  However, Monica still had one more thing to do: Save her Pagan-party boy son!  (Plays Superman theme music)
When Augustine grew up, he traveled to Carthage.  In those days, saying “I’m going to Carthage” was like saying, “I’m going to Harvard.”  It was where all the great thinkers went to, well, think and trade abstract ideas.  It was also where many heresies and questionable theological theories sprang up and resided.  These ideas influenced Augustine and led him astray for oh-so-many years.  To his chagrin, Augustine wasn’t alone.  Right behind him on the boat to Carthage was his mother.

As she followed him on his travels, Monica witnessed Augustine’s sinful ways.  She watched him drink himself into a stupor on multiple occasions.  She watched him blaspheme against God and the Church.  She watched him impregnate a woman he wasn’t married to.  She watched him abandon the woman and their infant son.  Her heart broke with each sin.  Every day she offered up her son in prayer.  She asked God to forgive Augustine and to change his hardened heart.  Sometimes her prayers were calm and contemplative; other times they were shouted in desperation and anger. Every prayer came with tears for her wayward son.  Monica’s valiant praying caught the attention of Saint Ambrose, the bishop of Milan.  Monica went to him and poured out her story about the abuse she suffered and of her fear for Augustine’s immortal soul.  Ambrose was so moved by Monica’s courage and all that she had sacrificed that he assured her, “It is not possible that the child of so many tears should perish.”

Monica’s prayers finally paid off.  Augustine had a powerful “come-to-Jesus” experience that changed his life.  He abandoned his selfish ways and became a Christian.  Monica could live in peace at last.  She was called home to Heaven shortly after.

I Volunteer as Tribute: Saint Maximilian Maria Kolbe

As a Catholic fan of the Hunger Games, I can’t help but wonder if author Suzanne Collins was inspired by Saint Maximilian Kolbe to have Katniss take her sister Prim’s place in the 74th Games.
Well, Suzanne Collins is Roman Catholic…
Anything is possible, I suppose.

This is the story of Saint Maximilian Maria Kolbe!

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There once was a boy named Raymund, who was born in Zduńska Wola, Poland with his father Julius, his mother Maria and four brothers.  Not long after he was born, Raymund and his family moved to another town called Pabianice.
Raymund was an aimless boy; he went to school, helped out around the house, walked around town, etc.  He didn’t seem to have any particular talents that would make him famous or important by the world’s standards.

Then in 1906, the Virgin Mary appeared to him in an apparition that would change the course of his life forever.

“That night I asked the Mother of God what was to become of me. Then she came to me holding two crowns, one white, the other red. She asked me if I was willing to accept either of these crowns. The white one meant that I should persevere in purity, and the red that I should become a martyr.  I said that I would accept them both.”

Raymund joined the Conventual Franciscan minor seminary with his older brother Francis one year later.
Then in 1910, Raymund Kolbe entered the novitiate with a new name: Maximilian.

Now Maximilian and the Virgin Mary were BFFs.  After all, she saved him from a dull life as a directionless country boy by revealing his purpose in life.   Naturally whenever someone impacts your life in a positive way, you feel a desire to repay them and show your gratitude.
In Maximilian’s case, he felt so much love and respect for the Blessed Mother that he not only added “Maria” to his full name (Maximilian Maria Kolbe), not only did he openly promote the veneration of Mary, but he even started the Militia Immaculata (MI) in her honor.  The purpose of MI is to evangelize to the world and convert hearts by relying on Mary’s intercession.  In fact, to become a member of MI, you have to make a personal act of consecration to Mama Mary.
Yep, that’s the sexist Catholic Church; we’re so misogynistic that we canonized a guy who was inspired by a woman to change his life and then started an organization where members consecrate themselves to that same woman.
Just let that sink in for a moment.

Maximilian’s missionary work took him all over the world; China, Japan, and eventually to India.  For reasons unknown, he couldn’t gather a following in China, but he did get a lot of work done in Japan.  He build a monastery on the outskirts of Nagasaki.
Interesting trivia: The atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki obliterated everything in its path…except for the monastery that Maximilian had built.  In the midst of death and destruction, the monastery was still standing.
Even when tuberculosis forced him to end his travels and return to Poland, Maximilian remained active by starting a radio station in–(do not ask me how to pronounce this) Niepokalanow.
I’ll bet you Satan got ticked with Maximilian; “you have freaking tuberculosis; how are you still moving?  These Mary-loving types are always the hardest to axe off.”

Then everything changed when the Fire Nation–I mean–the Nazis attacked.  In addition to slaughtering innocent Jews, the Third Reich had a particular hatred of the Catholic Church and anyone associated with her (I say “her” because the Church is the bride of Christ).  Maximilian and four other priests were arrested on Feburary 17th, 1941.  When Maximilian was sent to Auschwitz, he was given another new name: Prisoner #16670.

One of the twisted policies of Auschwitz was that if a prisoner escaped, ten prisoners would pay with their lives.  So when three prisoners fled Auschwitz, ten men were randomly selected to spend their days in an underground bunker, where they would left to die from starvation and dehydration.
One of the chosen was Prisoner #26273, also known as Franciszek Gajowniczek.  In a panic, Franciszek cried out, “My wife!  My children!”  Haunted by the fear of leaving his wife to fend for herself with two fatherless child, he begged for mercy.  The Gestapo officers held their batons, ready to strike him to end his pleading.

A man with glasses and a long white beard stepped up and faced the Gestapo.
“I am a Catholic priest from Poland; I would like to take his place, because he has a wife and children.”
The switch was made and Franciszek was sent back in line to live another day.  Wiping off the sweat from his face, he turned to get a look at his rescuer, Father Maximilian Maria Kolbe.
During his final days, Maximilian kept his fellow prisoners in high spirits with prayer and fasting.  He evangelized to the men, giving them hope by telling them of Jesus and His mother Mary and praying with them.
Two weeks later, the guards entered the bunker to collect the bodies.  They froze when Maximilian Kolbe looked up at them, still alive.
A calm Maximilian lifted his left arm and received a deadly injection of carbolic acid.  His body was cremated on August 15th, the feast day of the Assumption of his beloved friend, Mary.

Saint Maximilian Maria Kolbe, pray for us.

The Silent Carpenter: Saint Joseph (Father’s Day Special!)

If I ever get married and have a son, expect the name “Joseph” to be somewhere in his name (it’ll most likely be his middle name).  I really love the name Joseph, and I also love the most famous bearer of this name.  I’m talking about Saint Joseph, husband of the Virgin Mary and Jesus’ foster father.

Guido_Reni_-_Saint_Joseph_and_the_Christ_Child_-_Google_Art_Project
An epic picture of a sturdy carpenter and gentle father.

Doing research on Saint Joseph the Carpenter is really difficult because the information on him is minimal (there was no such thing as a “digital footprint” in his day).  We do know that he was a carpenter in Nazareth.  His reputation among the locals was that he was a just man.  Humble and mild-mannered, he did his woodwork to make ends meet, got along with everybody, and then went home at the end of the day.

His quiet life changed when he asked for the hand of Ann and Joachim’s daughter, Mary.  His reputation as a gentleman and hard worker sat well with Ann and Joachim.  As for Mary, she knew of Joseph and was drawn to his genuine nature. Like Prince Kit in Cinderella (2015), Joseph wanted to marry for love, not for riches or personal gain.  Hence they were betrothed.

Joseph’s simple life was shaken when his now-fiancee Mary told him that the Archangel Gabriel had visited her and told her she would bear the Son of God (do I even need to say who it is?)  Naturally Joseph was troubled and even upset.  Let’s be honest: Even the most religious person would have a hard time believing that a woman conceived a child without having sex.

Now in their time, to be pregnant and unmarried (being engaged didn’t help) was a death sentence.  The entire village could corner her and stone her, killing both her and the unborn baby.  Joseph knew this and sought to divorce her quietly.  That was, until an angel appeared to him in a dream and told him to take Mary as his wife.  Upon waking up, Joseph knew what he had been called to do.

To protect Mary, they married quickly so that everyone would assume the child was his.  They traveled to Bethlehem, where Mary gave birth to Jesus.  That same night, an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream, and [paraphrasing] said, “You need to get Mary and the baby out of here.”  Sure enough, King Herod had ordered that every male infant be slaughtered so that he would not be overthrown by “the New King.”  This is called the Slaughtering of the Innocents.  Without hesitation, Joseph woke Mary and got his family out of Bethelem to safer regions.

You may have noticed that Joseph has no lines in this play.  That’s because he doesn’t talk in the Bible.  His character is revealed through his actions; his choice to protect Mary from social persecution, his willingness to obey God’s command to leave Bethelem just hours after Mary gave birth, and his devotion to his wife and child.  Saint Joseph is the epitomy of the phrase, “actions speak louder than words.”

Saint Joseph, pray for us.

Champion of the Lepers: Saint Damien of Molokai

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So in the 1800’s, Hawaii had a bigger crisis on its hands than being the backdrop of a terrible movie (Aloha); it was facing an outbreak of Hansen’s disease, also known as leprosy.  Once you got leprosy, you were a goner.   However our story begins in Tremelo, Belgium, with the birth of a little boy named Joseph de Veuster on January 3rd, 1840.  All that is known about his childhood is that he had to quit school when he was thirteen-years old so that he could work on the family farm.   However, he was able to go to college in Braine-le-Comte, and later entered the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary at the age of eighteen.   In many respects, no one was really surprised.  Both of his sisters, Eugenie and Pauline, were nuns.   His brother Auguste became Father Pamphile.  For Joseph, religious life was in his genes.  On October 7, 1860, he received the name Brother Damien.  At first his superiors thought an uneducated farmer boy was unqualified, but then they learned that his brother had taught him Latin. Yeah…talk about an awkward moment.  #jokesonyoumybrothertaughtmelatin
Damien felt a strong calling to be missionary and prayed for an opportunity to answer that call.  Then his brother got sick and couldn’t go on his assigned mission to Hawaii, so Damien basically volunteered as tribute and took his place.  He hit the road to Honolulu in 1864.  He was ordained into the priesthood two years into his stay.

Imagine moving into a new neighborhood only to find that neighborhood in chaos. That was Damien’s arrival to Hawaii was like; a colony in disarray ruled by a ruthless disease.  The island of Molokai was the leper drop-off station; when you got leprosy, you were shipped off to Molokai.  Damien wouldn’t get to Molokai until nine years later.  He had been working on missionary assignments throughout Hawaii and reached Molokai in 1873.  He was part of a team of four other chaplains, but was the only one of the group who chose to stay permanently in Molokai.  Every missionary assignment had led up to this, and he knew this was the place God had called him to.

Damien became a champion of the segregated lepers.  He advocated government assistance on their behalf.  He said last rites to the dying, baptized infants whether they had contracted leprosy or not, and was responsible for the construction of hospitals, clinics and churches throughout the leper colony.  The children could go to school, and those who had lost their parents to leprosy had an orphanage for refuge.  All of this because of Damien’s efforts and advocacy.  To put it simply, the man got things done.

One day in 1885, he had stepped into some water and noticed that he couldn’t feel the water against his skin.  That is one of the signs of leprosy.  His time was drawing near.  Nevertheless he spent his final days serving the lepers and giving them a better life until his body could take no more.  Damien died on April 15, 1889.

The core of Damien’s character was mission.  He was born with a sense of duty and became a man on a mission to be the face of Jesus to the outcasts.

Saint Damien of Molokai, pray for us.

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