Family Portraits

Apparently I repeated myself. I noticed last night that I’ve written before along the same lines as I did yesterday. Back in August 2012 I wrote about honoring those people (family and saints) with places on the walls of our homes:

That is what we do with the saints. We honor them as family with a place on our “wall.” For the most part the stories are not sugarcoated and lessons are learned from their struggles. Their triumphs are chronicled, too, and especially from those martyred we gain strength in lessons of perseverance and in heavenly reward. It is a reminder that there is more to life than what we see before our eyes.

Maybe that’s where so many struggle today. The walls on their homes are empty. The digital age affords us the ability to take more pictures than ever, but our walls are now on Facebook. The images are not developed and hung in a prominent or more permanent place. It is also my opinion that we have substituted family photos for those of celebrity, whether from the entertainment world or the political. We choose to know every detail of the shallowest of humanity who offer nothing more than an often-repeated example of how not to live our lives.

all-time greats

I guess that after over 500 posts on this blog I need to make sure I haven’t covered a subject before I post.

Above is a photo of the Red Sox plaque on my wall that I mentioned yesterday. If I have this hanging in a prominent place, why not do the same for those whom I really consider role models? I’d start with the following eight persons. If you look closely, aside from their being Catholic, you’ll notice other traits that run as common threads between members of this family.

Eight Family Portraits

Francis of Assisi (1182-1226)
Who he was: A rich, partying playboy, Francis served a year in a dungeon as a prisoner of war. When finally released he went back to his partying lifestyle and retained his dreams of glory. Before leaving as a knight to join the Fourth Crusade and a chance to achieve his dream, he had a dream in which God told him his designs on glory were wrong and that he was to return home, which he did. In 1219 Francis decided to go to Syria to convert the Moslems while the Fifth Crusade was being fought. In the middle of a battle, Francis decided to do the simplest thing and go straight to the sultan to make peace. When he and his companion were captured, the real miracle was that they weren’t killed. Instead Francis was taken to the sultan who was charmed by Francis and his preaching. Francis’s visit to Egypt and attempted rapprochement with the Muslim world had far-reaching consequences, long past his own death, since after the fall of the Crusader Kingdom it would be the Franciscans, of all Catholics, who would be allowed to stay on in the Holy Land and be recognized as “Custodians of the Holy Land” on behalf of the Catholic Church.

A story: One day while riding through the countryside, Francis, the man who loved beauty, who was so picky about food, who hated deformity, came face to face with a leper. Repelled by the appearance and the smell of the leper, Francis nevertheless jumped down from his horse and kissed the hand of the leper. When his kiss of peace was returned, Francis was filled with joy. As he rode off, he turned around for a last wave, and saw that the leper had disappeared. He always looked upon it as a test from God…that he had passed. (source)

A lesson learned: Francis of Assisi was a poor little man who astounded and inspired the Church by taking the gospel literally—not in a narrow fundamentalist sense, but by actually following all that Jesus said and did, joyfully, without limit and without a sense of self-importance.

Personal story: I took Francis as my confirmation name when I entered the Church twenty Easters ago.


Maximilian Kolbe (1894-1941)
Who he was: Born in Poland Kolbe became a Franciscan friar, joining the order founded by Francis of Assisi. Before being ordained as a priest he founded the Immaculata Movement which is devoted to Mary. He was a pioneer in radio and publishing, and at one time his movement’s magazine “The Knight of the Immaculata” had the largest circulation of any periodical in Europe. He traveled to Japan and India before returning to Poland a few years prior to the Nazi invasion of 1939. He was arrested and imprisoned at Auschwitz where he exchanged his life for another condemned man and was put to death in 1941.

A story: Kolbe described the following childhood vision he had of the Virgin Mary: That night, I asked the Mother of God what was to become of me, a Child of Faith. 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. (source)

A lesson learned: Kolbe’s death was not a sudden, last-minute act of heroism. His whole life had been a preparation. His holiness was a limitless, passionate desire to convert the whole world to God. And his beloved Immaculata was his inspiration.

Personal story: I joined the Knights of the Immaculata in 2001 and since then have worn the Miraculous Medal, much used and distributed by Kolbe, around my neck.


Frances Xavier Cabrini (1850-1917)
Who she was: One of thirteen children, at the age of eighteen she wanted to become a nun but was hindered by poor health. She helped her parents until their death and then worked on a farm with her siblings. She taught at a girls’ school for six years and founded the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart to care for poor children in schools and hospitals, and took her vows as a nun in 1877. She came to America with six nuns in 1889 to work among the Italian immigrants. She soon founded schools, hospitals and orphanages in the U.S. before her death in Chicago.

A story: In America she found disappointment and difficulties with every step. When she arrived in New York City, the house intended to be her first orphanage in the United States was not available. The archbishop advised her to return to Italy. But Frances, truly a valiant woman, departed from the archbishop’s residence all the more determined to establish that orphanage. And she did. In 35 years Frances Xavier Cabrini founded 67 institutions dedicated to caring for the poor, the abandoned, the uneducated and the sick. Seeing great need among Italian immigrants who were losing their faith, she organized schools and adult education classes. (source)

A lesson learned: The compassion and dedication of Mother Cabrini is still seen in hundreds of thousands of her fellow citizens, not yet canonized, who care for the sick in hospitals, nursing homes and state institutions. We complain of increased medical costs in an affluent society, but the daily news shows us millions who have little or no medical care, and who are calling for new Mother Cabrinis to become citizen-servants of their land.

Personal story: I first heard of Frances Cabrini around ten years ago during a story told by my priest upon the death of his mother. He said “My mom was a devoted woman of great faith. One of my childhood memories is of mom driving around the stores in downtown Lincoln seeking that elusive parking space. She would say ‘Mother Cabrini, don’t be a meanie. Find me a parking space.’ And each time she would find one!”


John Vianney (1786-1859)
Who he was: The fourth of six children, Jean-Baptiste-Marie Vianney was ordained a priest in 1815 and made a parish priest of Ars, a small remote French hamlet of 230 people, in 1818. It was there that his reputation as a confessor and spiritual advisor grew until he was known throughout the Christian world. A mystic who had great patience, he was loved by the crowds but retained his childlike simplicity. It was well known that he heard confessions from people who travelled from all over the world to see him, with the lines lasting often for 16-18 hours each day. By 1855 the number of pilgrims who came to see him reached 20,000 a year. He, too, was a Franciscan.

A story: By 1790, the French Revolution forced many loyal priests to hide from the government in order to carry out the sacraments in their parish. In order to attend Mass, even though it was illegal, the Vianneys travelled to distant farms where they could pray in secret. Since the priests risked their lives day by day, Vianney began to look upon priests as heroes. His First Communion lessons were publicly carried out in a public home by three priests. He made his first communion at the age of 13. During the Mass, the windows were covered so that the light of the candles could not be seen from the outside. (source)

A lesson learned: A man with vision overcomes obstacles and performs deeds that seem impossible. John Vianney was a man with vision: He wanted to become a priest. But he had to overcome his meager formal schooling, which inadequately prepared him for seminary studies. His failure to comprehend Latin lectures forced him to discontinue. But his vision of being a priest urged him to seek private tutoring. After a lengthy battle with the books, John was ordained.

Personal story: I own two books that contain sermons by Vianney. They pull no punches and are among the most challenging pages I’ve ever read. I can see why modern men and women would avoid reading Vianney. I can also see why so many do.


Teresa of Avila (1515-1582)
Who she was: As a teenager she cared only about boys and clothing and flirting and rebelling. When she was 16 her father decided she was out of control and sent her to a convent. At first she hated it but eventually she started to enjoy it – partly because of her growing love for God and partly because the convent wasn’t as strict as her father. She eventually chose religious life over married life and once installed at the Carmelite convent she began to learn and practice mental prayer. She is the founder of the Discalced Carmelites and in 1970 she was declared a Doctor of the Church for her writing and teaching on prayer, one of four women to be honored in this way.

A story: Her last words were “My Lord, it is time to move on. Well then, may your will be done. O my Lord and my Spouse, the hour that I have longed for has come. It is time to meet one another.”

A lesson learned: The gift of God to Teresa in and through which she became holy and left her mark on the Church and the world is threefold: She was a woman; she was a contemplative; she was an active reformer. As a woman, Teresa stood on her own two feet, even in the man’s world of her time. She was “her own woman,” entering the Carmelites despite strong opposition from her father. She is a person wrapped not so much in silence as in mystery. Beautiful, talented, outgoing, adaptable, affectionate, courageous, enthusiastic, she was totally human. Like Jesus, she was a mystery of paradoxes: wise, yet practical; intelligent, yet much in tune with her experience; a mystic, yet an energetic reformer. A holy woman, a womanly woman. (source)

Personal story: I am in awe of Teresa having read my way through half of her classic book The Interior Castle. She is a model of contemplative prayer. After her death a bookmark was found in which she had written:

Let nothing disturb you.
Let nothing make you afraid.
All things are passing.
God alone never changes.
Patience gains all things.
If you have God you will want for nothing.
God alone suffices.

It is one of my favorite prayers and a bookmark in my copy of The Liturgy of the Hours.


Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556)
Who he was: Ignatius was born in the family castle in Guipúzcoa, Spain, the youngest of 13 children, and was called Iñigo. When he was old enough he became a page, and then a soldier of Spain to fight against the French. During the Battle of Pamplona a cannon ball and series of bad operations ended his military career in 1521. When recovering, Ignatius read a commentary on the life of Jesus Christ called De Vita Christi by Ludolph of Saxony and was to abandon his previous military life and devote himself to labor for God, following the example of spiritual leaders such as Francis of Assisi. He wrote on of the most influential books on the spiritual life ever written, the famous Spiritual Exercises. He founded The Society of Jesus, more commonly known as the Jesuits. In September 1523, Loyola reached the Holy Land to settle there, but was sent back to Europe by the Franciscans. (source)

A story: Ignatius was dominated all his life by a desire to imitate Christ. His Spiritual Exercises, written over a number of years, are a series of reflections, examinations of conscience, and prayers, grouped according to a traditional set of four steps leading to mystical union with God. The spirituality identified with St. Ignatius is characterized by emphasis on human initiative. His little book is a classic of Christian mysticism and is much used by devout Catholics.

A lesson: Ignatius was a true mystic. He centered his spiritual life on the essential foundations of Christianity—the Trinity, Christ, the Eucharist. His spirituality is expressed in the Jesuit motto, ad majorem Dei gloriam—“for the greater glory of God.” It is probably true that the picture of Ignatius that most people have is that of a soldier: stern, iron-willed, practical, showing little emotion – not a very attractive or warm personality. Yet if this picture is exact, it is hard to see how he could have had such a strong influence on those who knew him. Luis Goncalves de Camara, one of his closest associates, wrote, “He (Ignatius) was always rather inclined toward love; moreover, he seemed all love, and because of that he was universally loved by all.

Personal story: I attended a weekend retreat in the spring of 2010 led by Fr. Timothy Gallagher who has authored several books on Ignatian spirituality. This peaked my interest in contemplative prayer and spirituality and I began to go deeper into both Carmelite and Ignatian spirituality. Last fall I attended a four-day silent Ignatian retreat. It was one of the most powerful few days of my life.


Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (1891-1942)
Who she was: Edith Stein was born in Breslau, Poland, the youngest child of a large Jewish family. She was an outstanding student and excelled in philosophy with a particular interest in phenomenology. She fell away from her Jewish faith and became an atheist as a teenager. Eventually she became interested in the Catholic faith and was baptized a Catholic in 1922. In 1933 Edith entered the Carmelite convent in Cologne, Germany. However, the Nazis knew she had Jewish roots and as she wasn’t safe she was moved to the Carmelite convent in Echt, Holland. When the Nazis conquered Holland they arrested Edith and her sister Rosa and immediately sent them to Auschwitz by train, where she died in the gas chambers in 1942.

A story: On August 7th, 1942, the transport in which Sister Benedicta and her sister Rosa were traveling to her death at Auschwitz, stopped at the train station of Schifferstadt, not far from the town of Speyer where Stein had lived and taught for so many years at a Dominican school. Apparently the prisoners were allowed some access to the outside air as the train waited on a side rail. Stein identified herself to the station master, Valentine Fouquet; and she sent greetings to the Schwind family, who resided nearby, and to the sisters of St. Magdalena’s convent. She then added the comment, “We are heading east.” Later that same day, having been transferred to a cattle train, she reportedly stopped briefly in her old hometown of Breslau, and was reportedly sighted by the postal worker, Johannes Weiners, who was working in the railroad depot in Breslau (now in Poland). Weiners noticed the nun appearing at the entrance of the railway car as the door was slid open by a guard. After their initial conversation, Sister Benedicta looked around to see where she was; then she said: “This is my beloved hometown. I will never see it again.” She added: “We are riding to our death.” Johannes Weiners asked her: “Do your companion prisoners believe that also?” She answered: “It’s better that they do not know it.”

A lesson: The account continues with a description of the postal workers arguing among themselves whether or not they should do anything for those in the railway car. When some of them asked her if they could bring them any food or drink, she answered: “No, thank you, we accept nothing.” These gentle words of refusal, of gratitude, and of detachment are the final words recorded from her. If Sister Benedicta spoke these words as a way to protect the railroad workers from retribution, then the act of charity through self-denial, would have freed the postal workers from their difficult situation. Other accounts of people who observed Sister Benedicta during the transport to her death record that she gave special attention to the needs of the children and of their mothers during this traumatic time. (source, page 21)

Personal story: I don’t really have one with regards to Stein. But I’m fascinated by this brilliant woman who was born a devout Jew, became an atheist, a philosopher of high regard, and eventually a Catholic nun.


Thomas More (1478-1535)
Who he was: More studied law at Oxford before embarking on a legal career which took him to Parliament. Known for his wit and as a reformer, this learned man listed bishops and scholars among his friends, and in 1516 wrote his famous book Utopia. He was appointed by King Henry VIII to a succession of high posts and missions before being named Lord Chancellor in 1529. He resigned in 1532 when Henry persisted in pressuring More to approve of Henry’s desire to divorce Queen Katherine of Aragon and marry his lover. In 1534 More refused to render allegiance to the King as the Head of the Church of England and was confined to the Tower of London as a prisoner. Fifteen months later he was convicted of treason. On the scaffold moments before he was to be beheaded More told the crowd that he was dying as “the King’s good servant—but God’s first.” (source)

A story: When the executioner offered to blindfold him, More said that he would do this himself. But after he had stretched his head over the low block—it was merely a log of wood—he made a signal to the man to wait a moment. Then he made his last joke: His beard was lying on the block and he would like to remove it. At least that had committed no treason. The heavy axe went slowly up, hung a moment in the air and fell.

A lesson learned: Four hundred years later, in 1935, Thomas More was canonized a saint of God. Few saints are more relevant to our time. In fact, in 2000, Pope John Paul II named him patron of political leaders. The supreme diplomat and counselor, he did not compromise his own moral values in order to please the king, knowing that true allegiance to authority is not blind acceptance of everything that authority wants. King Henry himself realized this and tried desperately to win his chancellor to his side because he knew More was a man whose approval counted, a man whose personal integrity no one questioned. But when Thomas resigned as chancellor, unable to approve the two matters that meant most to Henry, the king had to get rid of Thomas More.

Personal story: Utopia and The Sadness of Christ (a meditation on the Christ’s passion written while he was imprisoned in the Tower) are on my shelves and two of my favorite books. In an age where religious freedom is being removed from the public square, More is increasingly a role model for our era.

all-time great saints


My next eight? I’m going with Thomas Aquinas, Augustine of Hippo, Katherine Drexel, John of the Cross, Francis de Sales, Edmond Campion and the apostles John and Peter.


4 thoughts on “Family Portraits

  1. Pingback: Family Portraits | New Castle County Delaware

  2. Pingback: Friday Five, Volume 91 | Mere Observations

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