It used to be a staple of every Catholic household library to have a work on the lives of the saints. Especially popular was a classic work by 18th Century English priest and philosophy and theology professor, Fr. Alban Butler. His multi-volume work on the saints became the go-to reference for many decades and it’s still in print.
Unfortunately, after Vatican II, the devotion to the saints (and study of their lives) seemed to fall by the wayside, in an era where they were deemed “not relevant.” (the buzzword of the day). But the truth is, they are extraordinarily relevant in every age, so it is good to see a return to study of and devotion to the saints. They are models of the Christian life for us to follow and have a personal relationship with us, interceding for us and spiritually guiding us toward the unimaginably happy union with the Blessed Trinity they already enjoy. They come from every walk of life and every nation, reminding us of the unity of all God’s children through baptism.
Let’s look at a few of the saints on the calendar for July. You can find more detailed biographies of them online at catholicsaints.info. We start with an American saint of sorts, recently canonized St. Kateri Tekakwitha (July 14). Sometimes dubbed the “Lily of the Mohawks” because of her beauty and purity, she was a 17th century Indian who lived in what is now New York. She was the daughter of a Mohawk chief and an Iroquois woman who had become Christian. Sadly, Kateri was orphaned young during a smallpox epidemic, during which she not only lost her mother, but was permanently marred by the disease, which scarred her face and impaired her eyesight. As a young woman of about 20, when the Jesuit missionaries came to visit her tribe, she knew she had found the truth in Christ and chose to be baptized.
That was the beginning of deep troubles for Kateri which would severely test her faith. She had taken a private vow of virginity so refused to marry. For this and for her Christian faith, which many of the indigenous peoples viewed with deep suspicion, she was shunned by her tribe and her own family and subjected to severe abuse, made all the more intense because she lived an ascetic (self-denying) life. Despite the abuse, she clung to her faith but eventually had to flee to a Jesuit mission hundreds of miles away under cover of night. After her death, her disfigured face was transformed and restored to its original beauty.
About the same time that Kateri was born, during the Ming dynasty in China, Dominican missionaries began to try to bring the faith to that Eastern kingdom. Fr. Francisco de Capillas was probably the first of the martyrs, beheaded while praying the sorrowful mysteries of the Rosary. The dynastic government officially banished Catholicism as a “perverse sect with sinister doctrines.” The Catholics in China did not give up over the centuries where the faith was outlawed. Martyrs continued to inspire others to live out the faith, even if they paid the price with their lives. By the time of the 19th century, the bishops who practiced the faith illegally were hunted down and executed. One notable example of bold perseverance was Augustine Zhao Rong. He had been a soldier before his conversion and assigned to guard duty to transfer one of the condemned bishops to his execution. So moved by the bishop’s forgiveness and patience in suffering, he chose to be baptized and ordained a priest himself. With many companions, he was tortured and killed in 1815, Pope St. John Paul canonized him together with over 100 companions, the Chinese martyrs (feast day: July 9). To this day, the Chinese government has never tolerated Catholicism, and the current Communist government attempts to control the Church.
An interesting tweak to the calendar of saints was made by Pope Francis this year. July 29th used to be the feast of St. Martha of Bethany. She had a famous conversation with Our Lord about the Resurrection. (John 11:25). That’s the context where Jesus proclaims “I am the Resurrection and the Life.” The Pope added to that feast day the brother and sister of Martha as well (Mary and Lazarus), reminding us that faith is not just personal, but familial. St. Lazarus is famous for the dramatic scene where the Lord orders the dead Lazarus to come out of the tomb and the bystanders to untie his burial cloths removed (John 11:43). This passage is rich in meaning, representing the Lord’s power over sin and death (especially over spiritual death, so you’ll sometimes see this image in a confessional). It also foreshadows the Lord’s own Resurrection from the tomb. Mary is famous for her willingness to sit at the feet of the Lord, contemplating His words and presence, even when her sister St. Martha complains that she has to do all the work! (Luke 10:42).
Finally, St. Bonaventure (feast day: July 15th) was a Franciscan superior and recognized as a doctor of the Church. He lived in the great era of mendicant friars (begging religious priests and brothers who lived in radical poverty for the sake of Christ). He was a great teacher and philosopher, enthralled with the beauty of Christ, and his works are still read to this day.