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THE CATHOLIC REVIEW: Saints Who Transformed Their World

12/20/2019 | Comments

Sherry Weddell SaintsThe noted apologist and philosopher Peter Kreeft once observed the saints as ones who “had wandering minds, and to recall their constantly wandering mind-child home. They became saints because they continued to go after the little wanderer, like the Good Shepherd.” Let’s face it: our image of the saints tends toward the other-worldly — folks definitely not like we mere mortals, but rather “men and women that are amazing for their moral intellect, spiritual strength, and for the effects their choices and actions had on the birth of Europe and Western civilization,” (from Saints that Changed the World, Moderno, Italy). I always felt that we love and admire the saints simply because they are just not like us at all.

We wonder, to change the words of an old rock song, “what if the saints were like one of us?” Now local author and teacher Sherry Weddell brings us “Saints Who Transformed Their World,” a new book humble in aspiration, clear in expression, and encouraging at the very time the church needs to find its exemplars in daily life.

Weddell, famous in Church circles for her “Called and Gifted” ministry, has trained teachers who have worked with over 140,000 ordained, religious, and lay Catholics in over 500 parishes in 175 dioceses on five continents. In this new book, she takes on a different way of showing the development of gifts and talents in Christ’s service, telling simple stories about how ordinary laypeople, using their talents and God-given abilities, can do extraordinary things in this world. Such contributions are always in connection with others in Christ’s Kingdom, as she observes that “when each of us faithfully answers God’s unique call in our lives, the fruit that you and I bear will be the answer to someone else’s prayer” (from the Preface).   

After a brief introduction (apparently Sherry is a collector of numerous books on the saints), as she shows us how altogether human saints really are, she introduces us to a series of people, “portraits of how the grace of God enters the world through the faith and obedience of real people. And through them, the lives and destinies of many others are transformed, and the course of history is changed” (from the Introduction).

We are shown the lives of fascinating people who led lives of service — and who eventually were recognized by the church as one of her saints. Antoni Gaudí (1852-1926), the architect and builder who devoted his entire life’s work to the soon-to-be-finished (in 2026) Basilica of Sagrada Familia (Holy Family) in Barcelona — now a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the most visited destinations in Spain. His observation of connections and superstructures in the natural world affected his architectural vision, and soon after his formal education, he was given the task of management of the Sagrada Familia at age 31. After two attempts to marry that failed, a crushing load of work, a growing sense of his spiritual life and Catholic faith, Gaudí developed a deeper conversion to his life’s work and its connection with Christ. Living for decades in a workshop inside the basilica, he gradually realized the inseparability of his building of the church and his own faith. In 2010, Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI came to Barcelona and formally consecrated the church as a basilica. He also pushed forward Gaudí’s cause for canonization, stating that “he belonged to a race of human beings from another time for whom the awareness of higher order took precedence over material things.”

Weddell continues through this work with stories about simple people who were open to the fiat of God. Another inspiring story concerns Satoko Kitahara (1929-1958; declared Venerable in 2015). Born into a family of Japanese privilege, her world was turned upside down with the fire-bombing of Tokyo in WWII, her contracting tuberculosis, losing two siblings to war, and the lack of consolation from her family’s Shinto religion. Visiting a friend in Yokohama, she passed by a Catholic church and impulsively entered, and was transfixed by a poor-quality statue of Our Lady of Lourdes. Satoko Kitahara remembers “sensing the presence of a very attractive force that I could not explain” (p.35), which led her to faith in Christ and her own baptism in 1949.

Seeking opportunities to serve the poor, she was taken in tow by Brother Zeno, a disciple of St. Maximilian Kolbe, and was introduced to the ragpickers in “Ant Town,” a squalid settlement of the homeless “who ran around looking for food and clothing in the garbage heaps, busy as ants.” Such help only started her path to sainthood, as she reflected, “I had thought I was a great Christian because I condescended to dole out some free time, helping Ant [destitute] children with their homework. It hit me now. There was only one way to help those ragpicker children: become a ragpicker like them!” (p.33).

We will read about Barbe Acarie (wife and mother); Frédéric Ozanam (scholar, lawyer, and advocate for social justice); George and Pauline Vanier (politician and diplomat); Joseph Dutton (a former alcoholic who became the administrator after the death of St. Damien, at the leper colony of Molokai, Hawaii); and others whose lives were both ordinary and transformative through an encounter of faith. We admire them not for their other-worldly focus, but their lives that were lifted from the far-too-worldliness of their environment and their own failings (something gives me encouragement to know that a prized architect of a famous Basilica in Barcelona never overcame his temper) to leave a lasting mark on their world. Truly, they are saints just like us — or the people we pray we may one day become.

We welcome this timely book to our bookshelves and our study, for its message of simple sanctification in the midst of daily life is more welcome than ever. Weddell is able to lift our spirits with the stories of these saints, especially those who lived in the single or married state, not as priests or religious. These men and women were able to live in faith and quiet obedience and were “lifted up in due time” (I Peter 5:6).

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