Tuesday, October 30, 2018

The Text of my Belfast Talk

This is the text of the talk I delivered to the Courage to be Catholic conference, held in the Catholic chaplaincy of Queen's University, and organised by the Legion of Mary.

It was being recorded on camera, so I hope I might be able to post the video at some point.

Hello. My name is Maolsheachlann Ó Ceallaigh. I work in the library of University College Dublin and I also write a blog called Irish Papist, which has been going since 2011. This year I published a book called Inspiration from the Saints, and the organizer of this event kindly asked me to speak to you on the theme of that book. I’m very happy to be here today.

I want to talk about Catholic saints and the inspiration we can derive from them, to help us in our efforts to live out urf faith. Of course, I’m preaching to the converted, as I’m sure every person in this room already has favourite saints, and a devotion to saints in general. So I’m simply sharing some ideas regarding the ways in which saints can help us, some ways of looking at the subject, which I hope might be helpful to you.

The title of this conference is “the Courage to be Catholic”, and I do think that the saints can give us crucial inspiration in this regard. The courage to be Catholic has two sides-- there’s the courage to defend and proclaim our faith in public, and then there is the courage to face our own internal struggles, which might be invisible to everyone else-- perhaps a struggle against bitterness, or envy, or addiction, or some similar enemy. The example of the saints can help us in both of these, the outer challenges and the inner challenges.

In my book, I was very strict about using the term saints only for those people who have been canonised or beatified-- that is, people who have been given the title Saint or Blessed by the Church. In this talk, I’m going to be a little more relaxed, and also use the term saint for those who are on earlier steps on the path to sainthood-- those who have been given the title Venerable, which means they have been recognized as showing heroic virtue, or Servant of God, which simply means their cause has been opened.

So why are the saints important? We all know they are, but if we were challenged on the question, what would we say? Well, here are my thoughts.

I imagine you will all have heard of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who died in 1900 after a decade of insanity. His ideas were radical and often contradictory, but when it came to Christianity he was fundamentally a ferocious critic. One of his books was even called The Anti-Christ. Of the many critical things he wrote about Christianity, this might be the most memorable: “There was only one Christian, and he died on the Cross.”

Friedrich Nietzsche

The sentiment is hardly unique to Nietzsche, although he was a master of prose and put it particularly memorably. Gandhi is reputed to have said: “I like your Christ, but I do not like your Christians.” And John Lennon certainly did say: “Jesus was alright, but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.” (That’s me and you he’s talking about there.) Comments like these, and any number of similar ones that I’m sure we’ve all heard, reflect a common belief: Jesus was all very well, but he was a one-off. His followers were all hypocrites at best and disappointments at worst. Christianity has never worked in real life, and perhaps it never could work in real life.

There are many possible replies to this criticism, but one response is simply to point to the saints of the Catholic church, people who really have followed in Jesus’s footsteps, who really have kept his words. Now and again, some critics of Christianity, making the same argument as Friedrich Nietzsche, will make an exception for St. Francis of Assisi, and maybe one or two others. But St. Francis is only one of many, many, many saints. It’s impossible to make an authoritative list, but there are certainly many hundreds of saints venerated in the Catholic Church. There is now a careful process by which saints are canonised, but for many centuries people became saints through popular acclaim—through the fact that people saw that they were holy. Many of these are very obscure and, often, all we have are their names. But the point I’m trying to make is that it’s certainly not just St. Francis of Assisi or Mother Theresa who were true followers of Christ. There were many hundreds of people, at the very least, who have risen to the challenge of the Christian ideal. Friedrich Nietzsche and John Lennon are wrong.

And these are only the saints who have been proclaimed saints. Nobody knows how many people have died as saints and are now in Heaven. The Book of Revelations, describing St. John’s vision of the blessed in Heaven, tells us it’s too great a number to be counted. So that is one reason the saints are important; they prove the Christian ideal is achievable, and has been achieved. It’s not just a beautiful aspiration.

One of the reasons I wrote my book was out of a frustration at some of the books about saints I’d read. I’d spent a lot of time looking for such books in recent years, but quite often, they left me unsatisfied. When I sought out books about saints, I didn’t really want to know a huge amount of detail about their lives, or the society they lived in. I wanted stories. I wanted stories that showed why they were saints, what made them exceptional and extraordinary-- their achievements, their triumphs, their ordeals. I wanted stories to inspire me.

Today I’m making the case that Catholics should immerse themselves in the lives of the saints, in the stories of the saints. If we are practicing Catholics, we are fighting a battle for every human soul, and that includes our own souls. We have to evangelize, and that includes evangelising ourselves, so to speak. We’ve all been bombarded every single day, every day of our lives, with a lot of mental rubbish-- all the false and tacky glamour of advertising and Hollywood and the entertainment business in general. That’s all in our heads, swirling around. We can’t get it out. But I think it’s a good idea to counteract it with other images, other stories. I think it’s a good idea to immerse ourselves in the lives of the saints, to contemplate them, and to try to model ourselves on them.

The term I use for this is “the evangelization of the imagination”. Today, many Catholics are very rightly considering the various fronts on which we can evangelize our contemporaries. Many of them concentrate on evangelization through beauty. This is a fine initiative, but it’s not going to reach everybody. There are unfortunate clods such as myself who prefer Def Leppard to Bach, who are more drawn to plain suburban churches than historic cathedrals, and-- although I’m rather scared of being lynched if I admit this here-- who quite like guitar hymns. So I don’t think evangelization through beauty, on its own, is sufficient. But I suspect that, for every person who is moved by Gregorian chant, there are more who are moved by stories and ideas that capture the imagination. It’s my belief that Ireland was lost to the Faith by way of the imagination -- that, from the sixties onward, the hearts and minds of the Irish people were gradually being corrupted by the allure of pop culture, consumerism, liberalism, and so forth. Catholicism came to seem dull and oppressive, unexciting, compared to the promise of a brave new world in which all barriers would be broken and endless new possibilities would be opened. Today, now that the emptiness of individualism and hedonism is becoming apparent, it’s an ideal time, in my view, to seek to persuade our contemporaries that Catholicism is actually exciting, challenging, poetic and ultimately liberating. It’s time to recapture the Irish imagination for the Catholic Faith. And one way to do this is through the lives and examples of the saints.

When it comes to the veneration of saints, as in many other ways, the Catholic Church is the great friend of human nature. As we all know, many of the Protestant reformers in the sixteenth century rejected prayer to saints, which is of course prayer for the intercession of saints-- no different than asking a friend to pray for us. The theory was that direct prayer to God was all we needed. The Thirty-Nine articles of the Church of England describe the invocation of saints as “repugnant to the Word of God”. However, not praying to saints seems repugnant to human nature. This is one of those many areas where our Church is deliciously liberal, where it effectively tells us: “Knock yourself out”. The calendar of saints is filled to overflowing with saints of every race, nationality, age, career, educational attainment, and pretty much every other variable imaginable.

Of course, there are some commonalities. It’s a bit of a cliché to say that the saints are completely different from one another. In my opinion, they are actually very samey in some ways. Jesus told us that the way to life was narrow and straight. And when I was researching my book, and trying to make it as interesting as possible for the reader, I did find myself confronted with the awkward fact that there is quite a lot of repetition in the lives of the saints. Yes, there are contrasts. The cerebral St. Thomas Aquinas, who spent his entire life thinking and writing, is very different from the passionate St. Francis of Assisi who was rather suspicious of books and scholarship. But, on the whole, the saints are much more like each other than they are unlike; at least, that would be my contention.

But this commonality is another reason we should immerse ourselves in the lives of the saints. As Christians, we are called to follow Christ, but this presents us with a bit of a problem. We know so little about Christ’s life. We only have one brief flash of his boyhood, and the rest of our knowledge of him comes from his last few years. Furthermore, the four Gospels very often tell the same stories. How do we follow the example of someone of whom we know so little, and who lived in a world so very different from our own? We’re all familiar with the question, “What would Jesus do?”. And we all know that people find very different answers to that question.

Well, we don’t have to guess what Jesus would do in every situation. St. Paul instructs his disciples in the letter to the Romans: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” As well as the instruction that the Church has given us in its doctrine and tradition, we have a long line of saints who have lived in every age and in pretty much every possible circumstance of human life. Rather than having to ask: “What would Jesus do in this situation?”, we can very often see what the saints, his most devoted followers, actually did. We can follow Christ by following the saints.

Saints are people who have developed a kind of second instinct, a supernatural second instinct, and show us what kind of responses we should seek to develop in particular scenarios. They socialise us, just as children are socialised by parents. As Catholics, we usually know what is wrong and right in theory, from the teachings of the Church, from catechisms, and so forth. But we also have to learn about emphasis and priority-- just how much emphasis we should place on a particular virtue, how much horror we should have before a particular sin, and so forth. The lives of the saints is a great school for this.

Here is an example-- attitudes towards sexual sin, towards impurity. Prudishness is often considered a fault today. It might be understandable, if we were trying to think out a Christian attitude for ourselves, to decide that we should avoid sinning against impurity but that we should also avoid prudishness. For instance, that we should be willing to laugh at risqué jokes so as not to seem “holier than thou” or sanctimonious, or to watch sexually explicit films which have artistic merit. We might take the text from Titus, “to the pure all things are pure”, and decide that a mature morality means being able to face the world as it is without being corrupted by it. However, when we read the lives of the saints, we very often find a severity which takes us aback. At least, it sometimes takes me aback. St. Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei, advised his followers that, when it came to sexual temptation, “it is low cowardice to be brave”. 

St. Gemma Galgani, an Italian mystic I often mention in my book, did not even want to undress for a doctor’s examination, and only did so with extreme reluctance. The Blessed Giorgio Frassati, a handsome Italian saint who died in 1925, who is often seen as rather cool and was concerned with social justice, once ordered an Italian bookseller to take some dirty books out of his shop window, threatening to call the police if he didn’t. And I imagine these books were pretty mild by our standards. So Catholic saints, in general, show a dread of sexual impurity, and even a dread of the occasions of sexual impurity, that can’t help but impress us. Of course, I’m not saying we should emulate all of these examples, or that they don’t owe something to historical context. I’m simply saying that they show us just what a value the saints put upon sexual purity. It seems highly unlikely, reading the lives of the saints, that many of us today are erring on the side of prudishness.

Hunger for the sacraments is another lesson we learn from saints. The Church tells us that the sacraments are crucially important, but we see this dramatized, as it were, in the lives of the saints. St. Thomas More famously refused to hurry from Mass even when King Henry VIII had sent a messenger to summon him. Venerable Edel Quinn, the great Legion of Mary missionary who will surely attain sainthood eventually, said: “I could assist at the Mass the whole day long”. Here is a description of her delight in Mass, as from the vice-postulator of her cause for sainthood: “To be deprived of Communion was one of the greatest sufferings she could conceive. At one period in Africa she was a patient in a non-Catholic sanatorium and was able to receive Holy Communion only once a week. She said later the privation of daily Communion gave her an experience of what hell must be like. When working in her Dublin office she made it a practice to attend seven o’clock Mass daily, not returning home for breakfast. Seemingly she remained in the church until after eight o’clock Mass and then went straight to work, having a snack in the office. On Sundays she normally attended two Masses before breakfast and four later Masses. And in her African diary the first entry each day is the number of Masses she had attended.”

Edel Quinn
  An eye-witness of the life of St. Dominic wrote: “I saw the Blessed Dominic say Mass many times both in the monastery and on journeys. And there was not a single time when Dominic did not shed tears.” Other witnesses have described the manner in which St. Padre Pio or St. Josemaria Escrivia celebrated Mass in such vivid terms that even reading them second-hand can’t help but impress us. Or there is the story of St. Philip Neri, who had special permission to say Mass in a private oratory as he would frequently pass into ecstasies simply from celebrating the liturgy. I don’t know about you, but when I hear stories like these, it deepens my sense of awe for the sacrament at the centre of our faith, one that we are never in any danger of over-valuing. The same point might be made about confession. When we hear how St. Padre Pio or St. Jean Vianney would often spend most of the day hearing confessions, this impresses upon us just how important and precious the sacrament of reconciliation really is.

But If I was asked for one single characteristic which united the saints, apart from the obvious one that they were all followers of Jesus Christ, I would have no hesitation in answering: prayer. As I was researching my book, this theme struck me more and more. Of course, many others have remarked on this. St. Josemaria Escriva once wrote: “A saint without prayer? I don’t believe in such sanctity”.

Since this event is under the auspices of the Legion of Mary, I don’t think I can do better than quote the words of the Legion’s revered founder, Servant of God Frank Duff, who admirably enlarged on this theme in his first publication, an essay entitled Can We Be Saints?

Frank Duff
"From reading the lives of the Saints, one would conclude that they fall, roughly, into two classes: those who gave themselves to contemplation, and those who spent their lives in active works. In reality they were all alike. All were souls whose whole lives were prayer. Prayer was their business. Their good deeds were only valuable because they sprang from prayer; they bore the same relation to prayer that the trunk of a tree bears to the roots; good deeds are a visible part of prayer; and good deeds cannot live without prayer."
"The present is a period when successful appeal is being made to Catholics to show by works of charity the Faith that is in them. That the most ordinary act may become holy when inspired by a holy intention is well understood and the words of Christ Himself, assuring us that "Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family you did it to me," draws us powerfully on to the service of our neighbour."

"The possibilities of holiness here are immense. But it is not sufficiently recognised that a proper balance of regular prayer and good works is essential to perseverance in the latter. There is a tendency to consider good works as prayerful enough in themselves. Their variety makes them easy, while prayer is difficult. Besides, we like to see results, and usually we do not see the results of prayer. So we reduce our prayers to little or nothing satisfying ourselves with the recollection that we are doing plenty of practical work for our neighbour."

“Souls whose whole lives were prayer”. I don’t think anyone could read up on the lives of the saints without coming to the conclusion that this was their outstanding shared characteristic, that they fulfilled St. Paul’s injunction to pray without ceasing. Of course, not all prayer is structured prayer or vocal prayer-- the Catechism quotes the words of St. John Damascene, who describes prayer as the raising of the heart and mind to God. So we can be prayerful even when we are most active. And yet, you won’t find a saint, even the busiest saint, who did not also devote a great deal of time to prayer in the more conventional sense, time devoted specifically to prayer-- the rosary, Eucharistic adoration, and so forth. And, of course, the Mass.

In fact, saints are often visibly at prayer even while busy about other things. One person described an encounter with St. Mother Theresa thus: “She was very attentive as she faced me. I had the feeling that at the same time as she was speaking to me she was praying. The Rosary slipped constantly through her bony fingers. She was wholly with God and yet wholly with the people before her.” This is a common description of saints; they are very focused on other people, and yet also seem to be always in the presence of God.

This unity of prayer and action, or being directed towards both God and other people, is another reason devotion to the saints is important. I don’t want to get too much into Church politics in this talk, but I think it’s fair to say that there tends to be two contrasting tendencies amongst Catholics today. There are those who put the emphasis more on social justice, on the improvement of this world, and those who put the emphasis more on the sacred and the eternal. The social justice Catholic tends to emphasise service to man, while Catholics more focused on the sacred tend to emphasise our duties to God and the Church, such as evangelizing. The social justice Catholic can easily become so focused on serving others, in a very worldly sense of the term “service”, that he forgets about their eternal souls, or that Christ said that his kingdom was not of this world. All too often, he ceases to care about doctrine, and soon all that matters to him is expressing solidarity with whatever groups he believes, truly or falsely, to be oppressed. The logical end of this attitude is supporting all kinds of anti-Catholic measures such as same-sex marriage or abortion or euthanasia. But even if he doesn’t go so far, even if he keeps a precarious hold on orthodoxy, the emphasis is very much upon this world and not eternity. I think it’s fair to say we’ve all seen this. Sadly, if you log onto the websites of a lot of the dying religious orders today, you might find yourself wondering whether they are religious orders or secular charities. 

On the other hand, there are those who put the emphasis on the sacred, on orthodoxy, on the salvation of souls. Some Catholics of this tendency, and please note I say some, can become so intent on proclaiming the truth that they are inclined to forget about charity. Fuelled by an admirable determination not to compromise or soft-soap the doctrine of the Church, they can sometimes become, to be blunt, angry jerks. What such people seem to be proclaiming to the world is that Catholicism makes you bitter and confrontational and aggressive, rather than joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, and so forth. I know this because I’ve fallen into this trap myself, and I still have to guard against it all the time-- many times a day. Sometimes, people of this sort justifies this attitude by statements such as these: love is seeking the good of the other, genuine charity is speaking the truth, and rebuking the sinner is a spiritual work of mercy. All of which is true, but none of which justifies acting like an angry jerk.

I’m not suggesting these two tendencies are as bad as each other. First off, I think the second tendency, those who put the emphasis upon orthodoxy, is closer to the truth, since Jesus tells us that the first commandment is to love God with all our heart, mind and soul. I also think the first tendency, the social justice tendency (for want of a better term), is, today, far, far more of a danger to the Church in general.

In any case, I think an immersion in the lives of the saints is a good tonic for the excesses of both for these tendencies. Some of our more abrasive Catholic like to dwell on the correspondence between Martin Luther and St. Thomas More, which was characterised by some very strident language on both sides. There are saints such as St. Jerome, who was notoriously cantankerous, or St. Bernadette, who had a no-nonsense attitude-- I like the story of St. Bernadette giving her brother a sound box on the ear when he admitted to accepting money for showing some tourists the exact site of her apparition.

However, my contention would be that the vast majority of saints have been remarkable for their gentleness, their patience, their warmth, their kindness, and so forth. Good is not nice, we are often told. But saints are generally very nice as well as very good. This is a fact I came across again and again in my study of Catholic saints. Very often, even the saints whose reputations lead you to expect they were rather ferocious turn out to have been surprisingly gentle. There are many saintly priests who have embodied the advice: “Be a lion in the pulpit and a lamb in the confessional”, and the same general principle is observable in the lives of saints who are not priests-- the most uncompromising orthodoxy combined with the tenderest charity.

Here’s an example I encountered only recently. St. John of the Cross was a Carmelite friar and priest who died in 1591 and who helped found the Discalced Carmelites. The Discalced Carmelites observed a stricter monastic regime than the other Carmelites of their time. His spiritual writings emphasise the need to purge ourselves of our own desires and appetites, and his own austerities were quite startling. One would expect he was a rather severe type of saint, but this is how one biographer describes him:

"When as a superior it was necessary for him to correct his subjects, he was cautious lest through impatience or anger he would succeed only in saddening or discouraging them. “He made his corrections with much gentleness and charity and always saw to it that the one being corrected would not leave his presence sad.”...Another characteristic of his “wonderfully gracious” manners was his custom of asking his subjects for their opinions in various matters or problems which arose. All of this created a holy environment of serenity and of joy in the relationships of friars to their superior.”

St. John of the Cross
This was what St. Vincent de Paul said regarding gentleness: “God grant all missionaries the grace of accustoming themselves to treat their neighbours both publicly and privately, in a meek, humble and charitable manner, and never to employ invectives, reproaches or harsh words against anybody whomsoever.” He also said: “I have never, never succeeded when I have spoken with the faintest suspicion of harshness; I have always noted that if one wishes to move the mind, one must be ever on one’s guard against embittering the heart.”

This is what St. Josemaria Escriva said about rebuking sinners: “Nothing is gained by ill-treating people. When they are souls who need help, good advice, we are not going to treat them badly. They are spiritually sick, just as there are others who are mentally or physically sick. Don’t ill-treat them ever. Is that clear?”

I could quote many other examples of other saints remarkable for their gentleness, and who advocated gentleness. If you suspect I’m overstating the case, make the experiment yourself. Investigate the lives of the saints in depth. I’m confident you will find this is true. Why am I stressing this point so much? Because we live in an era when the Church is being relentlessly attacked from outside and also undermined from within. We all know this. The temptation to react with rage, bitterness and negativity is enormous. I advise we look to the lives to the saints to find a better response, to not only be as wise as serpents but also as gentle as doves.

Another reason to read the lives of the saints is because it increases our faith. One of the arguments I often make for the truth of the Catholic faith is the lives of Catholic saints. Sometimes this is in the most straightforward sense of miracles. We can look at the life of someone such as the Blessed Solanus Casey, an Irish-American Capuchin friar who died in 1957. An amazing number of miraculous cures and other supernatural favours are associated with this man, not only after his death but during his life. They are very well documented; you can log onto YouTube and see people who are still alive giving accounts of them on camera. This is not some figure lost in the mists of history. But it’s not just obvious miracles. Very often, reading the lives of the saints, we can see the operation of Providence in a way that’s difficult to dismiss. The history of the Legion of Mary itself is a case in point. Like so many saints, Frank Duff had a faith that God would intervene at the necessary moments, and we see it happen again and again. Indeed, he wrote a pamphlet called Miracles on Tap about one period in Legion history.

Another reason to read the lives of the saints is that it the examples of the saints helps us to bear our trials. The line from Hebrews, “Whom the lord loves, he disciplines; he scourges every son he acknowledges” can certainly be seen in saints’ lives. Let me take the example of Blessed Solanus Casey, who I just mentioned. He struggled with his priestly training to the extent that he was not ordained a full priest, but rather, a simplex priest. He was not allowed to hear confessions or preach homilies, and he was given jobs which were generally given to lay brothers rather than priests, such as greeting visitors to the monastery. But it was in this very task that God’s grace operated through him. And we very often see this pattern repeated in the lives of the saints. It isn’t just a case of the saying, “into each life some rain must fall”; it’s much more pronounced than that. Almost every saint seems to have been sent some very particular cross to shoulder; the is very clear. Nothing could be more encouraging to us in our own trials, to not only endure them but to find meaning in them.

G.K. Chesterton
I want to finish, not with my own words, but the words of G.K. Chesterton, my favourite writer, who is himself being investigated for sainthood. It’s spoken by a character in The Ball and The Cross, a novel that he published in 1909:

"You cannot deny that it is perfectly possible that tomorrow morning, in Ireland or in Italy, there might appear a man not only as good but good in exactly the same way as St. Francis of Assisi. Very well, now take the other types of human virtue; many of them splendid. The Elizabethan gentleman was chivalrous and idealistic. But can you stand still here in this meadow and be an English gentleman of Elizabeth? The austere republican of the eighteenth century, with his stern patriotism and his simple life, was a fine fellow. But have you ever seen him? have you ever seen an austere republican? Only a hundred years have passed and that volcano of revolutionary truth and valour is as cold as the mountains of the moon. And so it is and so it will be with the ethics which are buzzing down Fleet Street at this instant as I speak. What phrase would inspire the London clerk or workman just now? Perhaps that he is a son of the British Empire on which the sun never sets; perhaps that he is a prop of his Trade Union, or a class-conscious proletarian something or other; perhaps merely that he is a gentleman when he obviously is not. Those names and notions are all honourable; but how long will they last? Empires break; industrial conditions change; the suburbs will not last for ever. What will remain? I will tell you. The Catholic Saint will remain."

Thank you.


  1. I printed this out to read on the train yesterday. Superb.

    1. Thank you. I appreciate that very much.I put a lot of work into it.