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A Great Cloud of Witnesses

I have been all things unholy. If God can work through me, he can work through anyone. (St. Francis of Assisi)

By: Teresa Tomeo

A Great Cloud of Witnesses: I have been all things unholy. If God can work through me, he can work through anyone. (St. Francis of Assisi) by Teresa Tomeo

It’s not something that automatically comes to mind when we think about great and much-loved saints like St. Francis of Assisi.

We are likely to imagine Francis as the always-peaceful and oh-so-humble man who gave up everything to serve the needy, live a life of prayer, and commune with nature in the beautiful Italian countryside. When we think of Francis, we might envision him walking through the Umbrian woods in sandals and tattered robes or feeding the birds and acting as a sort of medieval Dr. Doolittle, talking and kibitzing with the animals. No doubt we have also heard about his zeal for the Lord and his efforts to rebuild the Church, which began after he heard a specific call from the Lord. We forget that St. Francis, like many saints, had quite a colorful past, to say the least.

Francis, the Christian reformer, would have been basically unrecognizable by his friends and family because his new calling, ministering to the unwanted and underprivileged, was quite the opposite of his former days as an indulgent and rebellious youth. His father was a wealthy cloth merchant who owned land around Assisi. By the time Francis was in his early teens, his party-hardy and self-centered approach to life caused him to, among other things, drop out of school and break the city curfew one too many times.

It wasn’t until he was captured during a military battle and held for ransom that he ever so slowly started to change. While in prison, he began to receive visions from God. When he was finally released, he returned to his hometown a different man. Encountering a leper, he believed the man was actually Jesus in disguise. Instead of just passing him by, as he normally would have, he embraced him. His life of luxury suddenly lost its appeal, and his experience of God’s love caused him to leave his wealthy heritage behind. The rest, as they say, is history.

You might be thinking, as you struggle with moderation and balance, that there are more temptations in today’s world than there were in the past. Or you might believe that a particular issue or challenge you face was never a problem for all of those holy men and women who have gone before us. Well, think again. Plenty of the saints who now have churches, cities, and countless people named after them did not start out as “saintly types.” This is something to take very seriously and keep close to our hearts as we journey toward Christ. The struggles of the saints have helped me realize all the more how much we can relate to them and how much they understand the struggles we all face.

Granted, the temptations may come at us in different ways and much more frequently in our 24/7 media-saturated and over-sexualized culture. Pornography addiction, in particular, is at epidemic proportions, according to countless priests, who say it is the number one sin brought up in confession.

But when you come right down to it, as it says in the Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes, “there is nothing new under the sun” (cf. 1:9). The great teacher, bishop, and Church father St. Augustine of Hippo had a child out of wedlock and continued to struggle with sexual temptation for many years as he was making his way toward Christ. In his autobiography Confessions, he wrote, “Give me chastity and continence, but not yet.” That’s why we need to understand that when we hit the sinful potholes on this road called life, we should get back behind the wheel of faith and drive as fast as we can toward our sister and brother saints. The saints are among the helpful signposts that enable us to navigate life’s often very confusing and demanding highway. After all, there are plenty of major bumps in the road that can bring our lives to a screeching halt and take us completely off course.

Just a few years after the death of St. Francis, in a nearby part of Umbria, Italy, lived a beautiful and wealthy woman now known as Blessed Angela of Foligno. Angela is the patron of those afflicted by sexual temptation. She is said to have married at an early age and had several children. By her own admission, she loved the world and its pleasures. She reportedly had a fierce contempt toward the penitents of the day, those who lived simple lives like St. Francis. These men and women sold all their belongings and spent most of their days in prayer. When they weren’t praying, they were serving the Church and the poor, again like St. Francis.

Talk about God having a sense of humor! Little did Angela know that one day she, too, would become not only one of the penitents she once despised but also a Third Order Franciscan. Gradually, after seeing the fallout from Foligno’s war against Perugia, she began to recognize her own sins. According to her writings, this self-examination was the real key to her eventual conversion: “It was the knowledge of sin after which my soul was deeply afraid of damnation; in this stage I shed bitter tears.”

Another turning point came when she apparently had a vision of hell and called upon the intercession of St. Francis. She felt St. Francis encouraging her to go to confession. She eventually sold all of her possessions, turned away from her life of luxury and leisure, and dedicated her life to serving God and bringing others to Christ and the Church.

In a General Audience in 2010, Pope Benedict XVI told the pilgrims gathered at the Vatican that while Blessed Angela is admired greatly for the spiritual heights she attained, “perhaps they give too little consideration to her first steps, her conversion and the long journey that led from her starting point, the ‘great fear of hell,’ to her goal, total union with the Trinity.”

Okay, so maybe you’re not plagued by sexual or other grave sins. Maybe you’ll never have enough wealth to be consumed by it, as Blessed Angela and St. Francis once were. But…we all have our issues. We all “have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God,” as St. Paul reminds us (Romans 3:23).

Maybe you struggle with being jealous of those who have more than you. Perhaps you are struggling in your marriage or in other relationships. Maybe you feel you’re just too tired to pray or spend quality time with your family. You might be a working mom or dad who struggles with just getting through another jam-packed day of work, school, household chores, and activities. You might be among the many battling a lack of concentration during Mass or prayer time. Your sins or vices might not be nearly as dramatic as those of Augustine, Francis, and Angela. You probably didn’t go around searching for and persecuting Christians like St. Paul before his conversion on the road to Damascus. But is there a saint whose struggles you can relate to?

For busy moms and working women, a very recently canonized saint who was born in the twentieth century might help you. St. Gianna Beretta Molla was a wife, mother, and pediatrician. In beautiful love letters to her husband, Pietro, she often described how there never seemed to be enough time to enjoy the gifts of family life. She lamented the fact that Pietro at one point had to travel to the United States for work.

If you’re the sensitive type who has a hard time with criticism, even constructive criticism, get to know St. Therese of Lisieux. You might be surprised that this very popular saint, who was declared a doctor of the Church, was for a time quite the emotional basket case, often bursting into tears at even the thought of someone not appreciating or admiring her. And getting back to St. Augustine, if you’re angry or hurt over your own children falling away from the faith, St. Augustine’s mom, St. Monica, is your go-to gal. She prayed day and night for her son and even sought the help of the archbishop of Milan, St. Ambrose. Obviously, her prayers were answered, and her perseverance paid off. The key with all of the saints is they didn’t give up.

It’s often said that the Catholic Church isn’t a sanctuary for saints; it’s actually a hospital for sinners. So we’re in good company. The saints knew they had a past, some worse than others. They also knew that their past, as it says in Romans 8:28, could be used for good. St. Teresa of Ávila even went so far as to suggest that our misery can be turned into ministry: “To reach something very good, it is very useful to have gone astray, and thus acquire experience.”

In other words, we can learn and grow from our mistakes, however big or small. The saints were made aware of their sins but didn’t get stuck in them. Instead, they focused on their future in Christ. Whatever you’ve done or have failed to do, hopefully one or more of the many members of the great cloud of witnesses can help you do the same. As St. Teresa said, “Praised be the Lord who has redeemed me from myself.”

—excerpted from Girlfriends and Other Saints—Companions on My Journey of Faith, by Teresa Tomeo, TWAU Press, 2016.