children you love to the real saints. You can't count on Valentine's
Day to reveal the truth about a holy man. By Anne Bingham
LAST VALENTINE'S DAY,
a magazine I'll call Decadence Digest asked me to write
an article about ultra-expensive Valentine presents: gift baskets
of $500 perfume, chocolate to die for, cruises to Balithat
sort of thing. The editor suggested I start with a brief history
of Valentine's Day, so I wrote a couple of paragraphs about
the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia (celebrated mid-February),
and how the Church managed to tame the wilder aspects of that
celebration by linking it to the adjacent feast of St. Valentine.
I pointed out
that the February 14 feast actually commemorated two Valentines:
the first a beloved Christian priest rounded up in Claudius
the Goth's persecution (269 A.D.) and beheaded outside Rome;
the other a bishop of Terni, about 60 miles from Rome, beheaded
in another purge a few years later. (Partly because of this
confusion, the Valentine commemorations were dropped from
the official Church calendar of universally celebrated feasts
about 25 years ago, although local churches can still choose
to observe them.) Legends attribute affectionate letters from
prison to both Valentines.
A few days
after I handed in the article, the editor called to tell me
to shorten the introduction. "We're trying to get people
in a romantic mood," she said, "so leave out most
of the statistics (sic) about the history. We didn't think
that talking about people being beheaded was very romantic."
More Than Hearts and Flowers
I mention the incident not to
complain about editors or about that particular magazine but
to point out what kids are up against when it comes to learning
about their ancestors in the faith. The lives of the saints
are an important part of our Catholic heritage; their stories
tell us who we are and how we're expected to behave. That's
not how it works out, though, if you leave it to chance.
either ignores saints or debases their memory. Francis of
Assisi, Thomas à Becket and Thomas More are the only ones
I've seen on film in my lifetime. I can't speak for television
(we use our set primarily as a video monitor), but I do know
you can count on two hands and a foot the worthwhile books
about saints published by secular publishing houses during
that time. Eliminate the books on Francis and you're down
to a set of toes!
schools, where the vast majority of our children are educated,
are prohibited by law from teaching about saints, and while
a good religion program will integrate saints into the curriculumtraditionally
during October in preparation for the November 1 Feast of
All Saintsclassroom work can only go so far.
in CCD classes, time constraints limit the focus mainly to
doctrinal basics. Fine-tuning has to be done at home.
necessarily a handicap. Formal instruction is necessarythe
more challenging, the better. Children also learn by listening
at the dinner table. The important thing is that children
hear it both places.
Meet the Friends of Jesus
Both my husband and I were raised
in an era when heaven was organized according to the principles
of subsidiarity, with God in charge of the big picture and
saints handling the details, which included everything from
a happy death to recovery from strep throat. We accumulated
holy cards describing saints' specialties the way our son
Daniel collects baseball cards, and along the way we picked
up lots of stories.
When we became
parents ourselves, a little editing of the loopier folklore
elements gave us an extensive repertoire of "friends
of Jesus" to share with our two boys. We emphasize the
saints' obedience to the call of the Lord rather than the
signs and wonders attached to their names, although we've
kept some of the folklore, labeling it as such. As one of
our friends told his children about Bible stories, "Some
stories are true on the outside, some on the inside."
We're in the
older generation of parents, though. The parents of most of
my children's friends are 10-15 years younger than we are.
This means they grew up in those turbulent, corrective years
after Vatican II, when the saints were lost for a while as
we tried to figure out as a Church what was really important.
This generation isn't necessarily on a first-name basis with
too many saints.
Surround Your Children With Saints
For such parents,
who have to start from scratch, here are some ideas for rescuing
Valentine from the candy counter and Patrick from behind the
bar. It boils down to two things: Teach early, teach often.
giving children a patron saint. Kids love hearing stories
about what their name means and who they're named after. If
you're an expectant parent, find a collection of lives of
the saints and cross-check the names you've picked for kid-friendliness.
This doesn't mean saints who had sweet personalities but saints
who come with a fair amount of documentation, a feast day,
and an image recognizable in statuary, icon or other artwork.
If you go for
an Old Testament name, you'll forgo the feast day, but being
in the Bible makes up for it. You can also designate your
own day for celebrating the feast of St. Noah.
Popular culture either ignores saints or debases their memory.
If you've already gone and named
your daughter Heather, tell her she can be the first St. Heather.
Then choose a family patron, perhaps after reading several
saint stories during the weeks when you're not doing activities
related to Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter. If your family
can't reach a consensus on a family saint, choose two.
Come to think
of it, choosing a family saint is a good idea even if you
have a tableful of big-league saint names.
growing children with inspiration and information. In
your decor, include icons, statues, framed pictures and a
calendar with saints' feasts noted (even if you have to add
them yourself). Supply books as well.
around is the most effective teaching tool imaginable. During
1996 our boys had great fun taking turns ripping off the calendar
page from our Saint-of-the-Day calendar. I was less than thrilled
with this mass-market calendar (now out of print) because
some of its material was drawn from exceedingly old sources
whose definition of sanctity covered people who were clinically
insane. This did lead to interesting discussions, though,
particularly about the hermit who traipsed around the desert
with a dead dog tied to his waist.
And one afternoon
last winter I came upon Peter, then in third grade, sprawled
on the landing poring over his dad's old Dictionary of
up Jehovah," he said. "What does this mean,
was a direct result of viewing Indiana Jones and the Last
Crusade, during which Harrison Ford bypasses a deadly
booby trap by stepping only on stones with letters that, in
Latin, represent the name of God.
the Bible dictionary on our "holy books" bookcase,
which is near the outlet in the upstairs hall where the boys
plug in the hair dryer. The books are shelved there deliberately,
on the theory that we'd trade a unit of hair-drying efficiency
for 10 minutes of informal instruction in their Catholic heritage.
the Thomas Mertons and Raymond Browns and G. K. Chestertons,
the shelves hold collections of saints' lives written for
various ages, a couple of Where's Waldo?-style Bible
story books and everything religious Tomie de Paola's ever
published, including his wonderfully illustrated story of
Our Lady of Guadalupe plus his lives of St. Patrick and St.
Francis of Assisi.
been through the bookcase so often looking for these books,
my eight-year-old knew where to find out about "Jehovah,
It was months
before it struck me, one spring evening, that this is exactly
what the saints are supposed to dolead us to God.
Anne Bingham is a free-lance writer who currently reviews books for Catholic News Service and for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. She has contributed articles and essays to many newspapers and magazines, including Columbia and Catholic Digest.
Increasing Saint Literacy at Your House