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Saints are part of our DNA as Catholics. They are our friends, our personal companions on our faith journey. They comfort and challenge us, they give us guidance and hope, they help us find God’s plan for our lives. Walking With the Saints passes on the stories of selected holy people who are powerful examples of Christian living.

Walking With the Saints

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Men and Women Who Changed the Church

by William H. Shannon

In his classic work, Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton wonders if there are 20 living persons who see things as they are, who are free from material attachments and who are ever responsive to God’s grace and aware of God’s presence. There must be a few, he believes: “They are the ones who are holding everything together and keeping the universe from falling apart.”

An exaggerated portrait of a saint by an enthusiastic young monk? Perhaps. Yet there is truth in what he says. A person who comes even close to Merton’s description would surely be an influence for good on a small—and sometimes large—scale, changing the world. We feature here several people who left a large legacy.

St. Ambrose (339-397)

Suppose you picked up your morning paper and read the front-page headline: “Governor Chosen as Catholic Bishop.” It is an understatement to say that you would be astounded, perhaps wondering whether it might be an early April Fool’s Day joke. In truth, it is something that actually happened centuries ago in Milan, Italy.

In 374, the bishop of the city died, and people gathered to choose his successor. (In those days, bishops were chosen by the local laity and clergy.) It was a disquieting time in Milan. The Church was bitterly divided between Nicene Christians (who believed in the divinity of Christ) and the Arians (who taught that Jesus was only human). Hot tempers raised the specter of violence and bloodshed.

Ambrose—who in 370 had left the practice of law to become the governor of the Western Empire—arrived on the scene and addressed the crowd, calling for order and peace. Suddenly, as if from nowhere, a voice was heard, chanting: “Ambrose for bishop!” This chant was taken up by the people. Ambrose was horrified. At the time he was a catechumen, not yet baptized. Still, the people insisted, and in short order he was baptized, ordained and made bishop of Milan.

Rising to the task

There were not then (and, it would seem, still are not) wise courses on “How to Be a Bishop.” But Ambrose was a quick learner. He listened to credible teachers and steeped himself in the Scriptures and in the writings of early Christian teachers, such as Origen, Basil, Athanasius and others. Even though Ambrose is now a Doctor of the Church, he is less remembered for his writings than for the striking model he offered of a truly pastoral bishop ministering generously to all, and especially to the poor.

His was no easy task; his career as bishop was a stormy one. He had troubles with the Arians, whose request for a church building in Milan he had to refuse. He had trouble with the Roman Emperor Theodosius, who, in reprisal for the death of the governor of Thessalonica, had ordered the merciless massacre of thousands of men, women and children in that city. Ambrose ordered the emperor to do public penance—and the emperor obeyed. Ambrose told Theodosius: “The emperor is in the Church, not above it.”

A legacy of peace and wisdom

In 476, less than a century after Ambrose’s death, the Roman Empire fell into the hands of invaders from the north. In his day, Ambrose had already seen signs of decline, as violence and lawlessness crept through the empire. The only defense against the increasing chaos was the army, for there were no police or courts of law to defend human rights and work for peace.

In this critical context, it is quite understandable that Ambrose became one of the architects of the just war theory that was destined to become the classic Catholic attitude toward war for centuries. Only in our day—times very different from Ambrose’s—has this approach to war been widely questioned.

His wisdom and deep learning helped prepare St. Augustine—that intellectual giant of the Western Church—to accept Christian faith. This may well be Ambrose’s most enduring gift to the Church.


St. Athanasius (296-373)

The other day, a second-grade teacher showed me a list of questions her pupils had asked about God. Among the questions were these: “How old is God?” and “Is there a Spanish God?” One child’s question especially caught my attention. She asked: “Was Jesus God?” This question really struck me, probably because I had been thinking of writing this article on St. Athanasius. It was this same question that haunted Athanasius much of his life. It was his strong and resolute “yes” to it that defines much of his life story.

As a young priest in Alexandria, Egypt, Athanasius accompanied his bishop, Alexander, to the Council of Nicaea. A meeting of bishops had been called to consider the teaching of Arius, who was also a priest of the Church of Alexandria. Arius taught that Jesus was not divine by nature. Though he is called Son of God in Scripture, Arians held that Jesus did not always exist and was therefore a creature, though the first of all creatures.

A divisive issue

After much debate, Arianism was condemned by the bishops at this first ecumenical council, which met in 325 A.D. in Nicaea (now Iznik in modern Turkey). Though it was condemned, Arianism did not disappear: It continued to be a divisive issue in the Church for more than half a century. Arius was a brilliant propagandist who succeeded in creating a large following throughout the Christian Church, especially at the imperial court.

Three years after the Council, Athanasius was elected as the bishop of Alexandria. In his capacity as bishop, he strongly defended the decision of Nicaea and refused to compromise with the Arians. His tenure as bishop was a long one: 43 years. For 17 of those years he was away from the seat of his diocese, not by choice but because, on five different occasions, he was forced into exile. Several times this was at the order of the Emperor Constantius, whom Arius had won over to his cause. Athanasius was exiled to Trier, to Rome and several times into the Egyptian desert.

An extraordinary man

Cardinal John Henry Newman, who wrote an extensive history of the Church in the fourth century, saw Athanasius as a shining light in that troubled period when Arianism almost succeeded in replacing the orthodox teaching of Nicaea. St. Jerome described that period when he wrote (with some exaggeration perhaps): “The world woke up one day and found itself Arian.” Newman describes Athanasius as an extraordinary man who was “a principal instrument after the Apostles by which the sacred truths of Christianity have been conveyed and secured to the world.”

Apart from his relentless defense of Nicaea against the Arians, Athanasius was also instrumental in making known to the rest of the Church the story of those persons who, beginning in the third century, retreated from the world to live as hermits in the Egyptian desert. During his time of exile there, he came to know these desert fathers, of whom St. Anthony is a notable representative. He set himself to write their story, which he did in the Life of St. Anthony, a work well-known and much-read in the Middle Ages. It was this work that influenced the development of the monastic life in the Western Church.

St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582)

In 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed westward from Spain hoping to discover a new route to the East. He ended up discovering a new world that, until then, Europeans did not know existed. Twenty-three years later, in the fortified Spanish city of Avila, a child was born who, through her life and writings, would help people discover a new inner world that can be found only by prayer and contemplation.

Born into an aristocratic family, Teresa showed signs of a precocious spiritual piety as a child, even playing at being a hermit on the family property. At the age of seven, she tried to persuade her brother, Rodrigo, to join her in journeying to northern Africa so they could become martyrs. Her plan was thwarted by her uncle, who met them as they were leaving the family home and summarily forced them to return.

It was not long, however, before Teresa’s childish piety was displaced by a teenager’s vanity. She was attractive and she knew it. She delighted in nice clothes and fine perfumes, in flirting with boys, in dancing. Her reading turned to books of chivalry and romance. But after a serious illness that grounded her for about a year and a half, she chose to become a nun and entered the Carmelite Convent of the Incarnation in Avila. She was 20 years of age.

At the time, the Convent of the Incarnation had something of a country-club aura: The nuns had frequent visitors and felt free to leave the enclosure whenever they wished. Despite the laxity that prevailed, Teresa made some effort at a life of prayer.

A desire for more

In 1562, at the age of 47 and dissatisfied with the mediocrity of the religious life she had been living, she made plans to found a convent that would adhere strictly to the original form of the Carmelite Rule. The first convent she founded was St. Joseph’s of Avila in 1562. From then on, Teresa’s life was an amazing combination of deep prayer and remarkable efficiency as she went about founding 17 additional convents of the reformed, or discalced (barefooted), Carmelites.

Teresa was a woman of ready wit and cheery disposition. We know about her thinking and her activities through her writings. Under obedience to her confessor, she wrote the story of her life. She also composed the Book of Foundations, a quite readable account of the establishment of her convents, and The Way of Perfection, which offered spiritual counsel for her sisters.

Moving toward the center

Her most mature work on the life of prayer and contemplation is The Interior Castle. For Teresa, the interior castle is the very center within a person where God dwells. The spiritual journey is an effort to reach that center, to achieve the deepest possible awareness of that divine presence. This takes place gradually as a person moves through the different mansions (or rooms) of the castle to that center, where one attains union with God.

As we move toward the center, prayer becomes more and more God’s action in us rather than something we simply do. God brings us into wondrous union with the divine Self. We experience God’s love and come to realize that the important thing in prayer is not to think much but to love much. Love brings joy. That is why Teresa could say: “God protect me from gloomy saints.” In 1970, St. Teresa of Avila was declared a Doctor of the Church.

William H. Shannon is a priest of the Diocese of Rochester, New York, and the founding president of the International Thomas Merton Society. He is professor emeritus in the religious studies department at Nazareth College.

Next: Saints of the 20th Century

Stepping Out in Faith
by Joan McKamey

Be an influence for good in your corner of the world! Follow in the footsteps of…

• St. Ambrose, who rose to the task of a new responsibility and was generous to the poor. Reach out to an agency that serves the poor and volunteer your assistance. Don’t wait to be asked. Step up!

• St. Athanasius, who took a countercultural stand against a false teaching. Have you been silent about something that you know is wrong? Take a stand for what’s right even if others oppose you.

• St. Teresa of Avila, a person of joy, who invited others to a richer relationship with God through prayer. Has your prayer been haphazard and unscheduled? Commit to pray 10 minutes a day and discover the joy it brings.

Share how these and other saints inspire you on
your faith journey.
We will post selected inspirations in this feature.
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