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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
Male Founders
Answering God’s Call

by Albert Haase, O.F.M.

“Come, follow me.” Throughout history, every Christian has been challenged to respond to this call to follow Christ in his or her life. The response, of course, is expressed differently, depending upon the person, the historical moment and the culture involved. However, every now and then, someone comes along who gives such a unique and universal interpretation to the call of discipleship that it endures the passing of centuries and even thrives within new cultures. Each of this month’s three male founders of religious communities offers such a lasting and adaptable response to the call of Christ.

St. Benedict of Nursia (480?-547)

Benedict of Nursia emerged in the midst of political and Church chaos and turmoil. Fifth-century Rome had fallen to the Germanic king, Alaric, and soon all of Italy was ravaged by the Goths. Heresies such as Pelagianism, the denial of the need for God’s grace in overcoming sinfulness, as well as Arianism, the claim that the Son was not equal to the Father, were spreading.

Our knowledge of Benedict comes from Book 2 of the Dialogues of Pope St. Gregory the Great. It’s important to note that within the past three years, a respected scholar has raised serious doubt that the work was written by the hand of the sainted pope and that Book 2 was never intended as a modern biography. Typical of medieval times, the book was designed to enlighten and inspire—not inform—with spiritual lessons taken from the life of the saint.

Tradition says that Benedict was born in the mountain village of Nursia, northeast of Rome, around 480. Sent to Rome for classical studies, he found city life not to his liking. He left Rome and settled in the mountain town of Enfide, some 40 miles east.

New directions

An encounter with Romanus, a monk from the monastery at Subiaco, gave Benedict a new direction. At the advice of the monk, Benedict became a hermit for three years. The monks of a neighboring monastery then persuaded him to become their spiritual leader. He agreed, only to quickly discover that the monks lacked enthusiasm and sincerity. The Dialogues describe two murder attempts on Benedict’s life, both failing as a result of his miraculous powers.

Benedict left those monks and traveled south to establish 12 monasteries with 12 monks each. Around 529, he moved to Monte Cassino, destroyed a pagan temple dedicated to Apollo and built his first monastery. It was there that he wrote his famous Rule and died on March 21, 547.

Rule for Life

Benedict is not mentioned in any literature dated before the end of the sixth century. His Rule, translated more often than any other book except the Bible, has had a greater impact than Benedict himself. The Rule of St. Benedict is a masterful interpretation of how to follow Christ.

The genius of Benedict’s Rule lies in its wise and compassionate blending of the rich Eastern monastic traditions with changes appropriate to contemporary times. Moderation and common sense are its hallmarks as it provides order and stability in the midst of chaotic times. It outlines a family lifestyle within the walls of a monastery with little of the harshness and penitential practices of Eastern monasticism.

The liturgy, especially the Divine Office, plays a major daily role. Manual labor provides income and alms for the poor. Guests are welcomed as Christ. The abbot, head of the family and representative of Christ, communicates the will of God after seeking advice from his monks, especially the younger ones. Obedience, in its original meaning of listening, is the monk’s primary response to the Word of God and to the abbot. One’s daily life is characterized by reverence for God’s continual presence and climbing the 12 rungs of humility.

Though there were many other monastic Rules in circulation at the time, the Church Council held at Aix-la-Chapelle in 817 proposed Benedict’s as the basic Rule of western monastic life. And today, thousands of men and women, from Perth, Australia, to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, continue to find its meaning and message suitable for their contemporary times and culture.


St. Francis of Assisi (1182?-1226)

Seven centuries later, another Italian would “follow in the footprints of Christ,” not behind the walls of a monastery but in the streets. Unlike the monk whose Rule left a greater impression than his personality, the charismatic person and life of Francis of Assisi would shape and outshine the Rules he left behind.

Born into the emerging merchant class of Assisi, probably in 1182, the adolescent Francis had dreams of becoming a famous knight. Those dreams were quickly dashed as he lay captured in neighboring Perugia.

Gaining his freedom and returning home to convalesce, he and the evolution of his “evangelical lifestyle” would be greatly influenced by significant events over the next 20 or so years. This manner of life, unique in its radical interpretation of the Gospels and obedience to the pope, consisted of voluntary poverty, care for the sick and preaching the message of Jesus to others.

The person of Christ

Outside Assisi’s walls lay a leper hospital run by the Brothers of St. Anthony. One day, on his walk outside the town, Francis encountered a leper. Surprising even himself, he embraced the leper, an event that he subsequently attributed to God’s grace. Later versions of the story have the leper vanishing after the kiss.

Francis discovered in this leper the person of Christ: poor, crucified, a beggar. Following in Christ’s footprints, he decided to live his life exactly in this way. And so, renouncing his family inheritance and donning the rough tunic of a penitent, he started living on the margins of society, as a beggar among his “brothers-Christ,” the lepers.

People took notice and wanted to follow the same path. With about a dozen followers, Francis approached the pope for permission to preach penance and conversion. Permission was granted, and a preaching ministry developed.

According to tradition, one day some townsfolk refused to listen to Francis. So he went into the forest and preached to the birds. This incident, along with the famous song he composed toward the end of his life, Canticle of the Creatures, gave birth to the tradition of animal stories associated with Francis. It witnesses to the brotherhood and sisterhood of all creation as a gift from the divine almsgiver.

Enduring Devotion

For Christmas 1223, in the town of Greccio, Francis combined the liturgy with an enactment of the stable scene at Bethlehem. With donkey and sheep, and with townsfolk portraying the Holy Family, Francis transformed the feast of Christmas into a celebration of the humility of God. This humility, which Francis also saw evident in the Eucharist as Jesus comes under the appearance of bread, characterizes the relationships of all Francis’ followers.

In September 1224, while he made a 40-day retreat on Mount La Verna, Francis’ devotion to the crucified Christ, begun in the encounter with the leper, blossomed forth in his body as God branded him with the stigmata, the very wounds of Christ. Devotion to the Crucified’s love would be unique to Franciscans before entering mainstream Catholic spirituality in the 16th century.

So closely did Francis follow in the footprints of Christ that some 50 years after his death in 1226, he was referred to as an alter Christus, “another Christ.” Indeed, this shows the power of his person that inspires and influences both the spirituality and religious orders that bear his name. His devotion to the crib, the Eucharist and the cross, all suggesting God’s humility and love, continues to find expression in countries and cultures from Asia to the Americas.

St. Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556)

The Franciscans and Benedictines played a role in the life of the 16th-century founder of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits.

Ignatius was born in the Basque province of northern Spain in 1491. As a teen, he became a page in service to the treasurer of the kingdom of Castile. In 1521, while defending the town of Pamplona against the French, he was wounded in one leg and had the other broken by a cannonball.

During his recuperation, Ignatius read the lives of the saints, including that of Francis of Assisi, and decided to imitate them. Regaining his strength but now with a permanent limp, he made his way to the Benedictine monastery of Montserrat. After dedicating himself to the Virgin Mary, he continued on to the Holy Land, where he hoped to convert non- Christians.

God in all things

Ignatius’s decision to spend time in a cave near the town of Manresa, Catalonia, proved crucial. The intended few days became 10 months. While he was there, the ideas of what became his great gift to the history of spirituality, the Spiritual Exercises, took shape. The Exercises are both an experience of discerning direction in life and a handbook for guiding and facilitating the experience. Designed originally as an experience for a director and an individual, the Exercises came to be used in groups and gave birth to the modern-day preached retreat.

Ignatius had a vision while at Manresa. Though he never described it, he said he learned more from it than he did during the rest of his life. The effect of this vision was impressive: Ignatius was able to find God in all things. All of Jesuit spirituality flows from this grace.

Arriving in the Turkish-held Holy Land where the situation was tense and dangerous, he was ordered to leave by the Franciscan who had authority over Catholics. Returning to Spain, Ignatius began studies in Latin with the hope of becoming a priest. After classes, he began explaining the Gospels and teaching prayer to fellow students and others. He attracted the attention of the Spanish Inquisition for suspected heresy and was thrown into jail. He moved to another city and was jailed again, this time by the Dominicans; he left Spain for Paris to continue his studies for the priesthood.

Serving the pope

His roommates at the University of Paris were Francis Xavier and Peter Faber. Along with four other students, they took vows of poverty and chastity. Thinking of themselves more as individual priests than as a religious order, they placed themselves at the service of the pope in 1538. The pope commissioned them to teach theology and Scripture and to preach.

Ignatius’ companions met in Rome the following Lent. After weeks of prayer and discussion, they formed a community in service to the pope. This became a vow in addition to the traditional vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. A reluctant Ignatius was unanimously elected superior general of the new Society of Jesus in 1541.

Ignatius spent the next 15 years, until his death in 1556, composing the Constitutions of the Society as well as writing letters to Jesuits as close as Italy and Portugal and as far away as Brazil and Japan.

Though Ignatius had no intention of including education as a ministry of the Society, requests by rulers and bishops soon gave birth to what the Jesuits are best known for today. They teach to fulfill their motto, “Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam” (“to the greater glory of God”).

Next: Women Founders of Religious Orders

Stepping Out in Faith
by Joan McKamey

Respond to Christ’s call in a lasting and intentional way. Follow in the footsteps of…

• St. Benedict of Nursia, who wrote a Rule of life that has guided many in their following of Christ. Write down your own “Rule” for your life. Share it with your family, friends or small faith community.

• St. Francis of Assisi, who discovered the person of Christ in a leper and the humility of Christ in his birth in a stable. Explore the “lowly” persons and places where Christ may be found in your life. Evaluate who you try to impress, and why.

• St. Ignatius Loyola, whose Spiritual Exercises led to modern-day preached retreats. Plan to participate in a retreat or make a commitment of time to spiritual reading and prayer to discern the direction of the next phase of your life.

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