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Teen Saints in
Times Past
Gift and Lessons

by Timothy J. Cronin

Because you are baptized, you are claimed by Jesus Christ. You are a vital part of the Church on earth. You have gifts and abilities from God for the good of others. Your unique contributions continue a tradition in the Church throughout its journey.

This Youth Update highlights teenagers who have contributed to the Church and the world by action and example, often in dramatic and heroic ways. Six eras of the Church's story in which incredible youth made a contribution challenge you to consider what a teen Catholic Christian can do today.

The First Century

The very first Christian was a girl about 14. Her name was Mary and her willingness to say yes to the invitation to be the mother of the Lord still amazes. This young girl was full of grace as well as courage!

Christianity, in a real sense, owes its beginnings to a girl about the age of today's high school freshman. The Gospel stories of Jesus' birth tell us that Mary had to endure gossip about her pregnancy, terror in the face of Herod's madness and immigration to a foreign land (Egypt), all before her 16th birthday!

Perhaps, like Mary, you've been the victim of vicious gossip or you've found yourself in a situation when God's love alone could sustain you. Mary was one teen who relied solely on the grace of God.

John Mark was another important first-century adolescent. He accompanied Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey. Like many people away from home for the first time, John Mark got homesick. Has something like that ever happened to you? Mark's homesickness threw the apostles a curve. They argued about bringing Mark along on their second journey.

Sadly, Paul and Barnabas went their separate ways, ending their joint missionary efforts as well as their friendship. (Saints aren't perfect!) Paul seemed to have less patience with teenage imperfections than Barnabas.

Mark chose to travel with Barnabas and, according to legend, eventually hooked up with Peter. Tradition says that this was the Mark who wrote the first Gospel.

One could say that Mark invented the Gospel style of storytelling. After a less-than-perfect beginning, Mark has had an influence on Christianity that is at least equal to that of any early Christian. His Gospel became the basis for both Matthew's and Luke's as well.

The Early Centuries

The Church's early centuries (200-500) were filled with uncertainty and persecution. Adolescent Christians responded with grit and love. Do you know any teenage girls who cannot be swayed once they make up their minds? Three early Christian young women, Agatha, Lucy and Agnes, fit that style. They were Christians during the days of the gladiators, when being Christian was against the Roman law.

Ever had a hard time telling a girlfriend or boyfriend that you don't want to get serious right now? This happened to Agatha in the third century and Lucy and Agnes in the fourth. This so angered their boy`friends that they reported to the law that the girls were followers of Christianity. All three courageously endured terrible sufferings.

Agnes, Agatha and Lucy died faithful to Jesus and they inspired generations after them. Their names were mentioned in the greatest of all thanksgiving prayers, The Eucharistic Prayer of the Mass, for over 1600 years. They are still mentioned in Eucharistic Prayer I, one of the official prayers the worshiping community can pray at Mass.

The Dark Ages

Church history is filled with scandals in which Christians used violence against other Christians. In the 1300s, the English king laid claim to the crown of France. Historians refer to this bloody period as the Hundred Years War.

In the midst of division and chaos among the French came a 16-year-old peasant girl named Joan. Joan believed that God wanted France to have self-rule. She was a teenager of tremendous faith, virtue and courage, uniting her people.

But Joan faced serious challenges. She refused to submit herself to the military leadership of men. She believed that being a woman didn't make her unfit to lead armies. She didn't dress the way her elders thought she should, but as a soldier.

Have your parents ever complained to you about your choice of clothing? Joan invented alternative dress! She wore metal long before it came into vogue. She questioned the authority of some of her elders both in government and in the Church. Her martyrdom inspired millions, and her memory was a beacon of hope for the French people during the world wars of the 20th century.

The Reformation

No era has produced more anguish than the Reformation (1500-1600). The Church was divided by poor judgments and terrible actions on both sides, Catholic and Protestant. Shining lights were few. Among these lights were two young men named Stanislaus Kostka and Aloysius (Al-o-WISH-us) Gonzaga.

Coming from wealth and influence, Stanislaus's family objected strongly when he rejected his inheritance to live a life dedicated to the Gospel.

At college in Vienna, Stanislaus roomed with his older brother, who mercilessly abused him, trying to get Stanislaus to accept his status. You have probably had disagreements in your family, but have you ever had a relationship that bordered on harassment? That's what this was.

Resolutely, Stanislaus dressed like a pilgrim (instead of wearing the designer clothes of his day). Slipping away from home, he walked 450 miles to Augsburg, Germany, to join the Jesuits.

Stanislaus wanted to join the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) because he believed that they could reunite the Church. He rented his room from a Lutheran, when the Reformation made Lutherans unpopular with Catholics. The young man was respectful toward his Lutheran landlord at a time when respect between Protestants and Catholics was uncommon.

Stanislaus's generous spirit was so wonderful that he was the first Jesuit to be made a saint. He tried to focus on what God wanted no matter where that took him and how unpopular that made him.

In 1568, the year Stanislaus Kostka died at 18, Aloysius Gonzaga was born. Like Stanislaus, Aloysius was also from a wealthy family. He learned the art of warfare and lived the life of a prince. His father wanted him to be a powerful statesman and sent him to Florence, Italy, to learn how to rule. Power and wealth were in his future, but he chose Christ above all.

Aloysius became a Jesuit. During a plague in Rome, he helped people who were left to die in the streets. He could have been powerful and wealthy, but he chose to care for the sick and dying, much the way Mother Teresa did in Calcutta.

Aloysius died of the plague himself. He became one of the most popular saints in the Church, a young model of Christlike heroism.

Age of Explorers

The impact of youth on the Church's pilgrim journey was especially evident when Europe's powers were exploring and colonizing other shores between 1500 and 1800. Teens can smell hypocrisy a mile away, especially where adults are concerned! Europe's explorers were not primarily concerned with the spread of the Gospel in the conquered lands, as they often claimed, but were bent on becoming rich.

Teenagers then as now were quick to catch on. Many joined religious orders such as the Franciscans and the Jesuits, who defended the natives in the New World and ministered to peoples victimized by conquest. The martyrs of Brazil (1570) are an unusual example of young men who made a stand for what they believed.

A Portuguese vessel with 40 missionaries was headed for Brazil when pirates overtook it. Even though they knew the dangers of pirate attack, these Jesuit missionaries had courageously agreed to the trip. Ten young men between the ages of 14 and 20 were martyred for their faith. The pirates spared the ship's crew but brutally killed the missionaries by throwing them into the Atlantic Ocean.

The one exception was John Sanchez, who was pressed into service as the pirates' cook. He brought back the tales of the great courage of these young martyrs.

The martyrs of Japan are another example of teenagers spreading the Gospel. Only a generation after St. Francis Xavier brought Christianity to Japan, a terrible persecution broke out. The Japanese warlords made fun of Jesus by crucifying his followers.

In 1597, 24 Christians, among them several teenagers, including St. John de Gato, were crucified. The site where they died is still known as Martyrs Hill. The impact of their courage and faithfulness was felt years later when, in 1853, U.S. Admiral Matthew Perry discovered a small but vibrant Catholic Church operating in hiding from the hostile government.

One of the most unusual teen Catholic heroes of this era was Kateri Tekakwitha. Born in 1660, just west of what is now Albany, New York, she began lessons in the faith against the wishes of her tribe and of her father, a Mohawk chief.

Kateri was fortunate in that the French missionaries from whom she accepted the Gospel, unlike most Europeans, respected native peoples. Nevertheless, her own people persecuted her for embracing Christianity. Kateri desired better relations and understandings between Native Americans and the newly arrived Europeans.

A young woman barely 20, she refused to exchange hate for hate. She became a sign of the presence of Jesus among native peoples.

Our Modern Era

Teenagers continue to contribute to the life of the Church in our time. One of the most popular saints is Th—r—se of Lisieux, also known as the Little Flower (1873-1897).

At the age of 14, Th—r—se had a spiritual experience which led her to become a Carmelite. The Carmelites remain within the walls of their monastery home, spending much of their day in prayer.

Th—r—se was too young to enter, according to Church law. But she was so sure that this was what God wanted that she boldly asked the pope—in public! It worked. Pope Leo XIII allowed her to become a Carmelite at 15.

Th—r—se performed her duties with extraordinary dedication and dreamed of becoming a missionary, hoping to go to Vietnam. Instead, she died of tuberculosis at 24.

Ever run into conflict with a teacher who gave you an assignment that you really didn't like and didn't want to do? Th—r—se was ordered to write her story by her superior, and her autobiography, The Story of a Soul, became an international best-seller. Because she cared about the whole Church, even though she stayed in one place herself, the pope made her the patroness for Catholic missions the world over.

One of the best-known young saints of the 20th century was Maria Goretti. She was born in Italy in 1890. In 1902, when Maria was only 12, a friend of the family attempted to rape her while her widowed mother was working. Maria believed that no one had a right to abuse her or her body and she fought off her assailant. He stabbed her and she died the next day. Before her death, she forgave her attacker, which inspired her family to do the same.

Maria has served as a model for the rights and dignity of girls and as a symbol of the importance of protesting against violence toward women. She also stands, with her family, as a model of forgiveness and reconciliation. Her heroism is rooted in her refusal to be abused or treated as an object. Pope John Paul II called Maria a martyr of God's love.

What About You?

Some common themes run through all these stories. These teens struggled to find their place in the world. They experienced conflict with authority figures. They wanted desperately to make a contribution through service to others and gave of themselves with generosity and love. Not one of them had an easy life nor were they perfect.

Imagine Mark acting out in inappropriate ways with Paul and Barnabas, Joan's headstrong attitude agitating French military officers and Th—r—se objecting to the writing of her autobiography. These teenage models were totally human.

What makes them special to us is their love of Jesus. Like Aloysius, Kateri and Lucy, you don't have to have it all together to serve Christ and his Church. You just have to be willing to put Jesus first.

How can you be the new teenage saint? You don't have to rush off to the missions in a far-off land. Nor do you have to liberate France or be thrown off a pirate ship. Maria Goretti and Kateri Tekakwitha never left home. You don't necessarily have to disagree with your family or butt up against other authorities. Maybe you've heard the words to the simplest song the Beatles ever wrote: "All You Need is Love." What's that look like?

Be like Jesus wherever you are and whomever you're with. Mend a quarrel, give undivided attention to a friend who needs you, back up someone who's being reamed, don't gossip, respect your parents and other authority figures (although these saints were in conflict with authority at times, they treated them with respect), stand up for a cause even if it's unpopular and share your faith with others.

Above all else, do what Jesus would do. This was the guiding principle of the incredible teens you encountered in this Youth Update. This must be our guiding principle as well.

Timothy J. Cronin is a teacher at St. Xavier High School in Finneytown, Ohio, where he encounters the modern descendants of Stanislaus Kostka, Aloysius Gonzaga, John de Gato and other youthful companions of St. Ignatius Loyola. He is the father of four, three of them teenagers.

Jessica Bailey (14), Matthew Belk (16) and Kristen Strominger (14), all of St. John Fisher Parish in Newtown, Ohio, met after Sunday Mass to review this issue and ask questions of the author. Joe Shadle, pastoral associate at the parish, gathered the teens.

 

How You Can Be a Saint

1. Rely on God's grace. Much in life doesn't make sense and seems rather uncertain at times. Trusting that God is in the mix of our everyday life is a courageous leap of faith, an acceptance that you are not in control—God is.

2. Love Jesus above all else. Know Jesus by reading the Gospels and by listening to the Scriptures proclaimed on Sundays. As a way to prepare for Sunday, place yourself in the upcoming Gospel story as one of the characters, in particular where you can interact with Jesus. Be sure to allow for silence so that God can get a word in edgewise!

3. Love the Church. You might have feelings about hypocrisy in the Church and may even think you can best commune with God in nature or on your own. The Church has its share of hypocrites and sinners. That's why we need Christ and each other! Christ formed a community of imperfect people whose task it is to struggle together and support one another on the journey.

4. Make the Eucharist the center of your spiritual journey. Eucharist is the sacrament of commitment. Every time that you eat and drink at the Lord's Table you recommit yourself to your Baptism. Allow the Eucharist to nourish and sustain you and make it a priority.

5. Forgive again and again. The ultimate mark of the Christian is forgiveness. Recall the words of the Lord's Prayer, "forgive us as we forgive others." This doesn't mean letting people walk over you, but having enough internal dignity and self-respect to forgive others, especially when they don't deserve it!

6. Be servant to the world. The world created by God is fundamentally good. Christians never have the luxury of shutting out the world but must be servants to it. The saint, although imperfect, is a sign to the world of the love of God.

 

 
Q.

I don't see any difference between the contributions of these teen saints and of adult saints. Do you see something I'm missing??

A.

While teen Catholics have unique gifts to offer the Church, you sometimes seem to feel that you don't matter to the life of the Church. Perhaps you think that adults view you as Christians in process rather than as Christians already. Adults sometimes forget that they don't have it all together, either! You bring youth, enthusiasm, energy, drive and a critical eye to the life in Christ that we call the Church. The saints in this issue were prophets who tempered their message with patient love and openness. These gifts seem particularly present among teens, though adults need them as well.

Q.

Does your life have to be hard for you to become a saint?

A.

I once heard a wise teacher ask students, "How many think that life is unfair?" Everybody raised a hand! The teacher observed that what made us all equal was that we all experienced life as unfair. What makes the saints so special isn't that their lives were harder, but that they surrendered their hardships and struggles into the hands of God. The saints saw tough times as chances to be transformed more and more into Jesus Christ as well as chances to serve.

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