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The Unlikely Holiness of the White-Collar Saint

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Joseph Bottum - published on 06/18/15

Tales of the Saints, June 18

Sailors can be saints—as can musicians, ditch-diggers, and lawyers. Or maybe that needs to be turned around, to put sanctity in the first place: It’s the saints who can be sailors, musicians, ditch-diggers, and lawyers. Vice and corruption are out, yes. To find holiness, the assassin, thief, and blackmailer would have to quit their occupations. But all the rest of what we do, all the neutral activities of ordinary human life, can be turned to God’s service and, with grace, done in a way that expresses and complements the devotion of the saints who perform them.

St. Louis was a king. St. Crispin was a shoemaker. St. Augustine was a theologian. St. Germaine was a shepherdess. St. Gregory Barbarigo was a churchman. St. Isidore was a farmer. And why not? St. Thomas Aquinas had one of the five or six most expansive minds in the history of Western Philosophy, and he turned it to the most complete intellectual account of Christianity ever constructed. St. John of the Cross occupies a founding and inescapable place in the history of Spanish poetry, and he used his poetic gifts to sing of Christ. St. Joseph Moscati was a clever doctor and researcher who practiced medicine as a means of employing his faith.

The saints are scattered through the range of human experience like rainbows across the globe—here a sanctified bishop, there a martyred soldier. Here a blessed homemaker, there a prayerful professor. Fishermen saints and painter saints. Priest saints, and mystic saints, and nun saints, and stigmatic saints. If you do the human things well, you can do them with God. Mine coal, and Christ is there. Sweep floors, and Christ is there. Write fiction, and Christ is there, too.

This is the dignity of work, and yet, for Catholics, the fact that the saints come in so many varieties signifies something more—and maybe also something less than that idea of dignified labor. Work is not exactly made holy when done with awareness of Christ. It’s the worker, rather, who aims toward sanctification by working with God. The dignity of work is actually the dignity of the worker, who is both laboring and being with God.

All this was prompted in my mind by St. Gregory Barbarigo, whose feast day is June 18—today: a day perhaps for thinking about work. A powerful seventeenth-century cardinal from Venice, St. Gregory might be, in a sense, the most likely kind of saint: From the Renaissance to the early twentieth century, the Vatican’s official canonizations ran to a large number of Italian churchmen.

Of course, in another sense, he was an unlikely saint—a nobleman in the days of unchecked nobility. An advisor to Pope Alexander VII in the days of unapologetic Vatican nepotism. A political mover and shaker in the days when too many senior positions in the Church were considered the permanent fiefdoms of the noble Italian families, as they played the local form of Game of Thrones in their Italian principalities. Even today, it’s hard for a senior churchman to find the time, the energy, and the grace for personal sanctity in the endless press of the business at hand. But in the days of St. Gregory Barbarigo, the temptations—the lures of temporal power offered by the Church—were far greater and harder to resist.

To think about St. Gregory is to realize that you know this man—or, at least, you’ve read a profile of people of his kind in a business magazine or a Sunday newspaper supplement. He’s that senior bureaucrat the government needs regardless of the party of the president. He’s that CFO making a major corporation succeed. He’s your college president, your governor’s friend, your church’s major donor. Polished, important, organized, multi-talented, standing behind the scenes, he gives off an air that’s hard to describe, except perhaps with the word competent. A proficient man, an efficient man. A fixer.

St. Gregory Barbarigo was picked out for his powerful usefulness from early on, joining at age eighteen the Venetian delegation to the negotiations for the ending of the Thirty Years’ War in the Peace of Westphalia. After touring Europe and receiving doctoral training in both civil and canon law, he was ordained a priest in 1655—and promptly called to Rome to be domestic prelate of the pope.

The Vatican tested him at various tasks: reorganizing the papal tribunals, leading the plague relief in Rome. And at each task he proved just as competent as you might expect. Sent to be bishop of the troubled diocese of Bergamo in 1657, he successfully restructured the financing of the 279 parishes and reformed the seminary into a more serious institution that followed the decrees of the Council of Trent. And so he was elevated to cardinal in 1660 and made bishop of the major diocese of Padua in 1664. Along the way, before his death in 1697, he performed a long string of duties for the Vatican, including the diplomatic chores his polished presence aided.

He was a classical scholar, too, and musically trained, and just one of those people who seem to do well all the things they do. An important, serious, overwhelmingly competent man—who was also known for his charities, his personal devotion, his prayer life, and his sense of God. No wonder he was admired so much by John XXIII, another diplomat and churchman made pope. Beatified in 1761, St. Gregory was named a saint a long 199 years later, when John XXIII in 1960 took up his cause and made Gregory Barbarigo the first saint canonized in his pontificate.

A kind of sentimentality might tempt us to find greater sanctity, a firmer sense of the dignity of work, in the hard physical labor of the farming of St. Isidore or the life-saving medicine of St. Joseph Moscati. But St. Gregory may be the better test case. Even in a polished life of earthly success, even for a man much rewarded for the fact that he accomplished with great competence everything he undertook, there can be the dignity of the worker and a constant sense that when we work, Christ is there. 

Joseph Bottumis a bestselling author who lives in the Black Hills of South Dakota and author of An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America. This is the latest installment in his week-long series of reflections on the Saints. 

Read Joseph Bottum’s other essays in this series:
"Seeing Faith: The Martyrdom and Incorruptible Bodies of the Saints"
"A New Mysticism: The Visions, Miracles and Devotion of St. Lutgarde"
"To Be a Saint is to be Truly Revolutionary"

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