It turns out, dysfunctional families are no modern invention ...
We live in a broken world filled with broken hearts and broken families. Those of us who are wounded because of our experience of family life can become overwhelmed with the hopelessness of it all, looking back on the halcyon days of the past when families were all intact and holy, giving their children a leg up on sainthood, it seems. But what about us? What about our children?
It turns out, dysfunctional families are no modern invention, nor are they unusual in the lives of the saints. If your family is less than perfect, spend some time with some of the many saints who know what that’s like.
St. Felix of Valois (1127-1212) was likely the son of a count and countess who famously divorced when Felix was about 13. After his parents’ divorce and his father’s remarriage and subsequent excommunication, Felix determined to follow through on his desire to live as a hermit. He was eventually ordained a priest and helped to found the Trinitarian order in his old age.
Bl. Philip Hong Pil-ju (1774-1801) was born to a non-Catholic Korean family. His widowed father married Bl. Columba Kang Wan-suk, who soon became a Christian and brought her stepson Philip into the faith. But Philip’s father ridiculed Columba and ultimately left her for a concubine. Philip, meanwhile, stayed with his stepmother (and spiritual mother), assisting her as she led the fledgling Church in Korea and kept their only priest safe for six years. Ultimately, Philip, Columba, and Bl. James Zhou Wen-Mo (the priest) were arrested and martyred.
St. Eugene de Mazenod (1782-1861) was born to a wealthy French family, but the Revolution forced them to flee as refugees to Italy. Their marriage strained by financial difficulty, Eugene’s parents divorced, a very unusual occurrence at the time. Eugene’s mother took the divorce as an opportunity to taunt her ex-husband, taking back her dowry and writing to him, “Now you have nothing.” Though Eugene worked to reunite his family, he eventually gave up and later became a priest, founded the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, and was eventually consecrated a bishop.
St. Marguerite Bays (1815-1879) was a Swiss working-class seamstress who lived at home until her death at 63. The rest of the family was in and out of the same house: Her sister, who left to get married but came home again after her marriage failed. Her younger brother, who had a violent temper and ended up in prison. Her nephew, born out of wedlock and entrusted to Marguerite to raise. Her embittered sister-in-law, who harassed Marguerite for years. Marguerite was a mystic and a stigmatist, a 3rd Order Franciscan who lived with chronic pain. But what makes her most relatable is that she had a hard family to love and she loved them anyway.
Bl. Marie-Eugénie de Jésus (1817-1898) was raised in a nominally Catholic French family. When she was 13, her father’s business went bankrupt and her parents separated, her only brother going with their father while Marie-Eugénie went with their mother. Two years later, her mother died, leaving Marie-Eugénie to be passed between relatives. In adulthood, Marie-Eugénie heard God’s call through a powerful homily and founded the Religious of the Assumption.
Bl. Laura Vicuna (1891-1904) was young when her father died. Her mother soon became the mistress of a violent, drunken man, Manuel Mora. Laura was terribly hurt by her mother’s choice, even more than by Mora’s abuse, and offered her life in sacrifice for her mother’s conversion. Mora beat Laura to death when she was only 12, and her mother returned to the practice of the faith that very day.
Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati (1901-1925) lived in fear of his parents divorcing. Their marriage had always been in trouble, and it seems the two were about to divorce when their saintly son died. Seeing the thousands of people who came to his funeral, they were inspired and ultimately found some healing in their marriage. Pier Giorgio’s father, an outspoken atheist during his son’s lifetime, eventually returned to the Sacraments as well.
Bl. Lojze Grozde (1923-1943) was born out of wedlock, rejected by both his parents, and raised by his maternal grandparents and an aunt. When Lojze’s mother married, Lojze’s stepfather regularly chased the little boy away. While he was on his way home from college, Lojze was searched by communists, who discovered that he was carrying The Imitation of Christ and a booklet on Fatima. Lojze was tortured and martyred.
Bl. Marie-Clémentine Anuarite Nengapeta (1939-1964) was born to non-Christian parents in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She was the fourth of six daughters; after the last, Anuarite’s father left her mother for another woman, hoping to have a son. Anuarite forgave her father, even as she worked to help her mother provide for the family. She later entered religious life and was killed fighting back against a would-be rapist.