Because just being good isn't good enough.
Though the stories of Saints who lived depraved lives and were converted at last may be thrilling, sometimes those of us with more mundane stories can wonder if holiness is possible for us. Neither immaculate from birth nor shockingly wicked, we’re decent people who show up to Mass on Sunday and yet we still struggle with ordinary sins.
For those who are discouraged by how far holiness seems from our mediocre Catholic lives, Saints who were “good Catholics” in need of conversion can offer hope. For those who are convinced of our own righteousness and unaware of the pride or anger or prejudice or gluttony that is threatening our souls, may these Saints convict us and lead us to deeper conversion.
St. Kaleb of Ethiopia (d. 555) was a good Catholic king. When he heard of the slaughter of hundreds of Catholics in Saudi Arabia, he gathered his army and rode off to avenge them. But after his first effort failed, Kaleb sought the advice of an old monk, who asked him to examine his motives. At that, the king who had been sure he was marching out to battle in order to fight for the protection of Christians realized that he had truly been seeking revenge and glory. His motives purified, he fought once more, this time managing to secure protection for Christians in that region for some time to come. But Kaleb had realized that he wasn’t called to live as a king; he gave the crown to his son and became a hermit instead.
Bl. Anthony Neyrot (1423-1460) was an Italian Dominican priest and an excellent preacher—by all appearances, an outstanding Catholic. But he became quite arrogant about his skill. And so, for the sake of saving the arrogant soul of an otherwise decent priest, God allowed him to be captured by pirates and sold into slavery. Here, the depth of Fr. Anthony’s faith was exposed: he denied Jesus, became a Muslim, and got married. An apparition of St. Antoninus led him to conversion at last and Fr. Anthony publicly repented of his apostasy and was martyred.
St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) was a Carmelite nun and, by most measures, already a very good Catholic. But the convent where she lived was quite lax, and for many years Teresa spent a good amount of time indulging in frivolous discussion while spending very little time in private prayer. A sudden moment of conversion at age 40 transformed her into the contemplative genius whose depth in prayer has inspired the whole Church for nearly 500 years.
St. Felipe de las Casas Martinez (1573-1597) was a remarkably flighty child but entered the Franciscan order in his early teens. He left religious life after some months, determined to seek pleasure in the world. His disappointed father sent him from Mexico to the Philippines on family business, where he attempted to fill his hunger for the Lord with other pursuits. Before long, Felipe realized that he truly did have a call to religious life and begged the Franciscans to receive him once more. After he made final vows, his superiors sent him back to Mexico to be ordained. A storm drove the ship into a Japanese harbor, where it wrecked; the crew and passengers (including St. Paul Miki) were imprisoned and Felipe became the first martyr in Japan and later the first Mexican to be canonized, known and loved as San Felipe de Jesús.
St. Hyacintha Mariscotti (1585-1640) was forced into an Italian convent after throwing an enormous temper tantrum when her little sister married the man Hyacintha was in love with. After one foiled escape attempt, Hyacintha resigned herself to her fate but lived without any concern for the rule of the order or the love of God. Still, she spent far more time at Church than most of us do, and didn’t lie, cheat, or steal. It was only when a visiting priest remarked on the opulence of her rooms that Hyacintha realized that she wasn’t a mediocre nun but a woman whose defiance was threatening her soul. She was converted—for six months, then returned to her previous way of life. The next conversion stuck and Hyacintha became a woman of penance and generosity, driven by the love of God.
St. Michael Ho Dinh Hy (1808-1857) was born to a high-ranking Catholic family in Vietnam and married a Catholic woman. But though he continued to practice his faith, his position at court put him in a difficult position. To continue amassing power and wealth, he felt it necessary to attend (and perhaps even participate in) pagan rituals. Eventually, the influence of those around him led him to take a mistress and father three children out of wedlock. Though he had his children baptized and continued to practice the faith, Michael’s life was a betrayal of his convictions. Ultimately he repented and became a man of great charity. Still his weakness remained; when arrested, he gave up the names of 29 Christians. Again he repented and was able to go to confession in prison before being martyred.
Martyrs of the secrecy of Confession: Would one priest betray another?