The stories of the saints can seem utterly unattainable, marked by impossible success as whole nations converted while lions lay down with lambs. Mercifully, holiness has nothing to do with success. As St. Teresa of Calcutta famously said, “God has not called us to be successful. He has called us to be faithful.” The saints understood this; many were failures in the eyes of the world. Their companionship can offer great consolation at times when our lives seem full of failures and missteps, of aimless wandering and unanswered prayers. Through their intercession, may we embrace the will of God, even when it’s failure.
St. Agatha Kim A-gi (1787-1839) was a Korean woman who longed to be baptized. Her intellectual disability, however, made it impossible for her to learn the faith; even the Hail Mary was too much for her. When asked to recite various prayers, Agatha would say, “I only know Jesus and Mary.” No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t memorize anything and was denied baptism (at a time when the Catholic Church in Korea had been without any priests for a generation and the faithful were unaware that theological acuity is not a prerequisite for adult baptism). But when arrested and ordered to denounce the faith under torture, Agatha’s response was the same: “I only know Jesus and Mary.” She was baptized in prison shortly before her martyrdom.
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St. Mark Ji TianXiang (1834-1900) was a Chinese opium addict. Because his priest didn’t understand the nature of addiction, he told TianXiang that he couldn’t be absolved until he had beaten his addiction—which meant that he couldn’t receive Communion either. For 30 years, TianXiang tried and failed to beat his addiction. He continued to practice the faith while being denied the Sacraments. He never did manage to get clean, but he died a martyr and has been canonized a saint not just for his martyrdom but for his decades of attempting to follow Jesus even in the absence of the Sacraments.
Bl. Charles de Foucauld (1858-1916) was a French nobleman who became an atheist at a young age. After his conversion, he entered a Trappist monastery, discerned out of that community, and became a gardener for a time before being ordained a priest. He then moved to the desert of Algeria, seeking to love the Muslim people there so well that they came to know Jesus. Nobody converted. He tried to found a religious order. A few people entered, but nobody stayed. Finally, he was accidentally shot. Since his death, thousands have converted because of his witness and nearly 20 lay and religious communities guided by his spirituality have been founded.
St. Leopold Mandić (1866-1942) was a Croatian Capuchin priest who wanted more than anything to work for the end of the division between Catholics and Eastern Orthodox. He was sent to Italy instead, where he spent decades hearing confessions for 12 hours a day. He continued to ask his superiors to send him back east to do the work he felt he was called to do but was ordered to stay in Italy instead. Though he never stopped longing to work for reconciliation between the East and the West, he took comfort in the fact that each confession he heard was a small act of reconciliation. He lived the rest of his life in Italy.
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Bl. Paul Thoj Xyooj (pronounced Tao Shiong, 1941-1960) was a Hmong convert who discerned out of seminary, then became a wildly successful evangelist. The European priests he was working with were suspicious, convinced that he must have been watering down the Gospel if hundreds of people were seeking to convert at his preaching. They recalled him from the village where he was working, taking him not only from his ministry but also from the young woman he was about to propose to. After this, he floundered, unable to do the work he loved or find a different woman to marry. The joyful young man became sullen and aloof, disillusioned with the men who ran the Church but not with God. Though Xyooj was considered rebellious and unstable, Bl. Mario Borzaga saw beyond his attitude to his pain. He invited Xyooj to join him on another missionary journey—one that ended with both men martyred by communist insurgents. Xyooj’s long months of failure and uncertainty had been crowned with victory.
Bl. Lindalva Justo de Oliveira (1953-1993) was a Brazilian woman who spent years wandering in search of her purpose in life. She was a nanny for a time, then moved in with a brother to help raise his children. She finally (at 26) obtained a diploma as an administrative assistant and then spent a decade moving from one low-paying customer service job to another, working retail in a clothing store for a time, then taking a job as a gas station cashier. Finally she discerned a vocation with the Daughters of Charity, entering at 35. She lived as a Sister for only four years before being killed during an attempted sexual assault by unstable resident of the nursing home where she served.
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