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Saints who had to set boundaries


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Meg Hunter-Kilmer - published on 02/27/21

These holy men and women made the difficult decision to distance themselves.

Establishing healthy boundaries is difficult for most people, but doubly so for Christians, who are exhorted to be charitable and make sacrifices. Sacrificial love is essential for the pursuit of virtue, of course, but there are times when our mental health, physical safety, or growth in holiness require us to set boundaries, or even to cut people out of our lives entirely. This is particularly difficult in the case of parents (whom we are obliged to honor) and spouses (to whom we are vowed till death), but even then it’s sometimes necessary. Though many saints’ stories don’t reflect the importance of boundaries in a healthy, balanced life, we do have examples of saints who made difficult choices to distance themselves from loved ones.

Bl. Seraphina Sforza (1432-1478) was an Italian woman married at 16 to a widower named Alexander. Alexander began a very public affair, causing an outcry from all his household staff and even his own sons, who lamented the mistreatment of their beloved stepmother. When Alexander ejected her from the house, Seraphina went to the Poor Clares. Seraphina prayed continuously for Alexander’s conversion but finally felt led to abandon hope that he would change. She was received into the Poor Clares and took vows as a nun. Some time later, Alexander was finally converted and came crawling back. But while Seraphina had forgiven him, it was too late for him to expect her to return. Alexander lived a solitary life of penance and preceded her in death. Seraphina continued a saintly life as a nun and eventually an abbess.

Bls. Lucy Yun Un-Hye and Barnabas Jeong Gwang-su (d. 1801/1802) were a married Korean couple who experienced much opposition from family. Though Lucy’s parents were Catholic, Barnabas’s were not. They opposed their son’s marriage to a believer, though Barnabas himself was a devout Catholic, and even managed to prevent it for some time. Even after this failed, they refused to allow the newlyweds to practice their faith and demanded that they take part in traditional ancestor worship. Realizing that they would never be free to live their faith while among Barnabas’s family, the couple moved away and became successful evangelists and catechists, working together to bring people to Jesus. They made religious objects, taught catechism classes, transcribed religious books, and organized prayer meetings until both were martyred.

Venerable Cornelia Connelly (1809-1879) was an American woman married to an Episcopal priest when the two decided to convert to Catholicism. Not long after the couple’s infant daughter and toddler son died, Pierce announced that he would be separating from his pregnant wife to pursue ordination. Feeling she had no choice, Cornelia took a vow of chastity, sending their children to boarding school. She had founded a new religious order when Pierce reappeared and demanded that she return to him. Finally recognizing his cruelty, selfishness, and instability (and very mindful of the religious vows she had made), Cornelia refused. The enraged Pierce then sued her for conjugal rights; after losing on appeal, he kidnapped their children and turned them against her and the Church. She was ultimately reconciled with only one. Asked once why she wasn’t miserable, Cornelia replied with a smile, “Ah, my child, the tears are always running down the back of my nose.” Cornelia grieved her suffering deeply but chose to live in the joy of the risen Christ.

St. Mbaaga Tuzinde (1869-1886) was a page at the court of the predatory Kabaka Mwanga of Buganda. Mbaaga was the adopted son of Mukaajanga, but his father had no idea that he was a Christian. When Mbaaga was condemned as a Christian, his father begged him to renounce his faith. Mbaaga refused. He was taken to prison (where St. Charles Lwanga baptized him), then marched with the others to Namugongo. But there Mbaaga was set apart, taken to his father’s house where his relatives appeared in an endless train of tears and entreaties. For a week, he had to withstand the pleading of his family, friends, neighbors, even the other executioners. Seventeen-year-old Mbaaga remained steadfast. Even when his father insisted that the boy was breaking his heart, Mbaaga gently refused to give in, asking his father’s pardon. He loved his father, but he loved his God more. Mbaaga went calmly to his death as his father covered his face and wept.

Servant of God Catherine Doherty (1896-1985) was a Russian noblewoman who married her first cousin and served as a nurse in World War I before fleeing Russia during the Russian Revolution. The couple made their way to Canada, and though he was adulterous and abusive, they had a son together. Not long afterward, Catherine left him, recognizing that she had no obligation to remain in an abusive situation. She later became a Catholic and obtained an annulment. She and her son moved to New York where Catherine worked with the poor and fought for interracial justice. She married at 47 and, with her husband, founded a community called Madonna House that still exists today.


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