In moments in our lives when we have disappointed ourselves and those who had hoped to see us triumph, these saints can remind us of our true goal.
At the Olympics Games in Tokyo, we’ve seen triumph after triumph as athletes had the swim or run or ride or fight of their lives and came away with the gold. We’ve also seen one bitter defeat after another, as people whose lives have revolved around a sport found themselves off the podium. We’ve seen catastrophic falls and shocking losses. And (perhaps the biggest story of the games) we’ve seen Simone Biles, the greatest gymnast of all time, withdraw from competition in order to protect her physical and mental health.
As we pray for these disappointed competitors and reflect on the moments in our lives when we, too, have disappointed ourselves and those who had hoped to see us triumph, let’s look to saints who quit, who left behind goals of fame or fortune or success (whether willingly or unwillingly) and found glory in Jesus instead.
Bl. Takayama Ukon (1552-1615) quit in order to protect his people. Born to a Christian samurai family in Japan, Ukon was the feudal lord of a large group of serfs, many thousands of whom converted to Christianity. When Christianity was made illegal in Japan, Ukon might have chosen to lead his thousands of warriors against the shogun; instead, he surrendered his position as a samurai lord, choosing instead to lead his people through persecution. He became a poet and a master of the tea ceremony rather than a warrior, despite the coward’s reputation it earned him. Ultimately he led his people into exile in the Philippines, but contracted an illness on the journey that killed him six weeks after their arrival. He had saved neither his life nor his reputation, but secured his soul.
St. Bernardo of Corleone (1603-1667) quit not because he lost but because he won. The son of a Sicilian cobbler, Bernardo was generally a good Christian—except when his temper flared; the young man known as the greatest sword in Sicily was prone to excesses. In one such moment, he was dueling and wounded an opponent so grievously that the man later lost his arm. Bernardo was devastated and began to reform himself, eventually becoming a Capuchin friar. The dashing duelist left behind swashbuckling and became a simple, humble man who obediently spent his days as cook and infirmarian.
St. Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787) quit after a loss showed him that his competitive nature was a danger to his soul. Alphonsus’s father Giuseppe was displeased with his small, weak, asthmatic son, ridiculing him throughout his life. Giuseppe set Alphonsus up to be a lawyer, an avocation at which Alphonsus was tremendously successful, not losing a single case in his first eight years. When he made a critical mistake and lost a case, Alphonsus was shaken and suddenly realized the peril his soul was in, puffed up as it was with pride. To the disgust of his father, Alphonsus decided to leave behind the practice of law to pursue the priesthood. Alphonsus’s response? “I have no father but God.” Giuseppe then tried to manage Alphonsus’s ecclesiastical career and continued to be frustrated by his son’s desire to be meek and poor, but Alphonsus sought holiness and found it, his father’s resistance notwithstanding.
St. Gyavira (1869-1886) quit following his father’s dream for him in order to follow Jesus. Gyavira was a Ugandan boy raised by his father the chief to be a priest to the leopard-god Mayanja. But Gyavira was called to the kabaka’s court. There the other pages kept their distance, fearful of his association with the shrine of Mayanja. St. Charles Lwanga wasn’t afraid. He and the Catholic pages befriended the lonely young man, and through their friendship they called him to sainthood. When Lwanga began to tell Gyavira about Jesus, he listened because of their friendship. But Lwanga, too, had planned to serve another god and had left his plans behind to follow the true God. He understood the cost of discipleship for Gyavira, who had been raised to expect women and wealth because of his role as pagan priest. Gradually, Gyavira came to embrace the faith, despite his father’s rage. Though it made him an outcast from his clan, Gyavira burned all the instruments of witchcraft that he owned and began to prepare for baptism. He was ultimately baptized in prison just before being martyred alongside Lwanga.
St. Teresa of Calcutta (1910-1997) quit her religious order (after final vows) to follow a call from God. Born to an Albanian family in North Macedonia, Teresa entered an Irish order and was sent to India to serve. She served with the Sisters of Loreto for nearly two decades before feeling a call from God to serve the poorest of the poor in a new religious order. Despite the stigma against leaving a religious order after making final vows, Mother Teresa followed. She had to lobby her order for a year and a half to obtain permission to leave. Ultimately she was able (with the Church’s approval, though likely the disapproval of many individuals) to leave the Sisters of Loreto and found the Missionaries of Charity, an order that had more than 4,000 Sisters at the time of Mother Teresa’s death.