The first time I heard the story ofSt. Maximilian Kolbe, I cried. Not out of sadness. Not out of anger. His story — that of a Catholic priest arrested by the Nazis who then traded his life to save the life of another prisoner because, as he explained, that’s what a Catholic priest does — is certainly a sad one. Hearing it could easily cause tears of anger against the people who were so evil.
That’s not why I teared up, though. I cried because the St. Maximilian is a hero. The idea that such people — true heroes — walk the earth brought deep emotion out of me. This was a depth of feeling I didn’t know I possessed.
As I meditated on his life, St Maximilian rearranged my perceptions of myself and what it means to be a priest. At the heart of priesthood is sacrifice, a fact that I knew but the reality of which had never quite sunk home. Maximilian literally gave up his life because he felt it was part of his vocation. Countless other priests give up their lives daily in service at the altar, maintaining obedience to the Church, and marking their days by a cycle of prayer.
If I wasn’t willing to make those simple acts of sacrifice, I realized that I had no business being a priest. I knew that if I couldn’t sacrifice in small ways, I would never be sufficient for the grander moments. I’m not sure I’m made of the same heroic stuff that Maximilian is, but I’m trying every day to be just a little bit more like him.
Immitation creates virtue
This imitative quality that creates new virtue in us is why knowing the lives of the saints is so important. Through their lives — not simply their words – the saints bring theological concepts to reality. It’s one thing to know that Christian love is a sacrifice, it’s entirely another to see it spring to life in the words and deeds of someone like St. Maximilian. It’s one thing to understand that motherhood is a total self-gift to a child, it’s another thing entirely to hear the story of how St. Gianna traded her life for that of her daughter.
These are real lives, lived in the real world.
Odd balls and ringing bells
My friend Patrick says that St. Philip Neri‘s “odd ball” attitude helped him to relax and not take himself too seriously. The great success of the saint in influencing the world reveals that good humor and kindness go a lot further than the driving necessity to always be right and win an argument.
Another friend, Tim, mentions a tiny detail from the life of St. John Vianney. In Vianney’s parish, the church bell tolled every hour. He and the field workers would briefly kneel and say a prayer every time they heard it. This inspired Tim to activate the chime function on his watch. Every hour, he hears it and pauses whatever he’s doing to say a prayer.
Fellow Aleteia writer Father Jonathan Mitchican is a big fan of Dorothy Day (not technically a saint yet, but here’s hoping) and St. Oscar Romero, who have helped him through their respective examples to reorient his life towards love and service. “I am far from there yet,” he says, “but without the witness of Romero and Day I would not even be on the journey.”
Saints have even influenced saints. St. John of the Cross and St. Joan of Arc influenced St. Therese of Lisieux towards the sanctity of her little way. St. Ambrose influenced St. Augustine when Augustine was still a playboy wasting his time chasing women and fame. The list goes on.
Failure can inspire, too
And it isn’t only the successes of saints that inspire us. It’s also their failures. Vianney was a notoriously weak student and struggled to learn Latin before finally figuring it out. As a priest myself who also struggles with Latin, I take encouragement from his persistence.
My friend Anne mentions how Maximilian Kolbe, before he became a triumphant martyr in a prison camp, admitted to struggling with repeated sins. I think we all probably have a few vices that we cannot seem to shake. Hearing Maximilian discuss his struggles so openly is freeing. In the end, his sins didn’t have the last word. As long as we don’t give up, ours won’t either.
Saints can bring out the best in us
The lives of the saints are fascinating case studies in how to fulfill our potential. Each saint is uniquely themselves. St. Francis is entirely different from St. Louis, who is completely different from Blessed Franz Jagerstatter, showing that conformity isn’t the path to happiness – being the best version of yourself is.
The life of St. Maximilian is important to me not because I need to be exactly like him in every single way, but because he encourages me to search out the best within myself and offer it to others. After all, if his example has been so influential on me, how might my own modest example of authentically responding virtue (when I can manage it) affect others?
Our children need the saints, too
As a father of six children, the lives of the saints are stories that I want my children to be familiar with. I want them to be friends with the saints, too. I want them to be inspired by them, want to live virtuously like them, and that through them, their faith comes alive and becomes real. And of course, following the example of the saints I love, I am challenged daily to do better at taking up my own calling and to live in a similarly admirable manner. My children are watching.
Theology can seem so complicated. Applying that theology to our lived experience is even more complicated. The saints (and those who behave in a saintly manner) make it simple. Aleteia author Tom Hoopes shares how the heroism of Tom Vander Woude, who died saving his son from a septic tank, changed his life. He says Vander Woude, “had a weekly 2 a.m. holy hour. So I have one. He prayed the Rosary on his knees. So I do. He coached his kids. I got kayaks for them and me. He helped couples. So do I.”
It’s that simple. Learn about the saints and try to live like them. The saints pull something out of us that perhaps we never knew we had — a new virtue, a willingness to sacrifice, a flame of devotion lit in a heart already brimming to full with love.