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                                                  Not an Optional Extra

by Philip Trower


           My theme in this article is that the lives of the saints should  be seen as necessary reading for any literate Christian, not just an optional extra for the devout or pious.  It is as necessary in its way as learning the catechism or reading books of doctrine, theology and Church history, since the lives of the saints are the supporting evidence --- what the French call pieces justificatives --- for what we believe and preach.  Ideally, of course, our own  and our fellow Christians lives should be that.  However, since they so often fall short, we need the lives of the saints to supply the deficiency and reinforce our belief that the unam sanctum catholicam apostolicam ecclesiam to which we belong really is what it claims to be.


         To find support for this view we need only turn to Holy Scripture where we find ‘lives of saints’ either woven into the texts of the historical books, or independently as books on their own.  Examples of the first are the stories about Elijah and Elisha in Kings I and II , and of the second the books devoted to the life of a single man or woman like Tobit, Ruth, or Esther.


          Indeed one could argue that the greater one’s knowledge of doctrine and theology or Church history as a record of public events the more urgent the need for watering it regularly with time devoted to the life of a saint, or a book of spiritual reading like The Imitation of Christ or the Little Flower’s Story of a Soul which could be described as handbooks on how to become a saint.  This is because intellectual activity, however good, important and necessary in itself, which it is,  can, when indulged in exclusively or to a high degree, have a dessicating effect on the heart and soul as a totality. One could call it an occupational hazard.  Great thinkers like St Thomas and St Bonaventura would have been protected by their holiness and life of prayer.


          Evidence for this is the age-old expression odium theologicum.  Theological debate  readily leads to animosity.  But then so too can scholarly debate of any kind. 

It can be just as sharp between philosophers, historians, scientists, you name it.


         We also have Pascal’s famous saying about the heart having reasons which the mind knows nothing about. The heart can say No to things the mind might be inclined to say Yes to.


          From this, I would say, it follows that the need for regular reading of the lives of the saints is greatest among Church students and their teachers.  Church students have to be formed spiritually not just informed intellectually.  If their increased knowledge of the Church’s beliefs and history does not lead to an intensified love and appreciation of their beauty as well as their truth, their training has partially failed.

All this struck me powerfully the other day when I was re-reading a popular history of the Catholic Church, or rather the chapters about the 12
th and 13th centuries.

The 13th century, as we all know,  is usually considered the high point of the Church’s spiritual and cultural achievements in the middle ages with the 12th century as the preamble.  But, due no doubt to shortage of space, so much of the text had to be given to matters like theological disputes, the struggles between Church and state over the appointment of bishops, the suppression of heresies, the wars of the Emperor Frederick on the papacy or the influence of the Roman populace on papal elections, that the Church’s supernatural dimension, for anyone without a strong faith all but vanished from view.  As for people of no faith, should such a history fall into their hands, it would most likely confirm their conviction that the Church is a purely this-worldly institution in which the people running it are only interested in promoting their personal interests.


          The incidents I have just mentioned are of course facts which every historian has to deal with.   But on their own, they can make the Church’s history seem like a production of Hamlet in which all the great soliloquies, that is all the great beauties, have been left out---the equivalent of the soliloquies in the lives of the saints being their holiness, their good works and their miracles.


          We don’t need to be afraid of  or embarrassed by miracles. God isn’t. The fact that miracles continued after New Testament times, indeed were still taking place in modern times  was a major factor in helping me find my way into the Church,in particular those I came across found in the lives of St Philip Neri and the Cure D’Ars.  You can still see the room in the Massimi palace on the Corso in Rome where St Philip brought  a young son of the family back to life, like Elijah the son of the widow of Zarephath.


          As for the miracles of the Cure d’Ars, the best source I know is the biography by his curate, the Abbe Monin.  The Abbe witnessed him multiplying bread for his school children.  St John Bosco worked a similar miracle.


          The Abbe also had the amazing privilege of witnessing an apparition of Our Lady.  Going upstairs in the presbytery one day to look for the Cure he heard, to his amazement, two voices coming from his bedroom, one of them a woman’s. The door was slightly ajar so he tiptoed up and looked through the crack. The Cure was talking to a magnificently dressed lady looking like the Empress Eugenie, whose husband Napoleon III was still on the throne of France at the time.  The Abbe tiptoed away.  Later he asked the Cure whether it was Our Lady.  The Cure nodded but told him not to tell anyone.

          Our faith should not, of course, depend on miracles alone, but that has not kept God in his mercy from using them to strengthen it.  Re-reading the Acts of the Apostles the other day, I was astonished by how many St Paul worked.


          After the lives of the saints, it is also important these days, I believe, for Catholics with a knowledge of Church history and theology to have a comparable knowledge of the Church’s social and cultural achievements., and for the same


           Like the lives of the saints, the Church’s social and cultural achievements over the ages are also in their way pieces justificatives or part of the evidence that it is what it claims to be. They too help to keep the faith from coming to seem like a philosophy or system of ideas (something Pope Benedict and Pope Francis are particularly anxious to avoid), or its history seeming to lack any supernatural dimension.


          It is true that other religions have over the centuries produced great works of art and literature and can point to their works of charity too.  But that makes it only more necessary for the Church to be able to point to at least comparable achievements.   Failure to be able to do so would almost amount to a counter argument to its claims.


          I remember Pius XII saying that as lay people our knowledge of the Church and the faith should be on the same level as the rest of our education.  So  here is another reason for widening our knowledge of her social and cultural achievements.  With regard to her social achievements or good works, to some extent simply reading the lives of the saints does this since so many were involved in starting charitable institutions, schools, hospitals, lazar houses, leper colonies.


          St Damien of Molokai who died as a leper in the colony he had founded is a good example.  Then we have the English writer William Cobbet (1763-1835), testifying to the importance of the Church’s social role in the middle ages.  Although an Anglican, he laments the destruction of the English monasteries by Henry VIII simply on the grounds of the immense loss it involved for the poor and disadvantaged. 


          In this television-cum-Information Technology (IT), era some knowledge of the Church’s cultural history is also, I suggest, rapidly ceasing to be an optional extra for anyone who has had a college education. It would seem increasingly necessary both as a support for their own faith and for bringing the faith to others.  We  probably all know a convert, for instance, who has been drawn to the Church by the beauty of her liturgy and music.  Similarly, one is not surprised to learn that both the late Sir Kenneth Clarke, author of the famous television series Civilisation, subsequently published in book form, and the famous Italian art expert Bernard Berenson both great lovers of Florentine painting, both  died as Catholics.

Then there are the sciences, so long used as a mallet for knocking the Church on the head.  Here our debt to the late Fr Stanley Jaki is enormous.   Thanks to him, English-speaking Catholics, having long had  the Galileo affair thrust at them as typifying the Church’s attitude to science, have now been provided with a whole body of evidence that modern science had its roots in the middle ages in Christian beliefs and a Christian mind-set, not in the renaissance among unbelievers. 


Knowing about the Church’s cultural achievements is not of course as important as knowing about her social achievements or good works since these latter are what all Christians are called to. As St James reminds us, faith without works is dead.


In this area I find reading the literature one gets by post or e-mail from charities and missionary orders almost as good as reading lives of the saints.  It can give the same kind of boost to one’s faith.  And it is all happening today.  A good example I recently came across, and  one of my favourites, is a recently founded religious association called The Missionary Servants of the Poor of the Third World.  Started in  1986  by a Sicilian priest Fr. Giovanni Solano who is also a medical doctor, for helping the poor of the high Andes, it is now spreading throughout the world.  The aim is to help the poor spiritually as much as materially or in other words to re-evangelise them.  The account of the founder’s experiences and adventures in the high Andes, including the kind of opposition he met with, reads like an adventure story.  It also contains a lot of impressive spiritual wisdom.

Here is the address of the head-quarters of the association for anyone interested in knowing more about it.

Fr Giuseppe Cardamone,
Seminario Santa Maria Maria Madre de los Pobres,
45110 Ajofrin

In return for a small donation Father Guiseppe would be, I am sure, be willing to send a copy of the founder’s book. 

Coming back again briefly to culture or a knowledge and appreciation of the Church’s achievements in the fields of art, music, literature, and science ---  these subjects, as we all know, are not necessary in themselves as evidence for the truth of the faith.   To begin with the Church had nothing to show in any of these fields.  But given the fact that more and more countries have universal education and the number is likely to grow, I would suggest that a knowledge of Christianity’s cultural achievements is becoming increasingly important as a preparatio evangelium.



1. The rise of modern science has its origins in Christian belief.

Of course none of these things are necessary  in themselves.  But given the state of western society as it currently is, with universal education they can be  useful or even important as a preparatio evangelium.

Historical major works provide a treasure house of information tracing the origin of modern science to much that was taught in the middle ages - the roots of modern science.


2. A preparation evangelium

Importance of reading missionary magazines  Fr Stanley Jaki


3. Note. Pius XII said that every lay Catholic's knowledge of the faith should be of the level of his general education.


4. As faith declines  the tendency is for the Church to seem more and more like a spiritual department store where we go from time to time to get certain goods and services, while at the same time the faith appears as increasingly as an ideology.            


5. Cobbett,  Rural Rides


Copyright © Philip Trower 2016

Version: 27th June 2016

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