On this feast day of Saint Mother Teresa, I read the address that she gave upon being awarded the Templeton Prize and came upon this striking anecdote:
“And in one of the places in Melbourne I visited an old man and nobody ever knew that he existed. And I saw his room in a terrible state, and I wanted to clean his house, his room, and he kept on saying ‘I’m all right!’ but I repeated the same word, ‘You will be more all right if you will allow me to clean your place’, and at the end he allowed me. And there in that room there was a beautiful lamp covered with dirt of many years, and I asked him ‘Why do you not light your lamp?’ Then I asked him, ‘Will you light the lamp if the Sisters come to see you?’ He said, ‘Yes, if I hear a human voice I will do it.’ And the other day he sent me word, ‘Tell my friend the light she has lit in my life is still burning.’”
How many in our world, particularly after this painful season of mandatory isolation, also need to hear a human voice for the light of their life to be rekindled in their soul?
According to different traditions, no fewer than four locations lay claim to the murdered saint’s head. In Damascus, Syria, the Umayyad Mosque was built in the eighth century A.D. on the site of a Christian church named for John the Baptist; his head is said to be buried in a shrine there. A skull identified as the head of John the Baptist is on display at the Church of San Silvestro in Capite in Rome, built to house artifacts from the Roman catacombs. The 13th-century cathedral in Amiens, France was built specifically to house the head of John the Baptist, which a Crusader supposedly brought back from Constantinople in 1206. And in Munich, Germany, the Residenz Museum includes John’s skull among a number of relics collected by Duke Wilhelm V of Bavaria with the Pope’s permission in the mid-16th century.
Such stories show how martyrdom can multiply a saint’s legacy and that, far from destroying a person – even if the relics disappear – their presence can extend throughout the world.
It was October 2000 when Saint Pope John Paul II canonized 120 martyrs in China. As Alejandro Bermudez noted in his recent piece, “87 were Chinese laypeople and 33 were missionaries.”
Bermudez says, “The feast is an occasion for the Chinese Catholic diaspora, and for the Universal Catholic church as a whole, to pray for Christians currently persecuted in Communist China, especially those Catholics who despite being a minority in Hong Kong, constitute the backbone of the freedom movement and are currently being jailed such as Catholic convert Jimmy Lai, owner of the pro-democracy paper Apple News; or those forced to exile, like pro-democracy Catholic leader Joseph Cheng.”
In his homily, John Paul II said the, “martyrs are an example of courage and consistency to us all, and that they honour the noble Chinese people.”
The stories of these modern martyrs are captivating and it is important for them to become accessible and familiar so to bolster the faith and tenacity of Christians and people of good will worldwide.
Today is the death anniversary and feast day of St. Kateri Tekakwitha – an indigenous Catholic who was born in 1656 to a Mohawk father and a Christian Algonquin mother.
During the homily announcing her canonization in 2012, Pope Benedict XVI said: “Kateri impresses us by the action of grace in her life in spite of the absence of external help and by the courage of her vocation, so unusual in her culture. In her, faith and culture enrich each other! May her example help us to live where we are, loving Jesus without denying who we are.”
In honour of the occasion, I discussed the life, death, and legacy of St. Kateri with my good friend Maria Lucas who is herself an indigenous Catholic.
Check out our discussion about St. Kateri’s virtues, her willingness to chart her own course in obedience to God’s will, the ways she navigated her indigenous Catholic identity, and how she died with tremendous faith and peace at age 24.
Photo: Statue of St. Kateri at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. (2017)
Upon returning to Poland and telling my professors that I had spent the holidays in Paris and Athens, my professor of metaphysics said to me, “Those trips sound okay, but if you want to do something really worthwhile, then you should visit Toulouse because that is where Thomas Aquinas is buried.”
Not more than a month later, I booked an AirBnB 238 metres from the Church of the Jacobins and went to see Aquinas’ tomb.