The Songs of Sanctity

Sometimes when I give talks or retreats about the saints, I ask group members to nominate a saint from our century. Varied responses have been fascinating: Sr. Dorothy Stang, Pope Francis, the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, Fr. Mychal Judge, the ASC martyrs, first responders. I’ve been mightily impressed by Kaitlin Roig, a first grade teacher at Sandy Hook school, who hid her class in a bathroom when she heard shots. She told an interviewer, “I was thinking… we’re next. So I told them, ‘I need you to know that I love you all very much.’ I wanted that to be the last thing they’d hear, not gunfire.”

Recently, through GIVE US THIS DAY, the superb monthly collection of readings, reflections, and saints-of-the-day from Liturgical Press—888-259-8470, (truth in advertising: I write for them), I’ve met a new nominee: Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty. An Irish pastor explained  that he’s not well known outside of Ireland, but he should be. Born in Cahersiveen, CO. Kerry, also the home of my great-grandmother, he grew up playing golf, because his father was steward of the Killarney golf club.

That skill would help when he arrived in Rome the same year as Mussolini, 1922. Fellow golfers would later give him high social standing, which he would use eventually to rescue over 6500 Jews, US and UK escaped POWs and downed airmen. In German-occupied Rome, he set up and coordinated the “Rome Escape Line,” an ingenious underground of homes, convents and other hiding places which operated beneath the noses of the Nazis.

His arch nemesis was SS Lt. Col. Kappler, head of the Gestapo, who painted a white line around the Vatican, daring O’Flaherty to cross out of safe territory and be executed. In the film, “The Scarlet and the Black” (1983) Gregory Peck playing O’Flaherty jokes with typical Irish wit: “Colonel, do I get the idea that you’re tryin’ to put a crimp in my social life?” Undeterred, he simply mastered various disguises to evade the Germans when he left the Vatican on rescue missions.

Perhaps the most extraordinary part of the story is that when Kappler was sent to jail for life, he invited the priest to visit him—which he did once a month, laughing, “after he put a 30,000 lire bounty on my head, now we’re sort of pals.” Courageously, O’Flaherty advocated fair treatment of Nazi prisoners, which must’ve been excruciating when Kappler had killed 335 people in the Ardeatine Caves, in revenge for 33 German soldiers killed by the resistance—one of the war’s worst atrocities. Eventually, O’Flaherty received his old enemy into the Church. He died in Ireland in 1963; the Israeli government planted a tree in his honor ten years later. Poet Brendan Kennelly wrote of O’Flaherty:

There is a tree called freedom and it grows

Somewhere in the hearts of men

Rain falls, ice freezes, wind blows

The tree shivers, steadies itself again.

Feast of Frances Cabrini—Nov. 13

Continuing the month of saints, let’s focus on the Italian dynamo who opened 67 charitable institutions and houses in the U.S.  Cabrini’s energy epitomized the zealous, thirsty, upward mobility of every immigrant group. A small orphanage and school begun in 1889 in New York City grew to a national network of educational, medical, and social service institutions. A tough business woman, shrewd about contracts, she outwitted contractors and swindlers trying to cheat nuns. When lawyers were astounded by how astutely she handled a deal, she whispered, “Poor things. They can’t believe we’re able to do a little business.”

Driven by multiple demands, Cabrini could never do enough for Italian immigrants. Her heart went out to the children abandoned when their parents’ hopes of instant wealth in the new country didn’t materialize. There were always too many requests for too few resources. Asked how she managed her huge network, she commented charmingly, “Oh, I put it all in the Sacred Heart and then I don’t get the headache.” She asked God for “a heart as big as the universe;” apparently God replied, “yes.”

Few women traveled as extensively or acted as powerfully in the male-dominated world of her day. With little or no government funding, sisters were financially responsible for all their hospitals, schools, and orphanages. In 1916, Cabrini even tried a little placer mining in Colorado, hoping to finance the Denver orphanage. When skeptics told her “it’d be better to go back home,” it sounds achingly familiar. How often has that taunt been hurled at the immigrants of our day?

Feast of All Saints

“I don’t much like the saints,” admitted an eighth grader. “They’re too perfect.” Isn’t it high time our young folk met the real saints, who are just as filled with flaws and quirks as any other human beings? But many of them would’ve been really interesting to hang out with!


We in the U.S. are fortunate to brush elbows with many saints–both officially canonized and not quite there–who grew and flourished here. It’s intriguing to imagine them sitting down together at a heavenly banquet, unbounded by the usual human constraints. Their shared values, hopes, beliefs and actions are strong membranes connecting them beyond time and space.


Elizabeth Ann Seton and Pierre Toussaint exchange news about their parish, St. Peter’s in New York City; she thanks him for donations to the orphanage staffed by her sisters. Katharine Drexel and John Neumann chat about their home town, Philadelphia. Marianne Cope, the first to admit alcoholics to the hospital at a time when they were jailed instead, thanks Bill W., Dr. Bob and Sister Mary Ignatia for founding Alcoholics Anonymous. Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez discuss with Henry David Thoreau his essay, “On Civil Disobedience.” He preferred jail to paying a tax which would finance the Mexican War and extend slavery; his stance on resisting injustice underlay their movements. Rose Hawthorne Lathrop and Elizabeth Ann Seton compare notes on their shared experiences of being widowed, converting to Catholicism when it was most unpopular, losing a child, and constantly caring for the sick. Frances Cabrini discusses immigration with contemporary experts and marvels that the issues of her day still have not been resolved. Thea Bowman and Katharine Drexel roll their eyes about black women being denied admission to religious communities in the early 1900s. Sister Mary Luke Tobin and  Rachel Carson measure women’s progress in the arenas they pioneered: church and science. Dorothy Day, Helen and Cesar Chavez reminisce about their visits to each other, and her imprisonment in 1973 for picketing several California vineyards. Dorothy Stang and the sisters martyred in Liberia talk with Jean Donovan, Ita Ford, Maura Clarke and Dorothy Kazel about the ties that bound them so closely to their people, they couldn’t leave their missions even when their lives were endangered.


Lest anyone consider them superheroes, let’s remember that saintly people walk with all the longing and limitation, reluctance and resistance of ordinary human beings. They share (and have documented in their letters and journals) the failures, fears and frustrations, effervescent joys and stinging pains of all humanity. Looking way back in church history, the fifth century Council of Carthage insisted that saints remain sinners who rely on God’s mercy. If not, they’d be too distant to imitate. And isn’t that the point?


A question which arises naturally in this context is, what makes North Americans unique in the larger communion of saints? Typical of our nation’s settlement and growth was a fluidity, vitality, and sense of possibility previously unknown in Europe. Historian Daniel Boorstin comments: “By the early 19th century, in crowded, pre-empted Europe, ‘No Trespassing’ signs were everywhere; control by government covered the map. America offered a sharp contrast.”[1]


Old World nations knew clearly defined boundaries. But the sense of geography in the U.S. was vague at best. “The map of America was full of blank places that had to be filled.”[2] This unique mix of hope and illusion became fertile ground.


Few clucking rulers murmured, “it can’t be done.” Call it, if you will, less of a “wet blanket effect.”   Americans often seem happiest when on the move, and this was certainly true of John Frances Neumann or Frances Cabrini—who began as immigrants, and served their new country by difficult journeys through it.


The frontier has always been vital to the North American experience. So let’s broaden the idea of frontier to unexplored realms of holiness. In the North American context, the quote from Revelation 21:5, “See, I am making all things new” takes on richer meaning. Our saints went into what some would term North America’s “hell holes”: the raw frontier, the leper colony, the squalid slum. They were “explorers” in many realms: civil rights, science, education, health care. There they brought the vigorous, transforming energy of the Resurrection.


Shouldn’t our young people have heroes like Marianne Cope, Pierre Toussaint, John Neumann, Dorothy Stang, Rachel Carson, Cesar Chavez and Mychal Judge? Don’t these pioneers have more to teach the soul than a sports or film hero? Let’s read their stories, model their actions, praise them like honored family members!




Excerpt from When the Saints Came Marching In Liturgical Press, 2015,, 1-800-858-5450

[1] Daniel Boorstin, THE AMERICANS: THE NATIONAL EXPERIENCE (New York: Random House, ’65), 65.

[2] Boorstin, 223

Feast of Five Martyrs

“In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.” — Thomas Merton

Their story isn’t well known, but it should be. On Oct. 23, 1992, three Adorers of the Blood of Christ were killed in Liberia, after two others in the order had been shot three days earlier. They were innocent victims caught in the craziness of civil war.

When I gave retreats to this community, both in Ruma, IL and Wichita, KS, I was impressed by a spunky-wonderful bunch of women. As I learned their history, that first impression turned to awe. One background note among many: in 1985, the Adorers of Ruma became the only Catholic organization in the area to defy the law and offer sanctuary in their houses to Cuban and Central American refugees.

In limited space, it’s impossible to write about all the martyrs (see When the Saints Came Marching In for the fuller picture.) But here are brief cameos of two:

Sister Barbara Ann Muttra was a nurse who wasn’t above bribery. At her clinic, she discouraged the common practice of driving off evil spirits by placing pepper in a newborn’s mouth, (which caused blisters) and mud on the umbilical cord, causing tetanus. She encouraged  parents’ cooperation with baby clothes donated by friends in the U.S. Eventually, she cut infant mortality from 80% to 20%, from two deaths a week to two a year.

Sister Shirley Kolmer loved Liberia because the gap between her front teeth was considered a sign of beauty there. A Ph. D. in Math, she taught it at St. Louis University, and first went on a Fulbright to the University of Liberia in 1977-1978. As provincial, her vision was of “loving the comfort, but ready to get up and go at a moment’s notice–women who dream dreams and continue to promise.” In Liberia, Charles Taylor’s rebels had recruited child soldiers as young as 10, and revived ancient practices of torture and mutilation. So Shirley started a counseling program for boys pressed into war, both perpetrators and victims.

Asked, “what made them tick? Why would they return to Liberia after a dangerous escape a year before?” the sisters who knew them well respond: “If there were five martyrs, there were probably eight motives.” The words “pious” or “prissy” never come up. “Bold” and “tenacious” are more likely to surface. They had practical work to do: teaching poor, illiterate, powerless women, staffing medical clinics, counseling, feeding the hungry. (By 1990, 40,000 civilians in Monrovia had died of starvation.) Over and over, one hears of a love for the Liberian people, the drive to meet their needs and share their lot.

Their persistence also characterizes an ASC sister who, as principal of an East St. Louis school, got garbage collection where there had been none, and celebrated as merrily as the neighbors on the day the trash cans arrived. Let’s praise and celebrate and honor women such as these.

Excerpt from When the Saints Came Marching In Liturgical Press, 2015,, 1-800-858-5450

Relative Chaos

In more naïve days, I thought of chaos as garden variety—dashing out the door with multiple children, one who lost a shoe, one who was sick, one who was cranky, one who inevitably forgot the book report. Or a messy house where vital things got lost—checks, glasses, keys, prescriptions to be filled. How mild that all seems in light of the recent wine country fires. As beautiful acres burn in Napa and Santa Rosa, people lose lives, health, mobility, livelihoods, homes, vineyards. It’s almost embarrassing to admit that I routinely grow concerned over a tight schedule, complex navigation, or the aforementioned lost keys. How small that chaos seems compared to the devastation in CA, Puerto Rico, FL or TX. How many there would be thrilled to have any shelter all to themselves, even a messy house!

Terrible tragedies DO re-align perspective. If any larger, long-term answer helps explain, it comes from James Finley, writing on Richard Rohr’s website about “the infinite irrelevance of laughter and tears with respect to the oceanic Love that loves you through and through and through and through in your tears, in your laughter, in all things.”

Whatever the chaos, it’s relative. For some people, it’s tragedy, despair, death. For others, it’s the more mundane matter of surviving the day with mild sanity intact. But ultimately, the grief or loss isn’t the final word. All, all is relative to an infinite love which saturates all things. Hard to see sometimes, but so sustaining!

St. Teresa of Avila’s Feast—Oct. 15


“From silly devotions and sour-faced saints, Good Lord deliver us!”

“May God preserve us from stupid nuns!”

No matter how hard they try, hagiographers can’t camouflage Teresa’s tart brusqueness. In her day, the sixteenth century, the Inquisition tried to force change through threats, imprisonment and violence. One suspects that Teresa’s humor had longer-lasting effects.

She reformed not only the Carmelite order, but also attitudes about women and approaches to prayer. Because her early training had shoe-horned her into trivial conversation with too many women jammed into one house, she created orderly spaces where her sisters could turn inward. “My daughters, we are not hollow inside,” she reminded them.

Then she took on the prevailing ideas of prayer: mindless repetition of rote formulas imposed by the clergy. Most people considered direct experience of God, without priestly intervention, subversive. Teresa gave images of contemplation that were close to daily life: the watered garden, beehive, interior castle, heart of God like the innermost, edible core of the palmetto. The face of God that Teresa reveals is not punitive or distant, but precious as a lover, close as a friend.

All the while she was dancing around the Inquisition, coyly claiming she had no idea what she was talking about. How could others condemn her when she beat them to it? Meanwhile, probably grinning self-protectively, she focuses on God’s generosity: “Do you think it’s some small matter to have a friend like this at your side?”

Therese of Lisieux—Feast Oct. 1

No wonder she’s so beloved. She saw enormous potential in the daily grind; she responded with gusto to confined circumstances. In an era of syrupy piety, she used organic metaphors and spoke with a fresh voice. Best of all, she transformed limited, flawed humanity into Christ’s own life. Or as Richard Rohr puts it, she taught that We know God by participation in God, not by trying to please God from afar.” 

It’s helpful to understand her parents, who adored their youngest child. Her mother died when was Therese was four, a tragic loss. About the time she entered Carmel, her father entered a mental institution—horrid places in the nineteenth century. As she matured, Therese revised her glorious concepts of martyrdom. She came to see the martyr as her gentle father, lying in the mental hospital with a handkerchief covering his head.  

As a young girl in a strict convent, she wasn’t immune to irritation. Caring for grumpy older nuns, directed by a prioress who was probably neurotic, surrounded by a community jealous of her relationship with her blood sisters, she disappeared into Christ. She writes: “One feels that to do good is as impossible without God’s help as to make the sun shine at night.” Freely she admitted falling asleep during her prayers for seven years running.

She would die of tuberculosis at age 24, the age when if male, she would’ve been ordained. Her last illness was excruciatingly painful, yet she drew on a whole repertoire of jokes and puns to cope. One sister wrote, “There are times one would pay to be near her. I believe she will die laughing, she is so happy.” Her honest account described being “stretched out on iron spikes.” Yet she clung to the image of herself as a child, sleeping fearlessly in her father’s arms, hiding her face in his hair. In an era when God was punitive and many Christians wanted simply to deflect God’s anger, Therese is warm, earthy, worth celebrating.

Prayer in Chaos, Change, Commotion and Clutter

  •   10 am– 
  • Graduate Theological Union, School of Applied Theology, Berkeley, CA
  • $180 includes lunch

Presented by Kathy Coffey   510-652-1651