Besides expanding our kids’ “spiritual family” to include lots of cool people, reading the stories of the saints as a family every day has shown us many and varied ways to live a holy Christian life. Here’s what your family can do.
by Jerry Windley-Daoust
Reading stories of the saints has been part of our family’s usual nighttime prayer routine for more than five years; in that time, our kids have come to know hundreds of holy men and women. Besides expanding their “spiritual family” to include lots of cool people, they’ve also learned a little something about the many and varied ways of living a life of grace and virtue in whatever circumstances life hands you. Plus, they’ve learned a lot about our Church’s history along the way.
Here are four lessons that our family has learned from reading the lives of the saints …plus, where to find saint stories, and a few tips for discussing the stories with your kids.
The Saints Give Us Concrete Examples of What It Means to Live the Gospel in Our Own Lives
At their best, the lives of the saints show us what it looks like to follow Jesus…to the extent that they applied the words of the Gospel in their own lives, they are like “little living Gospels.”
Sure, the Bible and the Church’s Tradition ought to be our kids’ primary source for how to live a good and holy life. But let’s face it: the sacred Scriptures and Church teaching documents can be challenging to interpret and “translate” into everyday life, especially for kids.
The lives of the saints “incarnate,” or put flesh on, the Gospel. In their stories, we get to see ordinary people—people just like us!—attempting to follow Jesus in the context of their own circumstances: their particular time, place, culture, and personality.
We get to see what happens when someone like St. Anthony of Egypt, for instance, attempts to live out Jesus’ call to sell everything you own and give it to the poor. We get to see how someone like St. Gertrude used her artistic talents to serve the Kingdom of God. And we get to see how someone like Blessed Chiara Badano became an inspiration to all around her by her brave and joyful approach to her terminal illness.
Of course, no single life offers a definitive template for how to live the Gospel, because God calls each person to the vocation of love in a unique, unrepeatable way. Each saint’s life story is only a partial—and imperfect—recapitulation of the Gospel.
But that is also their strength, because as our kids get to know more and more of these holy men and women, they learn that there is more than one way to live a holy life. The desert fathers and mothers renounced worldly goods in a much different way than St. Elizabeth Ann Seton did, for example. Saints Thomas Aquinas, Anselm, and Albert the Great were men of great intelligence and wisdom, while Blessed Brother Juniper may very well have suffered from an intellectual impairment—and yet, Blessed Juniper’s life was no less holy than St. Thomas’s, nor is it any less valuable as a model for our own lives.
By their example, the saints call us to be extraordinary. Most of us live out a bland, compromised Christianity, hemmed by fear, laziness, or pragmatism. The saints, on the other hand, hold nothing back from God—and as a result, take real risks, and accomplish great things.
Many were “red martyrs,” shedding their blood for the faith. We’ve been particularly inspired by the stories of the Church’s many modern martyrs, particularly the priests, religious, and laity who died resisting the Nazis, communists, fascists, and totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century. (Many of these are newly beatified or canonized within the past thirty years or so.)
But all of the saints were “green martyrs” in the sense of sacrificing their lives in union with Christ. As a parent, I hope that reading their stories will inspire my kids to live radically loving, exciting lives in response to God’s mission for them.
The Saints Teach Us You Don’t Have to Be Perfect to Be Holy
Those unfamiliar with the lives of the saints often perceive them as too perfect to be “real”—otherworldly figures somehow touched by God in a way that made holiness easy for them. Or, alternatively, the saints may be perceived as people whose holiness was only possible because they removed themselves from the challenges of ordinary life. As Pope Francis puts it, the saints can sometimes be regarded as museum pieces kept in glass cases.
But digging into the lives of the saints reveals that these were real people, with real challenges—including the burden of their own sinfulness. Dorothy Day once quipped that she didn’t want to be called a saint. “I don’t want to be dismissed that easily,” she supposedly said. She may have also been thinking of her own past, including the abortion she had as a young woman. And yet, the Church is seriously examining her cause for sainthood despite that abortion, not to mention her other flaws.
She isn’t the only one. St. Augustine famously laid out the errors of his youth in his Confession. St. Jerome had a temper and a sharp tongue—a source of personal regret. Blessed Anthony Neyrot was a Dominican priest who left the faith and converted to the religion of his Muslim captors before repenting…at the cost of his life.
These stories teach us that we don’t need to be perfect to be holy, which is good, because none of us are perfect. In fact, the lives of the saints teach us that the closer we get to God, the more aware we become of our own sinfulness. And yet, if we keep our faces always turned towards God, this awareness isn’t a bad thing; it’s a liberating thing, accompanied by joy. The saints knew their own sinfulness; but even more, they knew God’s love, mercy, and forgiveness.
The Lives of the Saints Introduce Us to Good Spiritual Habits
Reading the lives of the saints has introduced my kids to some of the basic spiritual practices and habits that form a good foundation for a life of holiness—while at the same time teaching them that each person’s relationship with God finds its own unique expression, or spirituality.
After reading the lives of a few hundred saints, we’ve noticed that certain themes and traits seem to be common to many of these holy men and women: a zealous prayer life, care for the poor and marginalized, asceticism or simple living, and a deep trust in God, no matter what the circumstances might be. The saints also display a common set of virtues: humility, perseverance, courage, and more.
At the same time, the saints expressed their relationship with God in a wide variety of spiritual styles. St. Gabriel of Our Lady of the Sorrows had an especially intense devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, for example, whereas St. Therese of Lisieux famously found it difficult to pray the rosary. St. Therese practiced the spirituality of her “little way” quite quietly, while on the other end of the spectrum St. Simeon Stylites lived as a hermit on the top of a pillar in the desert. St. Ignatius gave us his Spiritual Exercises, St. Theresa of Avila gave us her Interior Castle, St. Benedict gave us a rule for finding holiness in community, and Brother Lawrence gave us the practice of the presence of God.
While the stories of the saints don’t provide our kids with an in-depth introduction to these various spiritualities, they serve as a “bookmark”—a reminder that the Spirit gives us many ways to God. Often, we come back to explore one or another of these spiritualities in greater depth during our prayer time, or perhaps during our Sunday catechesis.
The Saints Show Us That the Way to Holiness Goes Through the Cross
For some reason, many people—including too many Christians—are under the misperception that those who are close to God are going to be sheltered from life’s many trials and hardships. This “transactional spirituality” seems to assume that the favors we do for God by “being good” somehow make us deserving of favors from God—finding us a marriage partner on our schedule, getting us the job we want, protecting us from sickness and accidents, sparing us the death of loved ones, and so on.
Such a belief is not only wrong, it’s dangerous. A faith built on that basis is built on sand indeed, vulnerable to collapse as soon as life gets tough (as it inevitably will). And that’s why I’m grateful to the saints for helping me to make this point to our kids again and again: the path to holiness goes through the cross.
The sheer number of saints whose lives ended prematurely (and sometimes gruesomely) at the hands of persecutors ought to be plenty of proof that such a belief is dead wrong, but if that doesn’t do it, then the special hardships and sacrifices endured by the rest of the saints (the ones not martyred outright) ought to convince anyone that following Christ is “easy.” (Our kids have noted, with wry amusement, that many of the founders of women’s religious orders entered religious life over the strenuous objections of their parents.) If anything, the followers of Christ are more likely to face hardship and persecution because they’re not following the rule-makers and trend-setters of their society.
Given that reality, what’s the point of being Christian? The point is that our relationship with God enables us to pass through and even transcend the sufferings and hardships that life sends out way. And this is evident in the lives of the saints, too: in the joyfulness of St. Francis and St. Theresa, and even in how they greet death. Think of St. Lawrence or St. Thomas Merton teasing their executioners, for example, or the radiant joy of Blessed Chiara that so amazed her doctors, or the steady faith of Hans and Sophie Scholl (not saints…yet) that so impressed their Nazi executioners.
Somehow, mysteriously, their radical dependence on God transformed the way the saints experienced suffering. This is the heart of the gospel, the “good news” that compels us to follow Christ, and the lives of the saints give proof to its truth again and again.
The Stories of the Saints Teach Us the Story of the Church
Unexpectedly, reading the lives of the saints has also given our kids an ad hoc crash course in the history of the Church. Each of these holy men and women were a product of their time and place, after all, as well as the state of the Church.
Reading about the early Christian martyrs has taught us about the early Roman persecution of the Church, especially under Diocletian. (The resource we use, Give Us This Day, goes into that level of detail.) The lives of the desert ascetics have taught us about the seeds of monasticism, while the many persecuted and exiled bishops of the early Christian Church have taught us about the early theological debates, especially around the Arian heresy. Sts. Francis and Clare and their many followers shed light on the life of the Church in the Middle Ages, while some of the extreme ascetical practices of St. Elizabeth of Hungary (and others) have sparked discussion about how one’s spirituality is often shaped by one’s theology. We’ve learned about the Church’s expansion around the world through the lives of famous missionaries such as St. Francis Xavier and St. Frances Cabrini. We’ve learned about the hundreds of thousands of martyrs whose blood was the seed of the Church in Korea, Japan, Vietnam, and China. And the many modern martyrs of Central America have taught us about the Church’s modern social teaching—and the implications of living it out.
And the saints have helped us teach our kids another very valuable lesson about the Church: the leaders of the Church don’t always get the gospel right—and in fact, sometimes they’re on the wrong side of the gospel. So it was that even Doctors of the Church such as Cyril, Thomas Aquinas, and Theresa of Avila were, for a time, opposed by elements in the Church. So it was that great saints like Benedict, Martin de Pores, Joseph of Cupertino, and Faustina Kowalska at one point or another experienced the rejection of their fellow religious. So it was that Joan of Arc was burned for heresy before being vindicated, and that Franz Jägerstätter was advised by his priest and bishop not to resist the Nazi regime.
These real-life stories offer our kids an important lesson: We stay in the Church because that’s where we find Jesus, not because our fellow Christians have already achieved sainthood. Nor should we leave the Church when its shepherds do something wrong or commit some scandal. The Church’s leaders have been committing scandals since Peter denied knowing Jesus, after all, and there is hardly a period in the history of the Church that it hasn’t had serious problems. The saints were fully aware of the Church’s shortcomings, but stuck with it anyway. A healthy awareness of their own sinfulness gave them the humility they needed to be patient with the sinfulness of others. And where would we be if they had given up?
The example of the saints gives our kids a way to respond to the Church’s many critics, because when we look at the lives of the saints, we see the living heart of the Church, the place where the Holy Spirit meets and transforms sinful humanity into something wonderful.
Where Can You Get Saint Stories for Kids?
Back in 2012, some friends of ours gave us a gift subscription to the daily missal published by Liturgical Press at the Benedictine St. John’s Abbey, Give Us This Day. It’s a beautifully produced missal, packed with resources, and I highly recommend it to any family. Magnificat is another great option; both missals offer essentially the same basic resources, each with its own unique flavor, format, and extras. You can request review copies from the publishers and decide which one works best for your family.
One thing I like about Give Us This Day is that their daily saint feature includes not only the traditional founders and foundresses of religious orders, virgin martyrs, and well-known saints, but many of the lesser-known (but still fascinating) servants of God, venerables, and blesseds—as well as holy men and women whose lives were so exceptional, it’s easy to imagine that someday they, too, could be canonized. Very occasionally the editor of this feature, the inimitable Robert Ellsberg, throws in a non-Catholic whose life in some way exemplifies the spirit of the Gospels and, in that aspect at least, offers a positive model for all of us. (If you don’t want to purchase a subscription to a missal, Liturgical Press has collected many of its saint stories into a single volume, Blessed Among Us, that offers two stories for each day of the year.)
The saint stories offered by these missals are short enough to be read in about five minutes, which makes them very practical for family time. One downside of the saint stories served up by these daily missals, however, is that they’re written for adults. Kids ages twelve and up will follow along just fine; younger kids, though, will need the stories explained or paraphrased. In some cases, the stories focus on elements of the saint’s life that only adults would appreciate. Younger kids, then, would benefit from a more kid-friendly resource.
For a great once-a-day resource, consider Saints for Young Readers for Every Day (Volumes 1 and 2). Each day features a one or two pages about a saint and their feast day.
A wonderful collection of longer kid-friendly stories is Ethel Pochocki’s Once Upon a Time Saints series. We often read these stories to our younger kids on Sundays or at bedtime. As the title implies, these stories are set up like a fairy tale, and true to that form the author doesn’t hesitate to embellish details to delight kids. The stories are true enough to the hagiographic tradition, but Pochocki is clearly focused on the religious meaning of the stories—no dates or starchy biographical details here. In that spirit, she includes several popular legends that clearly have no historical basis, but are worth preserving and passing along precisely for what they teach us about living a good Christian life. Also check out her Saints and Holy Heroes for older kids; the stories are longer and more firmly rooted in historical facts.
One of our readers, Martha Crane, also recommends Saints Tell Their Stories by Patricia Mitchell. The stories are written from the saints’ perspectives.
There are many online resources as well, including our own Catholic Calendar.
Tips for Discussing Saint Stories with Kids
- If you don’t know the story, scan it in advance. This is especially true if you’re using a resource meant for adults, because some of those stories get rather salacious and/or gory.
- Provide some historical context for older kids and teens. Sometimes before we read the story we’ll read the name of the saint, where they lived, and the dates of his or her life. Then we’ll ask, “What was going on around that time?” This helps them to make connections to other saints; for example, a saint whose death date falls in the early 1940s is probably a martyr of the Nazis; a saint who died during the 1790s in France was probably a martyr of the French Revolution; a saint who lived in Peru during the 1500s lived with the reality of Spanish colonialism, and so on.
- Make connections to Church teaching and practice where you can. The Doctors of the Church usually have something to teach us about Catholic doctrine; other saints instituted popular devotions; still other saints are living examples of the Church’s social teaching.
- Point out some of the lessons of the saint’s life. Saints for Young Readers and other resources for children may make the lesson explicit, but if not, look for ways that the saint’s life provides an example or template for our own lives.
- Find ways to extend your newfound relationships with the saints. For instance, you can practice your own daily litany of the saints, or install photos of modern saints in your home.
- Help kids distinguish between pious legend and more historical accounts. Some of the more fantastic accounts of the saints’ lives are great fun, but at some point, it’s important to let kids know that not all of the stories we hear about the saints are strictly historical. Some saints clearly never existed, at least not in any way resembling their legends (Sts. Catherine of Alexandria and Christopher, for example); other saints were historical figures, but some of the stories about them are either embellished or fabricated (St. Patrick and any other number of early Irish saints); and some stories of the saints are more reliably historic (the life of St. Joan of Arc was extensively documented as a result of her trial, for instance). Making this distinction doesn’t mean you have to give up the more fantastic stories, however. The fact that these stories were invented and preserved by the Church tells us that they, too, have something valuable to teach us.