Sanctity. For many of us, this is what we want above all for our children. We want them to grow up to be devout, holy Catholics filled with grace and virtue.
But sometimes that seems impossible. When our kids are obstinate, quarrelsome, selfish, or hot-tempered, it seems there is no way they will overcome their faults and grow up to be mature, generous adults… let alone saints!
So for this Feast of All Saints, I did some dirt digging. Saints are not born, but made, though the mercy and grace of God. When we feel discouraged about our kids, it helps to hear about saints who were normal as children — usually very good but sometimes really challenging.
Here are three children who were difficult at times and still grew up to be saints:
- St. Therese of Lisieux: Stubborn and Hypersensitive
The youngest of nine children, (four died during infancy or early childhood), Therese was the undisputed darling of the family. Her family showered her with love and attention, and she in turn loved her parents dearly and tried to please them. But, like many children, Therese was also stubborn during her earliest years.
“As for the little puss, one cannot tell how she will turnout, she is so young and heedless. She is a very intelligent child but has not nearly so sweet a disposition as her sister, and her stubbornness is almost unconquerable. When she has said, ‘No,’ nothing will make her change; one could leave her all day in the cellar without getting her to say ‘Yes.’ She would sooner sleep there.” (p. 209)
This is from a letter written by St. Zelie Martin to her daughter Pauline in 1876, describing her youngest daughter — the one who grew up to be none other than the famed St. Therese of Lisieux. In another letter to Pauline, Zelie wrote:
She (Therese) flies into frightful tantrums; when things don’t go just right and according to her way of thinking, she rolls on the floor in desperation like one without any hope. There are times when it gets too much for her and she literally chokes. She’s a nervous child, but she is very good, very intelligent, and remembers everything.
When her mother died, Therese, at the tender age of four, became hypersensitive, bursting into tears over the slightest upset. For those of you who have children who cry over the littlest things, you know how challenging this can be. Understandably, Therese endured many sufferings as a child, which at times exacerbated her sensitivity. This hypersensitivity lasted until the age of fourteen, when by a Christmas miracle, she was given the grace to overcome her emotional fragility.
The story goes that after Mass on Christmas night, Therese was excited to find the treats in her shoes over the fireplace. But St. Louis Martin was tired and a little exasperated over this childish tradition. So he remarked, “Well, fortunately, this will be the last year!”. Pierced by these words, Therese had tears in her eyes as she went up the stairs to put away her hat. Celine, knowing how sensitive she was, begged her, “Oh Therese, don’t go downstairs; it would cause you too much grief to look at your slippers right now!”
St. Therese writes:
But Therese was no longer the same; Jesus had changed her heart! Forcing back tears, I descended the stairs rapidly; controlling the poundings of my heart, I took my slippers and placed them in front of Papa, and withdrew all the objects joyfully. I had the happy appearance of a Queen. Having regained his own cheerfulness, Papa was laughing; Celine believed it was all a dream! Fortunately, it was sweet reality; Therese had discovered once again the strength of soul which she had lost at the age of four and a half, and she was to preserve it forever!
I love this story because it shows two things: First, that even the saintly Louis Martin could be exasperated at the childish behavior of his beloved “Little Queen”. And second, that God can use even the imperfections of parents to bring about the conversion of their children.
The fact is, Therese, even from a very early age, showed signs of remarkable holiness and devotion. But like any human child, she still had her struggles — imperfections which only made her stronger as she fought to overcome them.
Only a year and a half after her Christmas Conversion, Therese entered the Carmelite Order. She lived a hidden life of doing little things with great love. Towards the end of her short life (she died at the age of twenty-four), she wrote the Story of a Soul, a testimony to the workings of God’s grace in her soul. After pages of the manuscript were found outside the convent, the book was published. It is now translated into 35 different languages and is one of the most widely read spiritual books of the 20th c. St. Therese was declared Doctor of the Church in 1997.
2. St. Don Bosco: Short tempered with a sharp tongue
John Bosco was the youngest of three boys. He had a step brother, Anthony, and another brother, Joseph. His father died when John was but a young boy, and his mother Margaret was left to care for her three young sons and an aged mother-in-law in the poverty-stricken countryside of Northern Italy.
As a youngster, John was lovable but, like any young boy, impetuous. Once he and Joseph were guarding a bunch of turkeys his mother was planning to sell at the market. A stranger approached and offered to buy a turkey for 95 cents. Wanting to surprise their mother, they sold the turkey, thinking that 95 cents was an enormous sum. But to their disappointment, Margaret was dismayed; the turkey should have been sold at ten times as much!
So John called to Joseph to follow him, and the two ran off in search for the stranger who had robbed them. Alas! They could not find him, and when they returned, the whole gobble of turkeys had disappeared! When they went home, they had to endure their mother’s reproach: “First you let a thief cheat you out of one of the turkeys. Then you run off to find him, forget all about the others, and end up by losing not one turkey but a dozen!” Thankfully, Margaret knew her sons well; she knew they would run off, so she had brought the turkeys home herself. However, it was a lesson John would not forget.
Besides being rash at times, John also had a short temper and a sharp tongue, particularly when it came to dealing with his brother Anthony. (Have you noticed how it’s easy for children to be forbearing with other kids and short tempered towards their own siblings?)
Early on, John knew he wanted to become a priest. Because he excelled in his studies, Margaret allowed him time to study on Sundays. But Anthony, who was a hard working farm hand, resented this. He believed that Latin was for rich people and not for poor peasants. He even disliked the fact that while working, John would place his Latin book in the ground to study it while digging and hoeing.
Anthony would berate John for wanting to study, and John would retaliate by making Anthony the brunt of his quick wit. This would make Anthony boil with anger. Any parent with children who often fight can imagine the rising tension in the Bosco household. Finally things came to a head. Biographer Peter Lappin writes:
One day Anthony came home in a rage. “I’ve had enough of this book business!” he shouted. “I’m big and strong and I never looked at a book!”
“Our donkey is bigger and stronger than you,” retorted John. “And he never looked at a book, either!”
Anthony rushed at him. If it was John’s quick wit that got him into trouble, it was his quick legs that got him out of it.
You can imagine Margaret’s sorrow. It was Anthony who was truly the difficult son. He was angry, sullen, and resentful that his step brothers were living on what he considered his property. John was more lovable, but Anthony legally owned half of the farm. Fearful for John’s safety, Margaret had no choice but to send him away from home, in the middle of winter, to find work and board for himself elsewhere. He was only twelve.
Perhaps if John had learned to control his temper and tongue earlier, he would not have been forced to leave his home at so early an age. But mercifully, God works even through our shortcomings. John’s experience of having to fend for himself at such a young age was a preparation for his vocation, as it gave him a deep compassion for the plight of poor, homeless youth. John eventually became a priest and dedicated his life to the education of the impoverished street boys of Turin. In 1859 Don Bosco founded the Salesian Order of Priests, an order which to this day educates young people all over the world.
3. Blessed Miguel Pro: Mischievous and Exasperating
Miguel grew up in a large and lively family, the third of eleven children. He had a light-hearted sunny disposition, but like any five year old, knew how to throw a tantrum:
When Miguel was about five, his mother took him with her to the store. There the young boy made an awful scene, stubbornly insisting that his mother buy him a small white marble horse, even though she had already purchased other gifts for him. Senora Pro finally gave in and bought the ornament. When they arrived home, and Papa Pro heard what had happened, he not only gave Miguel the strap, but made him kneel before the family and ask pardon, In the end, the marble horse was placed on Mr. Pro’s desk. Over the years, the mere sight of it caused young Miguel much remorse, and he was once heard to say, “For this thing I made my mother weep.”
Perhaps Miguel made his mother weep on a number of occasions, particularly when his mischeviousness led to recklessness:
Miguelito, as his doting family called him, was, from an early age, intensely spiritual and equally intense in his mischievousness, frequently exasperating his family with his humor and practical jokes. As a child, he had a daring precociousness that sometimes went too far, tossing him into near-death accidents and illnesses. On regaining consciousness after one of these episodes, young Miguel opened his eyes and blurted out to his frantic parents, “I want some cocol” (a colloquial term for his favorite sweet bread). “Cocol” became his nickname, which he would later adopt as a code name during this clandestine ministry.
When he was eighteen, much to his mother’s grief, he began to date a non-Catholic senorita, and he grew careless in the practice of his faith. However, Our Lord intervened in a humorous way that showed He, too, can play a joke:
It seems that the lad once wrote two letters – one to this mother – the other to the young lady. However, he sent them to the wrong persons. When his mother received the letter intended for the non-Catholic girl, she was overcome with grief, and became ill. The young woman, on the other hand, was conveniently “turned off,” so to speak by the detailed account that her promising caballero gave of his reflections made in a mission house where he was staying. In the letter he explained beautifully how God had touched his heart; how grace had returned to tranquilize his soul; how he was about to make a good confession and receive Holy Communion. Unfortunately for the young senorita (but fortunately for her caballero) this was not the kind of romantic dandy that she was looking for; so she curtly returned the letter to its puzzled sender along with some gifts that he had given her.
When Miguel Pro realized what sorrow his actions had caused his mother, he was filled with a deep remorse. He wept bitterly and from then on stayed on the straight and narrow path.
Sometimes we mothers want to hide our tears from our children, as if they were a sign of weakness. But a mother’s tears, when full of love, can have a profound effect on our children.
Miguel’s recklessness eventually transformed into courage; his love for pranks fueled his wit and humor. During the Mexican Revolution, priests were persecuted and martyred. When he became a priest, Miguel needed all his courage, wit, and humor. He took on many disguises to bring the sacraments to families in secret while evading the police. Bl. Miguel was eventually captured and executed. His life and martyrdom became a tremendous source of inspiration and strength to the persecuted Catholics of Mexico.
As children, Therese Martin, John Bosco, and Miguel Pro were loving youngsters who wanted to please their parents and serve God. But, like normal children, they had their shortcomings. Therese was stubborn then hypersensitive, John was short tempered and sharp tongued, and Miguel was mischievous and exasperating. Through the grace of God, however, they overcame their faults and grew up to become saints.
For the record:
- St. Jean Vianney once got into a screaming fight with his sister over a rosary (of all things!)
- St. Maximillian Kolbe, according to his mother, was so boisterous and obstinate as a young boy that one day she finally cried, “My child, what’s to become of you?”
- St. Teresa of the Andes (Juana) once she got into a heated fight with her sister, Rebecca, who smacked her. Juana was so angry she grabbed her sister, but controlled herself and kissed her instead of hitting her. Rebecca was confused, but still so angry she chased Juana away screaming, “Get out of here! You have given me the kiss of Judas!”
This should give hope to parents who pray for their children’s holiness but sometimes wonder, like St. Maximillian Kolbe’s mother did, what’s to become of them. All children are like diamonds in the rough: precious, full of potential, but in much need of refinement. All children have moments in their lives when they are particularly difficult. No matter what their temperaments or shortcomings, with God’s grace, our children can become the great saints Our Lord wants them to be. We just need to be faithful in cooperating with His Will and trust Him to do the rest.
So the next time your kids burst into tears over spilt milk, engage in a screaming fight, or throw a tantrum, say a prayer and be at peace. God’s got this.
The Story of a Family, Fr. Stephane-Joseph Piat
Story of a Soul, St. Therese of the Little Flower
Stories of Don Bosco, Peter Lappin
Mothers of the Saints, Wendy Leifeld
Forget Not Love: The Passion of Maximilian Kolbe, Andre Frossard