Note: I received a copy of “Radical Saints: 21 Women for the 21st Century” in exchange for an honest review.
I love learning about saints.
Well, I love learning about people, and saints are holy, inspiring people, so they’re my favorite.
I especially love learning about female saints — people who struggled with the challenges and lived with the joys of being a woman, just like I do. That’s why I was so excited to read Melanie Rigney’s new book, “Radical Saints: 21 Women for the 21st Century,” published by Franciscan Media.
At 139 pages, including appendix and notes, the book doesn’t go into depth or detail about any of these women, but that’s not really the goal. Rather, it’s a brief introduction to 21 women, many of whom you probably haven’t heard of (I hadn’t!), along with a story of how their wisdom is lived out by other, modern women and some questions for reflection.
There’s a saint in there for every woman, and I encourage you to read the whole book. Here are six of my favorites (excluding the ones I already loved, like St. Teresa of Calcutta, whose feast day my fiancé and I picked for our wedding, and St. Katharine Drexel, whose philanthropy I would love to emulate if I ever have enough money!):
1. St. Elizabeth of the Trinity
I love the Carmelites and have ever since I chose St. Thérèse of Lisieux as my Confirmation saint (although, like she does with many people, she really chose me). Every time I learn about another Carmelite, I fall more in love with the über-contemplative order whose spirituality seems to be simultaneously what I need and what I am bad at.
I heard about St. Elizabeth of the Trinity recently but still didn’t know much about her before reading “Radical Saints.” Now, I know that she, like Thérèse, died in her 20s but not before inspiring others by her great love and her ability to suffer well. I also know that, as Rigney writes, “Elizabeth went from being a strong-willed child, given to tantrums, to a young woman who was patient with her mother’s objections to her vocation” and then “a thoughtful spiritual director and writer.”
I was a strong-willed child, and I am now a strong-willed adult. I try to embrace my crosses but do not always succeed. And I certainly don’t pray as I should. I pray that, as St. Elizabeth of the Trinity wrote, I can “receive every trial, every annoyance, every lack of courtesy in the light that springs from the Cross.” After all, she continued, “that is how we please God, how we advance in the ways of love.”
2. St. Maria Elizabeth Hesselblad
St. Maria Elizabeth Hesselblad was a Lutheran woman who lived in Sweden during a time when Catholicism was outlawed. She immigrated to the United States, where she worked in home nursing and met her first Catholics. Rigney writes that when Elizabeth accompanied a family she worked for, the Cisneroses, to Europe, she had a conversion when she saw the Eucharist in a monstrance. “In Rome, she was moved to pray when she saw the site, by then a Carmelite convent, where St. Bridget of Sweden had lived most of her last twenty years.”
A couple of years after she converted to Catholicism, Elizabeth explored becoming a Carmelite but couldn’t due to health problems. She then received a papal dispensation to become a sister of the Order of the Most Holy Savior, or the Brigidines, “even though few adherents remained,” and took the name Maria Elizabeth. She reestablished the Roman community of Brigidines and helped bring the order back to Sweden.
Rigney writes, “While Maria Elizabeth sought to convert souls to Catholicism, she had learned that inclusion and hospitality are the first steps to evangelization, covert or overt.” That belief ultimately “led her and two other sisters to hide at least twelve Roman Jews in their convent for about six months as the end of World War II approached,” around the tie that over 1,000 Jews were taken from Rome to the death camp Auschwitz.
St. Maria Elizabeth, pray that I may be so hospitable and inclusive of others that I show them Christ’s love.
3. St. Anna Schäffer
Anna Schäffer wanted to be a missionary, but after she fell into boiling water at the laundry where she worked at age 19, her extensive injuries kept her confined to her home.
“For two years,” Rigney writes, “she struggled to see the purpose in this tragedy. With time, she adjusted her thinking, and she began to see her disability as a cross to be picked up and carried daily.” She said that her tools for evangelization were her suffering, her needle, and her penholder. She did embroidery, sewing, and knitting for people, churches, and chapels. She journaled about her suffering and responded to letters and prayer requests with her pen. “Anna came to realize that she was indeed a missionary, just in a different way than she had expected.” She also received the Eucharist every day and received stigmata.
I have two chronic pain conditions. I do not suffer nearly as much as St. Anna did, yet I do not suffer nearly as cheerfully as she did. May I use my own crosses and my own pen (or laptop) to bring souls closer to the Lord, as she did!
4. St. Gianna Beretta Molla
I’m cheating a little with St. Gianna, because I did know about her before I read this book. But I’d been wanting to learn more about her, and Rigney made me want to even more! St. Gianna was a wife, mother, pediatrician, and business owner. When she was pregnant with her sixth child (the two previous pregnancies, sadly, ended in miscarriage), she was diagnosed with a non-cancerous uterine tumor. She could have had a hysterectomy; it would have removed the growth, and since it was not purposefully ending the life of the baby, it would have been morally permissible in the eyes of the Church. However, she opted to remove the tumor and continue the pregnancy despite the risk of complications.
The baby was a healthy girl, but Gianna died one week after the birth due to an abdominal wall infection (which, had she been alive today, probably would have been curable). Today, she is known for her self-sacrificing love for her children, her devotion to them as a working mother, and her surrender to God’s will. In 2004, she was one of the last saints canonized by Pope St. John Paul II, who said, “The extreme sacrifice she sealed with her life testifies that only those who have the courage to give of themselves totally to God and to others are able to fulfill themselves.”
St. Gianna, pray that I may be a devoted wife and mother like you, and pray that I always surrender to God’s will for my family and for me.
5. St. Josephine Bakhita
I’d heard of St. Josephine Bakhita before but never to the extent that I have in the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement over the last month. So, it was timely to read about her in “Radical Saints.”
Josephine was born in the Sudan and enslaved as a child. The people who took her beat her so much — as a child! — that she forgot her own name, and she was later cut and scarred across her body so badly that she couldn’t move for three months.
After Josephine was “given” to a Venetian businessman, she accompanied his daughter to a boarding school run by the Canossian Sisters, where Josephine began learning about Catholicism. She refused to return to the family who “owned” her, and an Italian court eventually determined that since Italy did not recognize slavery, she was free. “Two months later,” Rigney writes, “Bakhita received a different type of freedom: she was initiated into the Church and took the name Josephine Margaret Fortunata.” (“Bakhita” was a cruel nickname given to her by enslavers after beating her; it means “fortunate one” in Arabic.”)
Josephine eventually became a Canossian sister. When asked what she would do if she came across the people who had beaten and tortured her, “she was quick to answer that she would kneel and kiss their hands. If it had not been for them, she said, she would not have been a Christian or a Canossian.”
I pray that I may have the grace to forgive like that!
6. María Natividad Venegas De la Torre
St. María was also a new-to-me saint. She was a nurse, pharmacist, accountant, and hospital director in Mexico, as well as a member of the lay Daughters of Mary, an association “dedicated to doing good works” whose members “consecrated themselves to purity under the Blessed Virgin’s guidance.”
After joining the Daughters of Mary, María, with the help of her spiritual director, discerned a calling to religious life. She joined a new community of women at the new Hospital of the Sacred Heart. That community became the Daughters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus of Guadalajara. María was the superior general and hospital supervisor from 1921 to 1954. She led the hospital during a period that saw the enforcement of anti-Catholic provisions of Mexico’s constitution and an uprising called the Cristero Rebellion, which led to the death of 90,000 people in three years.
When the uprising came to the hospital, Rigney writes, “instead of engaging with the government soldiers in a way that would heighten the tension (and risk the hospital’s doors being closed), Madre Nati met them with courtesy and hospitality.” She had completed the constitutions (governing documents) of the Daughters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus of Guadalajara shortly before the Cristero Rebellion, and the community was formally approved one year after it was over.
What an example of feminine leadership!
Who are your favorite female saints? Leave me a comment to let me know.