When I was growing up, stories of child- and teenager- saints made me feel uncomfortable. These spiritual prodigies loved the Mass and the Rosary, rarely quarreled with others, and died smiling as they offered up cancer pains for the conversions of sinners. I, on the other hand, preferred listening to music over praying the rosary, threw temper tantrums, and whined about things like hot weather or food I did not like.
At the same time, on the other hand, I found myself irresistibly drawn to these stories – perhaps in the same way that the people who knew these child- and teenager- saints during their lifetimes were irresistibly drawn to them. The idea of becoming a saint at a young age was, for me, intriguing as well as inspiring.
Such is the nature of sanctity, that it inspires and attracts even as it makes people uncomfortable. This, in a gist, is my reaction to Joan Carroll Cruz’s book Saintly Youth of Modern Times.
Saintly Youth of Modern Times is a compilation of short biographies of twentieth-century child- and teenager- Servants of God, Venerables, Blesseds, and Saints, as well a few whose Causes for Beatification had just been started as of the time of writing of the book. The book includes some well-known ones such as St. Maria Goretti; Blessed Jacinta and Francisco Marto, the child visionaries at Fatima; and Blessed Jose Sanchez del Rio, made famous by the movie “For Greater Glory”. Most of the others I have known only because of reading the book; nevertheless, their stories are just as edifying.
The book features many young people who come from either Spain or Italy, but the book also features representatives of other nations: for example, St. Anna Wang, a 14-year-old martyr from China; Blessed Laura Vicuña, a 13-year-old from Chile who offered her life for the conversion of her mother; Servant of God Stephan Kaszap, a Hungarian boy who died of a tumor in his throat at the age of 19; Blessed Isidore Bakanja from Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) who died at the age of 14 from the effects of physical abuse received from his anti-Christian employer; among others.
The diversity among the young people featured in the book extends not only to race. While many of them, understandably, came from good Catholic families, quite a few came from less-than-ideal backgrounds, like Blessed Laura Vicuña, whose mother was in an irregular marital situation; 12-year-old Servant of God Joseph Ottone, who was the product of an incestuous relationship of a married woman and whose adoptive father was “cruel, disagreeable, argumentative, and frequently intoxicated”; 19-year-old Venerable Paula Renata Carboni, whose father was hostile to Catholicism. Clearly, having a less-than-ideal family background is no obstacle to the attainment of sanctity.
One thing I like about this book is that it avoids a common pitfall of some biographies of saints – that of downplaying the humanity of their subject matters. In this book, we learn that 14-year-old Servant of God Alexia Gonzales-Barros knew about video games, liked movies, and had a crush; that 16-year-old Servant of God Faustino Perez-Maglano monitored soccer games on his death bed; that 18-year-old Servant of God Montserrat Grases did not like being teased about being overweight.
The book quotes 15-year-old Servant of God Maria Orsola Bussone as having said, “Great works, those of Beethoven, Chopin and Bach, I don’t understand. What attracts me is the ‘beat’…a flood of life.”
Of the 11-year-old Venerable Anne de Guigne, the book says, “We read in the lives of many saints that their infancy or earliest childhood was distinguished by definite indications of future sanctity, but this could not be said of Anne de Guigne. She displayed a tempestuous spirit, a determination to have her own way even among older playmates, an inclination to be bossy with her younger brother and two sisters, and a deep jealousy when her mother showed attention to her little brother, who had succeeded her in the cradle.”
For me, it is very important for biographies of saints to highlight their humanity, because human, indeed, the saints were. The Church honors the saints to tell us that we, too, can be like them; we would only be inspired to even try to imitate the saints if we can see that they, too, were human like us and had the same struggles we had. Furthermore, it is easier to pray to a saint knowing that he or she is someone whose friend we would have wanted to be, or could have been, had we been born during his or her lifetime.
As expected, the book discusses what made these young people saintly. Again, there is great diversity among them here, but a common thread runs through these diverse young people: a heroic love for God and others, even amidst suffering.
In today’s world of many disillusioned and lost young people, it is refreshing to read Saintly Youth of Modern Times: stories of real young people who lived and died for God. At the same time, the book is disturbing, but in a good sense. For me, at least, the book is a wake-up call. It makes me realize that if these young people were able to become saints within their brief lifetimes, there is no excuse for me to waste the time God has given me to love and serve Him and others. The book prods me to reflect on how seriously I am taking God’s call to sanctity.
The book contains an explanation of titles such as “Servant of God”, “Venerable”, “Blessed”, and “Saint”. It also contains an index listing the occupations, difficulties encountered, and organizations of the young people featured. I like this index because it helps the reader find someone to approach for a particular problem or someone with whom the reader can identify for having a similar life situation.
My only complaint about the book is that it needs updating. The edition I read is copyrighted as of 2006. Some of the young people listed as “Servant of God” in the book are already “Venerable” or “Blessed” by now. The book mentions that Servant of God Alexia Gonzales-Barros named her guardian angel “Hugo”; perhaps future editions should include a footnote clarifying that in 2001, the Vatican forbid the assigning of names to the angels whose names have not been mentioned in the Bible.
These nitpicks notwithstanding, Saintly Youth of Modern Times is a fascinating book, one that has introduced me to many new young friends who must be praying for me right now.