Saints Who Were Family
We are all called to be saints, and we are also called to bring the people closest to us with us if we can to the heavenly Jerusalem. Sometimes this is easier said than done. Because of their proximity to us, the family we come from is often the hardest to love and act charitably towards. They know all our weaknesses and know where to annoy and frustrate us best. On the flip side, because they know our weaknesses, strengths, failures, and successes, they should theoretically also be the best equipped to call us to heroic virtue, especially charity.
Sts. John Paul II and Teresa of Calcutta said over and over again how essential the family is to the formation of conscience, and the practice of virtue. In the times we live in, the family is in many ways under attack. It is commonplace for people to disparage those who raised them or were raised with them. This ought not be the case. We should rather love our families, and sanctify and be sanctified by them. This is not easy to do for some of the reasons mentioned above. Our parents, siblings, aunts and uncles, cousins, and even grandparents can grind our gears. Many see these cases as fresh wounds or justified grounds for resentment, but as Christians, we should see this as opportunities to love our family members. We are called to bring them with us to Christ.
Below we will explore the lives of a handful of saints who were family. Although we don’t have great insight into how all of them were raised, or even how they treated one another on the daily experience, when you have multiple saints in one family it is an indication of something going right. It indicates the practice of virtue and pointing to Christ in word and in deed. Let us take a few lessons from these saints who were biological family first before they became even more united in the family of God.
Elizabeth, Zechariah, and John the Baptist
St. Luke tells us in his Gospel that Elizabeth was the older cousin of Mary. She and her husband, Zechariah, were good and holy but had no child until Zechariah was told that Elizabeth would conceive in her old age. Elizabeth’s cry of joy and wonder when she receives Mary indicates that Elizabeth was a woman of deep prayer, which one would expect from the wife of a priest. Elizabeth and Zechariah’s son, John, became the last great prophet and prepared the way for the coming of his cousin, Jesus the Christ. May we joyfully receive the word of God as Elizabeth did, and prepare the way for Christ in the lives of others as John did.
Andrew and Peter
We often forget that the apostle Peter’s brother was also an apostle. In fact, St. John’s Gospel tells us that Andrew was a disciple before Peter, and that Andrew was the one who brought his brother to Christ. Andrew quickly recognized Jesus as the Messiah, although Peter is the one who later openly proclaimed it. May we be more like Andrew, who led his brother to faith in Christ.
James and John
The sons of a fisherman, James and John likely had big personalities as their nickname was the “Sons of thunder.” These brothers may have been a little forward in asking for the seats at the right and the left of Jesus, but James was the first apostle to give up his life for his friend. John was the only apostle who stood at the foot of the cross, and faithfully taught about the love of Jesus until his own death. May we be more like James and John, willing to sacrifice our lives in whatever way the Lord calls us.
Martha, Mary, and Lazarus
Martha, Mary, and Lazarus of Bethany were beloved by Jesus. We don’t know the full background, but it appears all three siblings were loved by the Lord and were close friends and disciples of his. Each had a different charism. We know that Martha had a servant’s heart and that Mary preferred to sit at the feet of her Lord and learn from him. We don’t know as much about Lazarus other than he is one for whom Jesus wept and who he rose from the grave. John’s Gospel also tells us that because Jesus rose Lazarus from the grave, the chief priests and elders also plotted to put Lazarus to death, but we don’t know if they succeeded. May we be more like Martha, Mary, and Lazarus and draw near to Christ to love and serve him.
Basil the Elder, Emilia, Macrina the Elder, Macrina the Younger, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Peter of Sebaste
A holy family altogether – Macrina the Elder and her husband were persecuted for their faith. Their son, Basil the Elder, married the daughter of martyrs, Emilia, and together Basil and Emilia had ten children. Four out of the ten are honored as saints, which is a pretty ratio, all things considered. Macrina the Younger took after the grandmother for whom she was named. She was a religious sister and was regarded as good and wise by her brothers, who show great respect for her in their writings. Basil, Gregory, and Peter all became bishops known for their holiness of life and profundity of teaching. Though we have no known writings by Peter, Gregory and Basil were prolific writers are two of the three “Cappadocian Fathers.” This family lived in modern day Turkey and all lived within the range of 250 to 400. May we be more like this family, who encouraged one another to strive for holiness.
Augustine and Monica
St. Monica gave birth to her son, Augustine, in 354. A good and pious mother, she gave him a Christian education, but he was more engaged by the things of the world -- sensual pleasure, honor, and strange philosophies. Monica stoutheartedly prayed for Augustine throughout his wayward lifestyle. She besought the help of Ambrose, bishop of Milan, and after much interior searching, Augustine converted at the age of 31. Augustine went on to become a bishop and one of the most influential Doctors of the Church of all time. All that we know of Monica comes from Augustine's incredible autobiographical work, Confessions.
The fact that all our knowledge of the mother comes from the remembrance of the son is a testament to a mother's love, and a testament of a son's love and gratitude for his holy mother. May we be more like Monica and Augustine -- praying constantly for our family members and grateful for those family members who pray earnestly for us.
Benedict and Scholastica
St. Benedict is known for being the “Father of Western Monasticism,” but he also had a twin sister who was an abbess and holy woman. Born in 480 to a wealthy family, these two rejected the privilege to which they were born. A lot of our knowledge of these two comes from St. Gregory the Great’s Dialogues. In it, we see Benedict’s dedication to living a life set aside for the Lord. His sister, Scholastica, eventually became the abbess of an establishment of women religious near Monte Cassino. It appears they would meet up regularly to talk about the faith in between the two monasteries. In a demonstration of a very holy twin connection, Benedict is quoted in the Dialogues to say he saw Scholastica’s soul rise to heaven when she died. May we be more like these holy twins, who deepened their relationship through love of Christ.
Boniface, Richard, Walburga, Winibald, and Willibald
St. Boniface is English monk turned the “Apostle to Germany,” but this saint had other holy family members who remained in the British Isles. His sister, married a holy man, Richard, who was an under-king of the Saxons. Richard had three saintly children who all became religious – Willibald, Winnebald, and Walburga. All three also joined their uncle in the evangelization of the Germans. This family had a beautiful evangelistic zeal and dedicated themselves totally to the service of Christ and his Church in the 700s in modern England and Germany. May we be more like this family and go wherever Christ calls us to proclaim his good news.
Clare and Agnes
Living from 1194 to 1253, St. Clare is an Italian saint largely associated with St. Francis. She followed Francis in his radical poverty by establishing the female order, now known as the Poor Clares. Less well known is that her sister, Agnes, joined her almost immediately. The sisters left behind a life of wealth and a very angry father to choose Christ above all. The two sisters began the group of cloistered women who sought to support the mission of the Franciscans by their prayers. As Clare was abbess of the Poor Ladies in Assisi, Agnes was sent by Francis to establish several other monasteries. She was called back during Clare’s final illness 1253, where she was present during the death of her sister. Agnes died later the same year and joined her sister by Christ’s side. May we be more like these sisters and imitate Christ in word and deed, radical as it may seem.
Louis, Zelie, Therese, and Leonie
Louis and Zelie Martin were married in 1858 and had a total of nine children. Louis was a watchmaker and Zelie a lace maker, but Zelie’s business was so profitable that Louis sold his business to go into business with her. Only five of their nine children survived to adulthood (and all five became religious sisters!), so they were no strangers to suffering and heartache. Their youngest daughter, Therese, is known as the “Little Flower” and is a Doctor of the Church. Less well known, their daughter Leonie is now recognized as a Servant of God. All the members of this family experienced great suffering, but all endured it with great trust in the love and mercy of God. May we become more like the Martin family and unite our joys and sufferings to Christ.
Gianna and Enrico
St. Gianna Beretta Molla, physician and mother, was born in Italy in the early 1900s to a large Catholic family. She would go on to marry a good and holy man, with whom she had several children. During her last pregnancy, she was faced with an illness where she had to choose her life or her child’s. She chose her daughter’s life and died shortly after the birth of the child. She was not the only saint her family of 13 children; her brother Enrico was also an incredibly good and holy man. He was a Franciscan missionary, a physician and surgeon, and a generous-hearted lover of Christ. He is now regarded as a Servant of God. May we become more like Gianna and Enrico, that we may love by our lives and in our deaths.
These are just a few of the saintly family members we know about. What great wonder that there are probably many, many who are not known at all. May these saints bear witness to the importance of loving and serving those who are closest to us. We are called to go tell the nations the good news of our Lord, but we are also called to proclaim him within the family. May we do so with greater faith, hope, and love!