It has been said: “Heroes are saintly people who do what has to be done when it needs to be done regardless of the consequences.” In early March, the church celebrates the feast of Katharine Drexel, the first United States born citizen to be canonized. A nineteenth century Philadelphia heiress, her mother died the week after she was born. Raised by her religious father and kind stepmother, she had a big heart for those treated as second class citizens. As the nation expanded westward and a priest-friend of hers was sent to the Nebraska Territory to be bishop, she petitioned the pope to send missionaries to the untamed lands. He responded by sending her. She dedicated her inheritance (which would equivocate today to about $400 million) to the advancement of Native Americans and African Americans. From establishing Xavier University in New Orleans to hundreds of other schools, missions, orphanages, and colleges, she made a huge mark on our nation and the church’s outreach to marginalized citizens. In 1910, she established a church and school at Saint Monica “Mission for Colored Catholics” in Kansas City (17th & Lydia, now 15th & The Paseo) to help serve the estimated 30,000 black members of the local Catholic community. She was known for her exhausting schedule, long life, and great works across the country.
Simone Weil once wrote: “There will always be enough affliction in the world to make us saints—far more than enough. Our job is to make it easier for others to diminish the affliction so that holiness will not be so difficult to attain.” Rose Philippine Duchesne was a pioneer woman born near Grenoble, France in the eighteenth century who dedicated her life as a missionary in the heart of America with the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in the nineteenth century. Anchored in Saint Charles, Missouri she taught and lived her faith in meaningful ways that impacted frontier citizens and inspired Native Americans west of the Mississippi River. When in her seventies, she journeyed to Eastern Kansas to assist Jesuits living among the Potawatomi tribe. She is buried in a shrine in Saint Charles, honored in the State House in Jefferson City, and patroness of the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau; there are churches and shrines in the Kansas City area and at Kansas University dedicated to her.
Emil Kapaun is the subject of a recent book by Kansas Citian, Joe Drape. Kapaun was a farm boy born in Pilsen, Kansas at the dawn of World War I. He studied for the priesthood at Conception Abbey in northwest Missouri and Kendrick Seminary in Saint Louis. After serving parishes in the Diocese of Wichita, he followed his call to be a military chaplain during World War II and then in Korea, where he was captured and killed in a concentration camp at the age of thirty-five. Stories told by fellow soldier about his heroics are amazing. His courage, wisdom, discipline, bravery, and loving forgiveness are attributes that each of us should want to attain. Felix Adler once wrote: “A hero is one who kindles a great light, who sets up blazing torches in the dark streets of life so that others may see. A saint is one who walks through the dark paths of life, himself a light.” Kapaun was that light for all who encountered him. You will benefit from reading Drape’s story, The Saint Makers: Inside the Catholic Church and How a War Hero Inspired a Journey of Faith. Though not yet canonized by the Catholic Church, as Drexel was in 2000 and Duchesne was in 1988, Kapaun is on that path—a path that will fascinate you.
Stanley Rother was a priest from Oklahoma who was beatified in 2016. Similar to Kapaun, he was educated at Conception Seminary, returned to his home diocese as a parish priest for less than a decade before following a call beyond our national borders, and died at a young age in warfare. He served as a missionary to poor and oppressed Mayan families in Guatemala where he was martyred for his faith and love of God in 1981 by guerilla soldiers. Though his diocese called him home because he was a target of military oppression, he returned to Central America to be with his people, even to die for them. His deep and abiding missionary spirit was so strong that virtuous brave hope conquered his fear. Though his body was brought back to his family for burial, at the request of those to whom he ministered, his heart remained with them, preserved in Santiago Atitlan, where his sanctity continues to inspire goodness. Nathan Soderblom once said: “Saints are just people who make it a little bit easier for the rest of us to be good.”
There are numerous saints that pass our way. Sometimes we even recognize them as such. We are blessed to walk amidst recognized heroes as well as other saints who never will be recognized. As we continue our Lenten journey, let’s try to recognize those who make it easier for us to be good and give thanks, for many heroes and saints walk among us.