By Rev. John Trigilio, Rev. Kenneth Brighenti

Catholics do not worship saints, but the saints are near and dear to Catholic hearts. Catholics respect and honor the saints and consider them to be the heroes of the Church. The Church emphasizes that they were ordinary people from ordinary families, and they were totally human. Here are some tidbits about the lives of 11 ordinary people who became popular saints.

St. Peter (died around A.D. 64)

The brother of Andrew and the son of Jona, St. Peter was originally called Simon. He was a fisherman by trade. Biblical scholars believe that Peter was married because the Gospel speaks of the cure of his mother-in-law (Matthew 8:14; Luke 4:38). But whether he was a widower at the time he met Jesus, no one knows for sure. Scholars believe it’s likely that his wife was no longer alive because after the Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension of Christ, Peter became head of the Church (the first pope) and had a busy schedule and itinerary. He also never mentioned his wife in his epistle.

According to the Bible, Andrew introduced Peter to Jesus and told his brother, “We have found the Messiah!” (John 1:41). When Peter hesitated to follow Jesus full time, Jesus came after him and said, “I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19).

St. Paul of Tarsus (10–67 A.D.)

Saul of Tarsus was a zealous Jew who also had Roman citizenship because of the place of his birth. A member of the Pharisees, Saul considered Christians to be an extreme danger to Judaism. He saw them as more than heretics; they were blasphemers for considering Jesus to be the Son of God.

He was commissioned by the Sanhedrin (the religious authority in Jerusalem) to hunt down, expose, and when necessary eliminate Christians to preserve the Hebrew religion. Things changed dramatically, however, and the world has never been the same since.

One day on the road to Damascus, he was thrown down to the ground, and a voice called out, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4). The voice belonged to Jesus of Nazareth, who had already died, risen, and ascended to heaven. Saul realized he had been persecuting Christ by persecuting those who believed in Christ. Opposing the followers of Jesus was in essence opposing Jesus himself.

Blinded by the event, Saul continued from Jerusalem to Damascus, but not to persecute the Christians — rather to join them. God turned an enemy into His greatest ally. He now called himself Paul and began to preach the Gospel widely in the ancient world. He made three journeys throughout Greece and Asia Minor before his final journey to Rome as a prisoner of Caesar.

Being a Roman citizen, he was exempt from death by crucifixion (unlike St. Peter, who was crucified upside-down in Rome around a.d. 64).The Emperor had him executed by the sword (beheading) around a.d. 67 Both St. Peter and St. Paul are considered co-patron saints of the city of Rome where they were both martyred.

St. Dominic de Guzman (1170–1221)

St. Dominic was a contemporary of St. Francis of Assisi. The faithful believe that when St. Dominic’s mother, Joanna of Aza (the wife of Felix de Guzman) was pregnant, she had a vision of a dog carrying a torch in his mouth, which symbolized her unborn son who would grow up to become a hound of the Lord. The name Dominic was thus given to him, because in Latin Dominicanis can be Domini + canis (dog or hound of the Lord).

Dominic established the Order of Friars Preachers (shortened to Order of Preachers), called the Dominicans. Along with their brother Franciscans, the Dominicans re-energized the Church in the 13th century and brought clarity of thought and substantial learning to more people than ever before. The motto of St. Dominic was veritas, which is Latin for truth.

St. Francis of Assisi (1181–1226)

The son of a wealthy cloth merchant, Pietro Bernadone, Francis was one of seven children.

Even though he was baptized Giovanni, his father later changed his name to Francesco (Italian for Francis or Frank). He was handsome, courteous, witty, strong, and intelligent, but very zealous. He liked to play hard and fight hard like most of his contemporaries. Local squabbles between towns, principalities, dukedoms, and so on were rampant in Italy in the 12th century.

Sometime around 1210 he started his own religious community called the Order of Friars Minor (OFM), which today is known as the Franciscans. They took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, but unlike the Augustinian and Benedictine monks who lived in monasteries outside the villages and towns, St. Francis and his friars were not monks but mendicants, which means that they begged for their food, clothes, and shelter. What they collected they shared among themselves and the poor. They worked among the poor in the urban areas.

Catholics believe that in 1224, St. Francis of Assisi was blessed with the extraordinary gift of the stigmata, the five wounds of Christ imprinted on his own body.

St. Francis of Assisi loved the poor and animals, but most of all he loved God and his Church. He wanted everyone to know and experience the deep love of Jesus that he felt in his own heart. He is credited with the creation of two Catholic devotions: the Stations of the Cross and the Christmas crèche.

St. Anthony of Padua (1195-1231)

St. Anthony was born as Ferdinand, son of Martin Bouillon and Theresa Tavejra. At the age of 15 he joined an order of priests called the Canons Regular of St. Augustine. Later he transferred to the newly formed Order of Friars Minor (OFM), or Franciscans, where he took the religious name of Anthony.

He is famous for being an effective orator. Anthony’s sermons were so powerful that many Catholics who strayed from the faith and embraced false doctrines of other religions would repent after hearing him. This skill led to his nickname, “Hammer of Heretics.”

St. Anthony is invoked as the patron saint of lost items. On one occasion, a little boy appeared in the town square, apparently lost. Anthony picked him up and carried him around town looking for the boy’s family. They went to house after house, but no one claimed him. At the end of the day, Anthony approached the friary chapel. The boy said, “I live there.” Once in the oratory, the child disappeared. It was later discerned that the child was in fact Jesus. Since then, Catholics invoke St. Anthony whenever they lose something, even car keys or eyeglasses.

St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)

The greatest intellect the Catholic Church has ever known was born of a wealthy aristocratic family, the son of Landulph, Count of Aquino, and Theodora, Countess of Teano. Thomas’s parents sent him at the age of five, which was customary, to the Benedictine Abbey of Monte Cassino. It was hoped that if he didn’t show talents suited for becoming a knight or nobleman, he could at least rise to the rank of abbot or bishop and thus add to his family’s prestige and influence.

However, ten years later, Thomas wanted to join a new mendicant order, which was similar to the Franciscans in that it didn’t go to distant monasteries but worked in urban areas instead. The new order was the Order of Preachers (O.P.), known as Dominicans.

Thomas Aquinas is best known for two things:

  • His monumental theological and philosophical work, the Summa Theologica, covers almost every principal doctrine and dogma of his era. What St. Augustine and St. Bonaventure were able to do with the philosophy of Plato regarding Catholic Theology, St. Thomas Aquinas was able to do with Aristotle. (Philosophy has been called the handmaiden of theology because you need a solid philosophical foundation in order to understand the theological teachings connected to it.) The Catechism of the Catholic Church has numerous references to the Summa some 800 years later.
  • He composed hymns and prayers for Corpus Christi at the request of the pope, and he wrote Pange Lingua, Adoro te Devote, O Salutaris Hostia, and Tantum Ergo, which is often sung at Benediction.

He died while on the way to the Second Council of Lyons, where he was to appear as a peritus (expert).

St. Patrick of Ireland (387–481)

There are many stories surrounding the origin of St. Patrick. The most credible says that he was born in Britain during Roman occupation and was a Roman citizen. His father was a deacon, and his grandfather was a priest in the Catholic Church. Much of what we know about Patrick we get from his autobiography, The Confessions. At 16 years of age, he was abducted by pirates and taken to Ireland as a slave. The Celtic pagan tribes who lived in Ireland were Druids. After several years he escaped and returned to Britain, but with a love for the people of Ireland.

Patrick did not follow in his dad’s footsteps and become a Roman soldier. He felt called to serve the Lord and His Church by being ordained a priest. He went back to Ireland to convert the people who had originally kidnapped him. While there, he became a bishop and was very successful in replacing paganism with Christianity.

Legend has it that he explained the mystery of the Holy Trinity (Three Persons in One God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit) to the Irish king by using a shamrock. Folklore also has him driving out all the snakes from Ireland.

St. Thérèse of Lisieux (1873–1897)

Francoise-Marie Thérèse, the youngest of five daughters, was born on January 2, 1873. When she was four, her mother died and left her father with five girls to raise on his own. Two of her older sisters joined the Carmelite order of nuns, and Thérèse wanted to join them when she was just 14 years old. The order normally made girls wait until they were 16 before entering the convent or monastery, but Thérèse was adamant.

She accompanied her father to a general papal audience of His Holiness Pope Leo XIII and surprised everyone by throwing herself before the pontiff, begging to become a Carmelite. The wise pope replied, “If the good God wills, you will enter.” When she returned home, the local bishop allowed her to enter early. On April 9, 1888, at the age of 15, Thérèse entered the Carmelite monastery of Lisieux and joined her two sisters. On September 8, 1890, she took her final vows. She showed remarkable spiritual insights for someone so young, but it was due to her childlike (not childish) relationship with Jesus. Her superiors asked her to keep memoirs of her thoughts and experiences.

At the age of 23, she coughed up blood and was diagnosed with tuberculosis. She lived only one more year, and it was filled with intense physical suffering. She died on September 30, 1897.

St. Pio of Pietrelcina (1887–1968)

Padre Pio was born on May 25, 1887, in Pietrelcina, Italy. Because he showed evidence of having a priestly vocation early in his youth, his father went to the United States to make enough money so Francesco (his baptismal name) could attend school and seminary. At the age of 15, he took the vows and habit of the Friars Minor Capuchin and assumed the name of Pio in honor of Pope St. Pius V, patron of his hometown. On August 10, 1910, he was ordained a priest. Catholics believe that less than a month later, on September 7, he received the stigmata, just like St. Francis of Assisi.

During World War I, he served as a chaplain in the Italian Medical Corps. After the war, news spread about his stigmata, which stirred up some jealous enemies. Because of false accusations that were sent to Rome, he was suspended in 1931 from saying public Mass or from hearing confessions. Two years later, Pope Pius XI reversed the suspension and said, “I have not been badly disposed toward Padre Pio, but I have been badly informed.”

Catholics believe that he was able to read souls, meaning that when people came to him for confession, he could immediately tell if they were lying, holding back sins, or truly repentant.

He became so well loved all over the region and indeed all over the world that three days after his death on September 23, 1968, more than 100,000 people gathered at San Giovanni Rotundo to pray for his departed soul.

Pope St. John XXIII (1881–1963)

Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli was the third of 13 children and grew up in the North of Italy near Bergamo. His family was poor but devout. He was ordained a priest in 1904. Angelo was an army chaplain in World War I, secretary to his diocesan bishop, and spiritual director at the local seminary.

He became a bishop in 1925 and served as an apostolic delegate to Turkey and Greece, and eventually Papal Nuncio (Ambassador) to Paris. In 1953 he was made the Cardinal Archbishop of Venice.

When Pope Pius XII died in 1958, Roncalli was elected his successor after 11 ballots on October 28, 1958, at age 76. He took the name John XXIII. Many cardinals thought he would be a “caretaker pope” after the 19-year reign of Pius. John XXIII surprised everyone by convening an Ecumenical Council (Vatican II) from 1962–1965. It was the first council since the First Vatican Council ended in 1870.

Pope St. John XXIII was a very popular pope even though he did not live long, dying during the sessions of Vatican II from stomach cancer. Pope St. John Paul II beatified him in 2000, and Pope Francis canonized him in 2014.

Pope St. John Paul II, the Great (1920–2005)

Pope John Paul II, a highly visible Catholic of the modern era, was the 264th pope and the first non-Italian pope in more than 450 years.

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© Dirck Halstead/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
Pope John Paul II.

He was born Karol Józef Wojtyla on May 18, 1920, in Wadowice, Poland, the son of Karol Wojtyla and Emilia Kaczorowska. His mother died nine years after his birth, followed by his brother, Edmund Wojtyla, a doctor, in 1932, and then his father, a noncommissioned army officer, in 1941.

Pope Paul VI died in August 1978. Albino Cardinal Luciani was elected his successor and took the name John Paul to honor Paul VI and John XXIII, the two popes of Vatican II. But John Paul I lived only a month. So on October 16, 1978, Karol Cardinal Wojtyla was elected bishop of Rome and took the name John Paul II.

Pope St. John Paul II wrote 84 combined encyclicals, exhortations, letters, and instructions to the Catholic world, beatified 1,338 people, canonized 482 saints, and created 232 cardinals.

He traveled 721,052 miles (1,243,757 kilometers), the equivalent of 31 trips around the globe. During these journeys, he visited 129 countries and 876 cities. While home in Rome, he spoke to more than 17.6 million people at weekly Wednesday audiences.

At 5:19 p.m. on May 13, 1981, a would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca, shot Pope John Paul II and nearly killed him. A five-hour operation and 77 days in the hospital saved his life, and the pope returned to his full duties a year later.

When he died on April 2, 2005, Pope John Paul II had the third-longest reign as pope (26 years, 5 months, 17 days), behind only Pius IX (31 years) and Saint Peter himself (34+ years). John Paul II’s funeral was attended by 4 kings, 5 queens, 70 presidents and prime ministers, 14 leaders of other religions, 157 cardinals, 700 bishops, 3,000 priests, and 3 million deacons, religious sisters and brothers, and laity.

His successor, Pope Benedict XVI, beatified Pope St. John Paul II on May 1, 2011, the Feast of Divine Mercy Sunday. Pope Francis canonized him on April 27, 2014.