Saints for Lay People
by Bert Ghezzi, author of Saints at Heart: How Fault-Filled, Problem-Prone, Imperfect People Like Us Can Be Holy
The great majority of canonized saints are priests, nuns, and religious. Although lay people can find much inspiration in their lives, we especially appreciate saints whose circumstances are more like our own. So OSV presents for your consideration three saints for lay people: St. Anne Mary Taigi; for wives and mothers; Bl. Frederic Ozanam for husbands and fathers; and Bl. Pier-Giorgio Frassati, for single men and women of all ages.
ANNE MARY TAIGI (1769-1837)
A model lay woman, Anne Mary Taigi managed a large Roman household for nearly half a century. She handled finances with little money, patiently cared for a cantankerous family and entertained a constant stream of guests who came to consult her. She did all this full of faith and good cheer. Even though Anne Mary was blessed with charisms of prophecy and healing, not these gifts, but her resilient leadership of her family through poverty and trouble earned her a saint’s crown.
An impoverished servant girl herself, at age 21 she married Domenico Taigi, a servant in the Chigi Palace. They had seven children, two of whom died at childbirth. Early in her marriage, Anne Mary experienced a religious conversion. Under spiritual direction, she simplified her life, initiating practices of prayer and self-denial that she pursued the rest of her life.
Anne Mary took the spiritual lead in her family. The day began with morning prayer and mass and ended with reading lives of the saints and the rosary. The Taigis had little of their own, but she always found ways of providing for those who had less. She also took in her hard-to-get-along-with parents and her widowed daughter, Sophie, with her six children.
Domenico had a violent temper that often disrupted the family. But somehow Anne Mary was always able to calm him and restore peaceful relationships. In his old age, Domenico gave this touching tribute to his wife:
“Often I came home to a house full of people. Immediately, Anne Mary … would hurry to pay affectionate attention to me. You could tell she did it with all her heart. She would have taken off my shoes if I had allowed her. In short, she was my comfort and the consolation of everyone.
“I often came home tired, moody and cross, but she always succeeded in soothing and cheering me. And due to her, I corrected some of my faults. I am not good at expressing myself, for I am old. But if I were a young man and could search the whole world to find such a wife, it would be vain. I believe that God has received her into heaven because of her great virtue. And I hope that she will pray for me and our family.”
Reportedly, Anne Mary had a permanent vision that gave her insight into the causes of evil in the world and dangers that threatened the church. She also had a gift of healing. For example, with a sign of the cross she anointed cancer victims and epileptics and they were cured.
After seven months of sickness and spiritual trials, Anne Mary Taigi died on June 9, 1837.
FREDERIC OZANAM (1813-1853)
As a teenager in Lyons, Frederic Ozanam had immersed himself in the anti-Catholic literature of the French Revolution. Doubts tested his Christian commitment, but emerging from them, he promised Christ to devote himself to defending the faith.
In 1831, Ozanam enrolled at the Sorbonne, the famous Parisian university. Appalled by many lectures against Catholicism, he urged students to let no attacks go unanswered. He also organized a discussion club that sponsored public debates with atheists and doubters. One night an opponent hit Frederic with a personal challenge. "Mr. Ozanam," he said, "what do you do besides talk to prove the faith you claim is in you?"
The taunt struck deep. After examining his life, Frederic decided that he must back up his words with actions. He began to visit the poor, providing them fuel, food and clothing out of his own resources. Seven other students joined him, and he organized them into a group that became first conference of the St. Vincent de Paul Society. By 1837 Ozanam's little association had mushroomed into a national movement with 2000 members.
Ozanam insisted that Christian service to the poor must be personal, as he explained in this passage:
"Help is humiliating when it appeals to men from below, taking heed only of their material wants. It humiliates when there is no reciprocity. When you give a poor man nothing but bread or clothes, there is no likelihood of his ever giving you anything in return.
"But help honors when it appeals to him from above. It respects him when it deals with his soul, with his religious, moral, and political education, and with all that emancipates him from his passions. Help honors when, to the bread that nourishes, it adds the visit that consoles, advice that enlightens, the friendly handshake that lifts up flagging courage. …
"Help then becomes honorable, because it may become mutual…. That indigent family whom you love loves you in return, and will have largely acquitted themselves towards you when they shall have prayed for you."
Ozanam married Amelie Soulacroix on June 23, 1841. A priest who thought Frederic should have chosen the religious life told the pope that Ozanam had fallen into the "trap of marriage." "Oh!" replied the pope, "I always thought we had seven sacraments. Not six sacraments and a trap!" Perhaps Frederic's greatest happiness was the birth of his daughter Marie in 1845. On the 23d day of every month, Frederic presented Amelie with a bouquet of flowers to commemorate their wedding day. He was a wise husband, to invest such tenderness in his marriage relationship
Just before his marriage, Ozanam was appointed professor of literature at the Sorbonne. With his prestige and through his writing, he exerted considerable influence on French public affairs in the tempestuous 1840s. After 1846, he was constantly ill. He died in 1853 at the age of 40.
PIER-GIORGIO FRASSATI (1901-1925)
In post-World War I Italy, Pier-Giorgio Frassati became a beloved hero in Turin. His life was an intriguing balance of opposites that, like a magnet, drew people to the supernatural. Pier-Giorgio was wealthy, but lived in poverty, giving everything imaginable to the poor. Handsome and strong, he devoted himself to the weak and malformed. He was gregarious, yet a lover of solitude. Pier-Giorgio was rambunctious, the life of every party and a practical joker. But at prayer he was solemn, recollected and quiet. Once a friend observed that when Pier-Giorgio finished praying in church, he waved a little farewell towards the tabernacle.
Even when Pier-Giorgio felt depressed, no one would have noticed because he always behaved cheerfully. The secret of his personality was his constant joy. “My life is monotonous,” he once said,“but each day I understand a little better the incomparable grace of being a Catholic. Down, then, with all melancholy. That should never find a place except in the heart which has lost faith. I am joyful. Sorrow is not gloom. Gloom should be banished from the Christian soul.”
As a teenager the saint made friends of the poor in Turin’s filthy back streets andgave them whatever he had— his money, his shoes, his overcoat. “Jesus comes to me every morning in Holy Communion,” he replied to a friend who asked why the hovels did not repulse him. “I repay Him in my very small way by visiting the poor. The house may be sordid, but I am going to Christ.”
At school Pier-Giorgio became the leader of groups that organized outreach to the needy. He was also the organizer of student parties, games, and fund raisers to finance ski trips to the Alps—Pier Giorgio was addicted to mountain climbing! At mountain tops he led his friends in prayer. After the climb, they relaxed and enjoyed food, wine, cigars, and song. My favorite picture of the saint shows him smoking a pipe. He quipped that he liked smoking because his mother had smoked cigars when he was in the womb.
For a time, Pier-Giorgio considered the priesthood, but he decided to remain a layman. He studied mining engineering so that he could take work that would enable him relate more directly to the marginalized people he loved. The saint patterned his life on Catholic social teaching. And he courageously spoke out against the Fascists when they came to power in Italy.
A virulent form of poliomyelitis attacked Pier-Giorgio in July, 1925, and he died within a week. He was 24 years old. Because of his joyful trust in God in all circumstances, at his beatification Pope John Paul II called him “A man of the Beatitudes.” Hundreds of thousands of young people celebrate Pier-Giorgio because he has made holiness accessible to “normal” men and women.
No matter what our state in life, no matter whether our vocation as a lay person is to serve the Lord as married or single, we are all called to holiness, to become saints like Ann Mary, Frederic, and Pier-Giorgio.
Bert Ghezz is the author of books about faith, spirituality and saints, including most recently an updated edition of Saint at Heart published by Paraclete Press.
Copyright © 2019 by Bert Ghezz