To be a saint doesn’t mean you have to be lame, rigid, and secluded all of the time - though there are many times when reverence is the appropriate response to God. To be a saint, however, does mean you fully live the adventure that God has placed in your life. In the life of most every saint, even in one as sweet and gentle as Therese of Lisieux, as we will see, there has been a holy recklessness, a sense of adventure, and a great cosmic mission. The saints are the ones that teach us about the adventure that the Church has for us. Today, I’d like to point to some adventures God might have for us if we decide to follow Him more recklessly in the examples from these three saints: Gabriel Possenti, Francis Xavier, and Therese of Lisieux.
Francis Possenti, born in Assisi on March 1, 1838, was seriously ill as a child, and many illnesses recurred throughout his life. As a young man, he grew up to be a superb horseman, hunter, and excellent marksman. Francesco Possenti had been the fanciest dresser in town as well as the best dancer. Engaged to two girls at the same time and a great party-goer, he caught the attention of many people in his day, especially women.
During his school years, he became very sick, Mary came to him in a vision, and he promised that if he got better, he would dedicate his life to God. St. Gabriel Possenti got better and forgot about it. He got sick a second time, had another vision, and made the same promise, but again got well and forgot his promise. During a church procession a great banner of Our Lady, Help of Christians, was being carried. The eyes of Our Lady looked straight at him and he heard the words: "Keep your promise." Shaken and in fear of his soul, he remembered his promise, changed his life completely, and entered the Passionists.
Given his lifestyle, he shocked his family by announcing after his graduation that he was going to become a Passionist monk. No one believed him and expected him back within a few weeks. He stayed in the monastery, to their disbelief. One day Garibaldi's mercenaries swept down through Italy ravaging villages. As the marauders attacked, the monks prayed in the chapel and Possenti, who took the name Gabriel, heard a young woman screaming in terror. Not about to allow the assailants to do any harm to a woman, he genuflected, left the chapel, approached the man, and pulled the gun out of the marauder's holster and held it to his head until he freed the woman.
After freeing a young woman from a would-be rapist, St. Gabriel Possenti confronted the onrushing brigands waving revolvers. To demonstrate his excellence in marksmanship, he fired at a lizard that happened to be running across the road and blew its head off it with one shot. After this, he was able to take command of the situation and ran the entire band of mercenaries out of town. Not one human was harmed by Possenti while he saved the city.
Those who were with Gabriel when he died on February 27, 1862 of tuberculosis reported that at the moment of death, he sat up in bed and his face became radiant as he reached out to an otherwise unseen figure that was entering the room. It was the opinion of his spiritual director, Father Norbert that Saint Gabriel had seen the Virgin Mary at the very moment of his death. He is remembered for his deep veneration for the Mother of Sorrows and his unwavering patience throughout his deadly disease. In 1908 he was beatified and canonized in 1920. He is the patron of Catholic youth in Italy. His grave still attracts many pilgrims.
Now, if Gabriel Possenti doesn’t respond to the call that God has for him, that adventure never happens and that town would not have been saved from all of the bad things that the marauders would have done. St. Gabriel’s yes to God (through Mary) changed the lives of countless people. And he was hardly in his 20s at this point. Makes me wonder what I have been doing with my life and why I might keep saying know to the adventures God has for me.
The next saint is Francis Xavier. He was born into a noble family in the kingdom of Navarre (a part of modern day Spain and France). The king of Aragon invaded Navarre when Francis was six years old and the fighting continued for the next 18 years. Francis’ family was much embroiled in the fighting, but to get away from it, Francis enrolled in the University of Paris. He became well known for his athleticism, excelling at the high jump. Being away from his family, the party scene was commonplace for Francis and he had many aspirations to gain worldly success. But there he also met Ignatius of Loyola.
Castle of the Xavier Family now under the care of the Jesuits
Ignatius worked on Francis for years to get him to become more religious. Eventually, after Francis’ roommate had left to study for the priesthood, he found Ignatius as one of his only companions. On August 15th, 1534, Ignatius, Francis, and six others met in the crypt of a church just outside of Paris and made vows of poverty, chastity, obedience to the pope, and to missionary work in the Holy Land and other places around the world.
When it comes to missions around the world, it is impossible to overestimate the credit which Francis Xavier deserves. With the possible exception of St. Paul, the Church has not seen a missionary like him. His first task: bring the Gospel to the newly established territories in India. This was not an easy assignment because the “Christian” settlers in India were causing scandal for the message of Gospel because of their immoral actions with the locals. Francis Xavier also was pigeon-holed by the caste system in India. The Brahmin class tried to keep him from interacting with his heart's true desire, the poorest of the poor. Francis Xavier followed his heart and spent most of his time learning the culture and language of the people, tending to the poor, and teaching them the Christian message, often times lambasting the actions of the Portuguese settlers. Because of Francis’ adventurous efforts, however, Catholicism has a strong presence in India still to this day.
To see the real adventure in Francis’ life, we must look at his work in Japan in particular. Francis eventually made his way through many island territories, China, and found his way to the people of Japan. There Francis established missions and over the course of two years gained a number of Japanese to the Catholic faith and the Jesuit order. After establishing Catholicism in Japan, he left to go back to India leaving behind others to run the communities of Japan. In 1620, less than one hundred years after Francis established Christianity there, the Empire banned Catholicism and killed all the priests and attempted to stamp out what Francis has built. Communication was lost with all the Catholics in Japan until 1865. In that year, it was discovered that a small group of Japanese had continued ritual baptism, belief in clerical celibacy, the primacy of the pope, and devotion to the Blessed Mother. For nearly 250 years, because of “the adventures of St. Francis Xavier” and the way he built the community there, Japan had retained a Catholic presence in secret, unknown both to the Japanese government and to the rest of the Church.
Therese of Lisieux
God is not calling people to be a flock of sissies. In some ways, we are to be more like lions than sheep. Speaking of that contrast, St. Therese of Lisieux is an example of a saint who seems very gentle but actually had the heart of a lion. While it’s true it hard to see a lot of adventure in Therese’s active life, there are many quotes from her Story of a Soul that demonstrate her adventurous attitude. To start, in discovering her vocation, Therese finds what her adventure within the Church is, and in a real way it is every human being’s adventure. She says, “Then, overcome by joy, I cried, 'Jesus, my love. At last I have found my vocation. My vocation is love. In the heart of the Church, my mother, I will be love, and then I will be all things.” For Therese, the great adventure of this life is learning how to love in all the little ways. We see this clearly in this famous line that was often referenced by Mother Teresa when she says, “You know well that Our Lord does not look so much at the greatness of our actions,nor even at their difficulty, but at the love with which we do them.”
Therese sees this life not as a destination, but a journey of learning how to love. One day, she desires to be with Love forever, when the adventure is over. Referring to this life she says, “The world's thy ship and not thy home.” For Therese, the journey of this life is holiness, which is found in the perfection of love. To perfect love, one must be well aware of God’s desire for his or her life. “Holiness consists simply in doing God's will, and being just what God wants us to be,” says Therese. In her longing for God’s will, we see one of the most adventurous things that she has to offer us and her reckless desire for nothing shy of everything God wants of her. Even despite the ways others annoy and distract her, she endeavors to love in all things. When the trials are heavy, she reminds herself and all of us that “when one loves, one does not calculate.” If that isn’t the idea of adventure that burns in your heart, you are very much different than Therese and myself. What greater adventure is there than reckless abandon for the highest cause? Tolkien, Lewis, even Twain, Melville, and DeFoe made their careers based on the same movement of the heart: to abandon yourself to life’s greatest endeavors.
For Therese the adventure is to sail the ship of this world in a way that leads to heaven. The way to stay on course is to always be solid in prayer, even if it is challenging. She says, “For me, prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy.” Therese was adventurous even in her approach to prayer, seeing that the process brings trial and joy which occur simultaneously.
Finally, Therese always tied her life’s adventure to the adventure of the cross. “To dedicate oneself as a Victim of Love is not to be dedicated to sweetness and consolations; it is to offer oneself to all that is painful and bitter, because Love lives only by sacrifice and the more we would surrender ourselves to Love, the more we must surrender ourselves to suffering,” she says. She understood the great battle within her and around her. A battle all of us are called to engage in still today. She says, “Each time that my enemy would provoke me to combat, I behave as a gallant soldier.” Even in the heart of sweet Therese there was the presence of a fierce and unruly desire to follow Christ in his Church. If only more of us would find the same adventure in our lives as sweet, small, gentle, and simple Therese found in hers!
There are so many other saints that have lived lives of adventure from St. John the Baptist, St. Paul the Apostle to St. John Paul II, the mountain loving, soccer playing, skier pope that changed the face of Catholicism and instigated the fall of communism in Russia and Eastern Europe. The point is, to be a Catholic saint means to be totally awesome. Jesus’ awesome adventure was the cross. And as Hebrews 12 states, it was because of the joy that was set in front of him that he endured the cross. The joy for Jesus was that one day he gets to be with you forever. Even though he was God and had everything, he went on a great adventure and gave away everything he had just so you could understand how much he wants to be with you. He has now asked us to follow him. To live an adventure. The Church needs great and adventurous saints to set the stage for the third millennium. It can be us. If not us, then who will it be? In our own unique way, we can live the adventure of following Jesus and becoming the great saint God intended us to be.