Our God works miracles. However you feel about this week’s election, I hope that all Christians can find hope in the promise of a God who can work all things for good. Personally, I’m praying–and praying hard–for powerful, miraculous conversion for our president and our president-elect. I’m praying for them both by name, something I’ve never done regularly, to my shame. And while action is necessary, I’m confident that the incessant prayers of God’s children will do great things.
But if you’re less optimistic than I, it may be encouraging to take a look at some of the great sinners that God’s mercy transformed into great Saints. We all know St. Paul, the persecutor-of-Christians-turned-Apostle, and Augustine, whose love child made it hard to ignore his indiscretions, but there are worse. Read on.
You’d never know he used to celebrate Black Masses.
Bl. Bartolo Longo was a satanist. Yup. Raised a Catholic, he fell away from the faith in college, but way worse than your kids did. He ended up involved in orgies and seances and was ultimately ordained a satanic priest. He did everything he could to lure people away from the Church, drawing them into his own occult practices. Fortunately for us all, he had friends and family who never gave up praying for him and eventually the depression and paranoia he experienced in his time as a Satanist culminated in a total mental breakdown–an answer to prayer! Bartolo heard the voice of his late father urging him to return to God, made his confession, and dove in headfirst. He became a lay Dominican, proclaimed the truths of the faith in all sorts of public places, and spent the rest of his life preaching the rosary to people. He and his wife built a shrine to Our Lady of the Rosary–in Pompeii, of all places–and started an orphanage for the children of inmates. Despite persecution, his work in honor of the Blessed Mother was so successful that St. John Paul II referred to him as the “Man of Mary.”
If this is how terrifying she was post-conversion, imagine her before joy and peace and mercy.
St. Olga of Kiev was a murder princess. When her husband was killed, she invited representatives of the tribe that killed him to a court banquet and then buried them alive. Then she demanded that more come and burned them alive. She killed thousands more at a feast held in her honor and finally burned an entire city to the ground, inhabitants and all, after promising them peace. Having murdered just about everybody she could find, she apparently ran afoul of a Christian missionary and was converted. By that time, her young son had become king and refused to allow her to make the whole country Christian, but she did succeed in converting her grandson (St. Vladimir the Great) who dedicated the country to Christ and brought in bishops and missionaries to convert the people. And so Olga the murder princess is called Isapostolos (equal to the apostles) because it was through her great conversion that Russia became a Christian nation.
Don’t cross that monk.
St. Moses the Black was basically a land pirate. A former slave, he became the ringleader of a band of 75 outlaws. This guy delighted in murder, fornication, and revenge, once swimming the mile-wide Nile with a dagger in his teeth to knife a guy whose dog had barked at him. Eventually, his brigandry got the better of him and he ran to a monastery in an attempt to avoid the police. Once there, he was overcome by the love of Christ and begged to be received as a monk. It took him quite a while to adjust to life as a monk; once four robbers broke in and Moses beat their faces in before remembering himself. He then tied them up and took them to his abbot, sheepishly saying something like, “It used to be I woulda killed them, but I’m thinking that’s not how we do?” His monastic life was extremely difficult, as one might expect of a man accustomed to action and terrible sin, but he fought for years to overcome his temptations and ultimately became a priest and then an abbot himself, leading dozens of souls in the way of holiness. When another group of outlaws was approaching the monastery, Moses urged his men to flee, saying of himself, “Those who live by the sword must die by the sword.” He welcomed his murderers with open arms and was rewarded with a martyr’s crown.
Evidently elderly sex-addicts-turned-hermits aren’t super concerned with fashion and hairstyles.
St. Mary of Egypt is often described as a prostitute, but that term is actually too generous. In fact, she refused to accept money for her services. She was a nymphomaniac. Having run away from home at 12, Mary begged on the street and spun flax to fund her hedonistic lifestyle. For 17 years she took pleasure in corrupting innocents, and when she met a man who was on his way to the Holy Land, she took his pilgrimage as a challenge and joined it with the intention of seducing every pilgrim in the group, whether willing or unwilling. Her depravity continued when she got to Jerusalem, until finally she attempted to enter the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Try as she might, she was unable to enter; suddenly, she saw herself for what she was and begged the Virgin Mary to intercede for her. When she then entered the Church, she looked upon the Cross and the Eucharist and begged God’s mercy. Then she retreated to the desert, where for 17 years she fought against passions and memories and desires. Finally, she was freed of her temptations and lived another 30 years of prayer and penance, having found peace at last. In the Byzantine Church, St. Mary of Egypt is so highly revered that her feast day is a Sunday. Think about that. In the Roman Church, nobody gets a Sunday. Even the Virgin Mary is only celebrated on Sunday if one of her solemnities happens to fall on a Sunday. Even in the Byzantine Church it seems that there are only 3 other Sundays dedicated to individuals. From nymphomaniac and rapist to one of the most revered Saints in the East–see how powerful our God is?
The change in his eyes is worth a thousand words.
Bl. Charles de Foucauld is a dear friend of mine, mostly because I’ve never seen Jesus eyes as powerful as his. But he started off a hot mess. Born a Viscount, he was orphaned by age 6 and an angry, hedonistic agnostic by 15. “I was all egotism, vanity, impiety, with every desire for evil,” he says. “I was, as it were, mad.” Too rich for his own good, he used his money on every sort of dissipation, particularly prostitutes whom he brought in daily for his amusement. Temporarily kicked out of the French army for debauchery, Charles eventually resigned from the military to become an explorer in North Africa. There he was intrigued by the faith of the devout Muslims he met, a seed that came to fruition through the Christian witness of his cousin Marie. Eventually he followed the longing of his heart into a Parisian church where he approached a priest to ask him a few questions. The priest refused to speak to him until Charles had made his confession, and his life was changed forever. “As soon as I came to believe there was a God, I understood that I could not do otherwise than live only for Him,” he said. Charles became a Trappist monk for a time, then the humble gardener for a convent of Poor Clares in Nazareth. Eventually, he was ordained a priest and went to the desert of Algeria where he lived a life of utter failure, unable to gather followers to the religious order he longed to form. He didn’t even make a single convert, seeking not to proselytize but to witness in a ministry of friendship. When he was killed, having refused to deny Christ, his body was left lying in the sand until recovered by French soldiers. As they collected his corpse, they discovered a monstrance with the Blessed Sacrament inside. The commander of the brigade climbed onto his horse, held the monstrance high, and led his soldiers in a 50 km Eucharistic procession through the desert, continuing the silent ministry of drawing souls to Christ that Charles had lived for three decades.
She looks so much like my grandmother, but that’s neither here nor there.
Dorothy Day isn’t a Saint (yet) but she’s an incredible witness of conversion. Raised in a nominally Protestant middle class family in New York, San Francisco, and ultimately Chicago, Dorothy found herself drawn to faith and became a dedicated Episcopalian. Involvement in the Socialist movement in college led her to reject organized religion and Dorothy’s search for justice for the poor led her further and further away from faith. She became a Communist, living a lifestyle typical of her peers. In her biography, she suggests that her series of sexual partners, abortion, and suicide attempt were evidence of her heart’s frustrated longing for God, a longing that wasn’t muted by the happiness she ultimately found in a common law marriage and the birth of her daughter. She began regularly attending Mass and determined to have her child baptized, decisions that her partner reviled and which ultimately led to their separation. After this, Dorothy became more and more devoted to her faith and began to see her service to the poor as a service to Christ. With Peter Maurin, she founded the Catholic Worker movement, a movement of solidarity with the poor that exists around the world today. They published a newspaper, fought for workers’ rights, and lived in community with poor people of all sorts. A powerful activist who was several times arrested and even shot at for her work on behalf of integration, Dorothy found her strength in daily Mass and a commitment to contemplative prayer. She is a model of orthodox radicalism and a powerful witness to God’s power to transform.
So if you’ve got someone in your life who seems incapable of conversion, don’t despair! We come from a heritage of heinous sinners made great Saints by the miracle-working mercy of the Father. It can be discouraging to pray for someone year after year and see no change, but the testimony of the Saints is that God can answer those prayers in his time. Like the friends and family of Bl. Bartolo and Bl. Charles, like the victims of St. Mary, like the subjects of St. Olga, like the Christians in the dioceses of St. Thomas à Becket and Bl. Oscar Romero, let’s pray and pray and never stop praying. Lord, have mercy on us all and make us saints!