Recently, I pointed out that the February 14 feast actually commemorated two Valentines: the first a beloved Christian priest rounded up in Claudius the Goth’s persecution (269 A.D.) and beheaded outside Rome; the other a bishop of Terni, about 60 miles from Rome, beheaded in another purge a few years later. (Partly because of this confusion, the Valentine commemorations were dropped from the official Church calendar of universally celebrated feasts about 25 years ago, although local churches can still choose to observe them.) Legends attribute affectionate letters from prison to both Valentines.
A few days after I handed in the article, the editor called to tell me to shorten the introduction. “We’re trying to get people in a romantic mood,” she said, “so leave out most of the statistics (sic) about the history. We didn’t think that talking about people being beheaded was very romantic.”
More Than Hearts and Flowers
I mention the incident not to complain about editors or about that particular magazine but to point out what kids are up against when it comes to learning about their ancestors in the faith. The lives of the saints are an important part of our Catholic heritage; their stories tell us who we are and how we’re expected to behave. That’s not how it works out, though, if you leave it to chance.
Popular culture either ignores saints or debases their memory. Francis of Assisi, Thomas à Becket and Thomas More are the only ones I’ve seen on film in my lifetime. I can’t speak for television (we use our set primarily as a video monitor), but I do know you can count on two hands and a foot the worthwhile books about saints published by secular publishing houses during that time. Eliminate the books on Francis and you’re down to a set of toes!
The public schools, where the vast majority of our children are educated, are prohibited by law from teaching about saints, and while a good religion program will integrate saints into the curriculum—traditionally during October in preparation for the November 1 Feast of All Saints—classroom work can only go so far.
Particularly in CCD classes, time constraints limit the focus mainly to doctrinal basics. Fine-tuning has to be done at home.
That’s not necessarily a handicap. Formal instruction is necessary—the more challenging, the better. Children also learn by listening at the dinner table. The important thing is that children hear it both places.
Meet the Friends of Jesus
Both my husband and I were raised in an era when heaven was organized according to the principles of subsidiarity, with God in charge of the big picture and saints handling the details, which included everything from a happy death to recovery from strep throat. We accumulated holy cards describing saints’ specialties the way our son Daniel collects baseball cards, and along the way we picked up lots of stories.
When we became parents ourselves, a little editing of the loopier folklore elements gave us an extensive repertoire of “friends of Jesus” to share with our two boys. We emphasize the saints’ obedience to the call of the Lord rather than the signs and wonders attached to their names, although we’ve kept some of the folklore, labeling it as such. As one of our friends told his children about Bible stories, “Some stories are true on the outside, some on the inside.”
We’re in the older generation of parents, though. The parents of most of my children’s friends are 10-15 years younger than we are. This means they grew up in those turbulent, corrective years after Vatican II, when the saints were lost for a while as we tried to figure out as a Church what was really important. This generation isn’t necessarily on a first-name basis with too many saints.
Surround Your Children with Saints
For such parents, who have to start from scratch, here are some ideas for rescuing Valentine from the candy counter and Patrick from behind the bar. It boils down to two things: Teach early, teach often.
Begin by giving children a patron saint. Kids love hearing stories about what their name means and who they’re named after. If you’re an expectant parent, find a collection of lives of the saints and cross-check the names you’ve picked for kid-friendliness. This doesn’t mean saints who had sweet personalities but saints who come with a fair amount of documentation, a feast day, and an image recognizable in statuary, icon or other artwork.
If you go for an Old Testament name, you’ll forgo the feast day, but being in the Bible makes up for it. You can also designate your own day for celebrating the feast of St. Noah.
Popular culture either ignores saints or debases their memory.
If you’ve already gone and named your daughter Heather, tell her she can be the first St. Heather. Then choose a family patron, perhaps after reading several saint stories during the weeks when you’re not doing activities related to Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter. If your family can’t reach a consensus on a family saint, choose two.
Come to think of it, choosing a family saint is a good idea even if you have a tableful of big-league saint names.
Surround growing children with inspiration and information. In your decor, include icons, statues, framed pictures and a calendar with saints’ feasts noted (even if you have to add them yourself). Supply books as well.
Having stuff around is the most effective teaching tool imaginable. During 1996 our boys had great fun taking turns ripping off the calendar page from our Saint-of-the-Day calendar. I was less than thrilled with this mass-market calendar (now out of print) because some of its material was drawn from exceedingly old sources whose definition of sanctity covered people who were clinically insane. This did lead to interesting discussions, though, particularly about the hermit who traipsed around the desert with a dead dog tied to his waist.
And one afternoon last winter I came upon Peter, then in third grade, sprawled on the landing poring over his dad’s old Dictionary of the Bible.
“I’m looking up Jehovah,” he said. “What does this mean, God’?”
This question was a direct result of viewing Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, during which Harrison Ford bypasses a deadly booby trap by stepping only on stones with letters that, in Latin, represent the name of God.
Peter found the Bible dictionary on our “holy books” bookcase, which is near the outlet in the upstairs hall where the boys plug in the hair dryer. The books are shelved there deliberately, on the theory that we’d trade a unit of hair-drying efficiency for 10 minutes of informal instruction in their Catholic heritage.
Along with the Thomas Mertons and Raymond Browns and G. K. Chestertons, the shelves hold collections of saints’ lives written for various ages, a couple of Where’s Waldo?-style Bible story books and everything religious Tomie de Paola’s ever published, including his wonderfully illustrated story of Our Lady of Guadalupe plus his lives of St. Patrick and St. Francis of Assisi.
Because he’s been through the bookcase so often looking for these books, my eight-year-old knew where to find out about “Jehovah, God.”
It was months before it struck me, one spring evening, that this is exactly what the saints are supposed to do—lead us to God.