Some biographies of Saints [canonized Saints, as opposed to common saints] read like instruction manuals on how to achieve instant sanctity. The story often goes that some young person has a spiritual epiphany and decides to devote their life wholly to Christ and His good works. He or she then lives a life of complete self-denial through a dogged devotion to the Church and its teaching. Because of this denial and devotion they accomplish amazing feats of good works or establish global religious orders or create new, astonishing theological insights captured in voluminous tomes. All the while they tally an impressive anecdotal record of almost-angelic encounters with every person they meet.
Some other biographies of Saints read like scared literary fairytales. The one-day Saint has a troubled, shadowy past of sin, debauchery, and disbelief, only to be rescued—like damsels in fairytales—by a Christian epiphany that propels them into a life of holy sanctity equal to that of the Saint referenced in the preceding paragraph.
Of course both the “instruction manual Saint” and the “fairytale Saint” are just glossy accounts. The true story is that Saints often suffer disappointments, go through setbacks, roadblocks, troubles, heartbreaks and yes, even failures. Sometimes these troubles are epic in proportion. How they react and respond to these troubles is what helps make them Saints with a capital S.
Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini suffered setbacks, and her response to these setbacks is what makes her so remarkable. Let’s take a look at two:
Before founding her own religious order, Frances Xavier Cabrini spent six years in quasi-religious life at the House of Providence in Codogno, Italy. Her superiors there “lacked a vocation and had no interest in novitiates, a community lacking tradition, charism and future,” said Segundo Galilea, in his biography, In Weakness Strength: The Life and Missionary Activity of Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini. He goes on to say, “[Cabrini] could not conceive religious life other than a holy life. Now instead she found herself in a very ambiguous situation, containing more frustrations…Frances Xavier was under surveillance, discredited, reprimanded constantly, a victim of gossip.”
Cabrini too recognized her own plight. “Dear Lord, if only I knew how to take advantage of such misfortune…” she is quoted by Galilea from her writings.
Soon after the House of Providence was shuttered and Frances Xavier Cabrini was made superior of the novices and allowed to begin her own religious order, her ambitions and dreams were again stifled. She had dreamed since childhood of being a missionary in China, but was famously told by Pope Leo XIII, “Not to the East, but to the West.” As Galilea concludes, “The obedient acceptance of Mother Cabrini was as perfect as it was painful.”
What a richly paradoxical, poetic phrase: “Was as perfect as it was painful.”
For Saints, disappointments and troubles are as painful as they are for anyone. Yet, what makes them Saints is their “perfect” response. By this we shouldn’t assume every action or emotion or utterance of the Saint is perfect, but instead that the tools they employ are the “perfect” tools God has given us all to face our own troubles.
These perfect tools include faith, hope, love, and trust in God’s will. Mother Cabrini has an unwavering belief that while God does not spare us troubles, he is giving them to us for a reason that may be beyond our limited abilities to understand. We must accept God’s will with faith, loving Him and remaining hopeful that our own desires will accord with His.
When she was stuck in limbo in the troubling House of Providence, she persevered. When instructing the novices in the House of Providence who shared zeal for a true vocation and religious life, she wrote, “Be Patient. The day will come when we shall go to the mission. This is the reward that encourages us.” Mother Cabrini was accepting and trusting God’s will despite the grievance she had with that will.
Departing in 1889 to go “not to the East, but the West” to America, you’d rightfully expect Mother Cabrini to be disappointed. Instead, as Galilea recounts:
Monsignor Serrati from Cordogno wrote the superior in Rome, describing the final farewell: “You have not one, but hundreds of reasons to say that Mother is a saint. On the way from the convent to the station, on Wednesday morning, she said to Sister Margarita Ramelli and me: ‘How much the Sacred Heart of Jesus loves us! He knows we are children; we go on mission but at present have no clear and complete idea of the missions. For this reason, desiring to grant us the satisfaction and the merit to work for his glory, he destines us to begin in a place requiring an easy, short journey….We are little ones and he treats us as little ones; when we grow older, he will give us more difficult missions.’”
Indeed, ‘hundreds of reasons to say that Mother is a Saint’ because of hundreds of perfect responses for hundreds of painful circumstances.
By Christopher Grosso, Senior Writer, Cabrini College