Mixed messages

Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ 5 November 2021

In November we celebrate the feasts of two young Jesuit saints: the Belgian John Berchmans and the Polish Stanislaus Kostka

Many people have mixed feelings about young saints. They see them as important because their lives can inspire the young people of their own age. We know from our own experience, however, that initial youthful commitments later become more measured.

We realise, too, that this tempering of our early enthusiasms may reflect in part a loss of faith and generosity. We suspect, however, that it also marked the growth of a more mature faith as we reckoned with the loss of illusions, a diminishment of our energies, and a broader, perhaps deeper, knowledge of our world. We wonder how the lives of young saints might have developed and changed if they had lived into middle age, and what their saintliness might have involved then. We ask, too, what we hope that our children might draw from the lives of young saints.

In November we celebrate the feasts of two young Jesuit saints: the Belgian John Berchmans (26 November) and the Polish Stanislaus Kostka (13 November).

Kostka died in 1568 at the age of 17; Berchmans in 1621 when he was 21 years old. Both died from illness. Kostka’s brief life had much that boys of any period could identify with and wonder at. His parents were from the Polish aristocracy. He was sent off to a Jesuit boarding school in Vienna with his elder brother who bullied him for his piety. There Stanislaus wanted to join the Jesuits, but the Austrian Jesuits did not wish to offend his parents and cause trouble for their own mission in Poland. Stanislaus then decided to apply to the Jesuits in Rome and ran away from Vienna at night, so beginning a walk of more than 2000km. His father was infuriated, but the young Stanislaus stared him down and followed his calling, before dying as a novice. It was a dramatic story of a young man’s dealing with the need to assert his independence in the face of opposition from his family.

Berchmans’ story was much less dramatic. He spent much time with his mother who was bed-ridden during his childhood, worked to support his education, went to a recently opened Jesuit school and applied to join the Jesuits. His father was also furious, sent him to another school and threatened to cut off his allowance. Berchmans persisted, joined the Jesuits, showed great academic promise in Rome, but died of a fever after excelling in a public philosophical disputation.

The stories of Berchmans and Kostka could be told in different ways. Their early lives described them after the fashion of the time. In this writing saints were always saints – devout and prayerful when infants, conspicuous for devout practices as children, shining like bright lights in their families. Their Jesuit biographers also made much of their intense fidelity to the rule and obedience as young Jesuits. Their stories were told to attract young men to become Jesuits, and to commend a shape of faithful living to young members of the Order. A modern reader might also wonder if this emphasis hints also at the anxiety felt by older people that bolshie young recruits might get out of control.

A modern reader may also recognise that the lives of Berchmans and Kostka really do encapsulate what the following of Jesus means, less in the quality of their lives as Jesuits than in the way in which their sense of calling had shaped their lives in decisive ways by the time of their untimely deaths. Their faith and its practices had led both young men to desire something more than they would find in the life and world taken for granted by their families. They found this in dreaming of and pursuing a religious vocation. In the pursuit they had to face opposition and to stare it down. By the time of their deaths they had negotiated the leaving of home and family in following a personal calling. From boys they had become young men who had tested what they desired and found God there.

Many young people, from all walks of life, would identify with their desire for something more, the obstacles that they have found to it, and their joy in being able to take possession of their lives.

They might have been young saints, but they were old heads on young shoulders. And they remind us of what being human beings is all about for any of us.

Images: Wiki Commons