Over the last few days we have celebrated a lot of amazing saints. Saturday was the feast of St. Monica, patron of mothers, widows and alcoholics (and one of our family saints), Sunday was the feast day of her son St. Augustine of Hippo, who gave the church such a rich theology and one or two difficulties, such as Limbo, to grapple with. The following day was the feast of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist, who died because he dared to preach about the sanctity of marriage and how Herod and his “wife” Herodias were not married.
Today is the feast of the martyr St. Margaret Clitherow and some of the other women who died for their loyalty to Christ against the onslaught of the Church of England created by Henry and Elizabeth Tudor to serve their own greed for power and wealth.
At the root of the stories for all these saints is the place of the family and the importance of marriage. St. Monica was married to a difficult man who was a pagan and their son grew up to be influenced by his father’s views. He went off into the world, safe in the knowledge that he was a very intelligent young man. He took on a mistress and had a son with her, but had no intention of marrying her. His mother Monica continued to storm the gates of heaven on his behalf and tried to intervene in his life as best she could, in the face of his resistance. But her prayers bore fruit and finally, with the help of that great bishop and saint Ambrose, Augustine returned to the Faith he had been baptised in and became one of the greatest Church fathers we have ever had.
Many mothers who find themselves with difficult children, or children who are drifting from or being pulled from the Faith will turn to St. Monica for her support and prayers. My own St. Bridget of Sweden is another saint for wives, mothers and widows, and she too had a son who went off the rails. It is reported that her husband, the good and holy Ulf appeared to her from purgatory to ask for extra prayers. He explained that he was there because he must expiate the sin of having been too lenient a father and allowing his son to head in the direction of serious sin without properly trying to prevent it.
Just as St. John the Baptist died as a witness to marriage, so in many ways did St. Margaret Clitherow. She was married to a protestant who very patiently paid the fines for her Catholic Faith. But she also helped Catholic mothers deliver their babies and get them baptised by hidden priests, including some Jesuits at a time where being a priest was illegal and attending the Sacraments could get you hung.
In the end Margaret was betrayed by a protestant child she had cared for, which is so tragic. She remained loyal to Christ and would not renounce the Faith. Even though she was nine weeks pregnant she and her unborn child were crushed to death.
In the battle between good and evil we so frequently see the good as those who stand firm for the family life God has designed for us and the evil as those who have destroyed their own family in some way and then set out to destroy others too.
Herod killed John because he was right about Herod’s non-marriage. Henry killed Catholics because they were right about his marriage to Catherine and Elizabeth killed her own cousin because she was Catholic. Elizabeth, who was often referred to (rather horribly) as the virgin queen, because she didn’t wed and because people wanted a replacement to Our Blessed Mother the epitome of family, when she had been removed by the insistence of the crown.
When those in power get greedy they always seem to go after the fabric of the family. They will kill wives and mothers for being Catholic, or do all sorts of things to try and undermine the age old teachings of the Church on the sanctity of the family.
Look at any saint story and almost invariably there is something family based about the story. St. John Bosco was supported in his work with orphans and street children by the hard work and care of his mother, St. Therese the Little Flower is so much part of her family that her parents are beatified.
St. John the Baptist may be considered a proto-martyr but his witness was very much about the family, as he pointed to the Bridegroom who had come, who would raise marriage to a Sacrament when He proclaimed, “What God has put together, let no man put asunder.” It seems to me a great shame that so many Christians have ditched the Sacramental nature of marriage and turned it into a simple contract. The Catholic and Orthodox churches have retained the Sacrament and I believe that some parts of Anglicanism have at least some view of the Sacramental nature of marriage as a covenant.
Even more shamefully in Western Catholicism the understanding of the nature of marriage has slipped to such an extent that contraception and abortion are common and divorce levels are at about the same level as for non-believers. We have some serious work to do.