This is part one of a four-part series on biographies of saints that best portray…
Biographies of saints that get it right: Part 2
This is part two of a four-part series on biographies of saints that best portray their lives.
|Don’t miss out on part one of the series to learn about two great biographies on Sts. Maximilian Kolbe and Teresa of Calcutta.|
It is difficult to write about the saints. Their biographers face the twin dangers of reducing their subjects to a mere biography or of sapping their subjects in pious drivel. When biographers get it right, though, the saints come alive to inspire and challenge those who meet them in and through these biographies.
In this second installment in a series on saint biographies, we look to two modern works about two medieval reformers: “Catherine of Siena” by Sigrid Undset and “St. Philip Neri: I Prefer Heaven” by Giacomo Campiotti (director) and Mario Ruggeri (screenwriter).
Catherine of Siena
Those already familiar with Sigrid Undset’s work, especially from her majestic Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy, know that her skill in painting scenes is unrivaled. When Undset sets her gaze upon 14th-century Siena, the setting she brings to life is as vivid as it is complex.
“Life was like a brightly colored tissue,” Undset writes, “where violence and vanity, greed and uninhibited desire for sensual pleasure, the longing for power, and ambition, were woven together in a multitude of patterns. But through the tissue ran silver threads of Christian charity, deep and genuine piety in the monasteries and among the good priests, among the brethren and sisters who had dedicated themselves to a life of helping their neighbors.”
There and then is where Undset finds and reveals the singular figure of Catherine of Siena: a veritable spool of the silver thread of charity; a woman with the power to renew the Church and therefore the world. Undset’s biographical work is about more than this one resplendent figure; it is about an entire culture. Actually, it is about multiple cultures: the one into which Catherine was born, the one that she herself generated within the shell of the old, and the one in which we, Undset’s readers, find ourselves immersed.
The best biographies of saints make the saints come alive today without drenching them in anachronisms. Catherine of Siena did not walk the earth in the 20th or 21st centuries, but she did weave threads of holiness and sacrifice that are as needed and relevant today as they were in her own time and place. Undset shows us that St. Catherine was an unrepeatable saint of her own time, who is also a saint reaching our time: a saint who is always in season.
Over 29 chapters and more than 300 pages, Undset schools her readers in the surprising relationship between saints and culture. As an expert novelist, Undset knows how to put her subject into a distinctive time and place, and how to bring her readers along with her into that world.
With Catherine as her subject, readers are treated to a vision of how the enduring genius of this particular Tuscan saint was a seed of renewal for an entire culture. But the distinctive quality that Undset detects and displays regarding Catherine is that her relationship to culture cannot be adequately explained without an appeal to the mystery of the Church, and in particular the unique society of which the saints are members. In other words, Undset sees that Catherine’s relationship to the world is founded upon her ripening membership in the Communion of Saints. This foundational membership frees Catherine to love the world aright, with all the responsibilities and privileges that belong to Christ’s holy ones.
Undset writes: “This is the economy of the society of the blessed: just as the rewards of the blessed are collected in the treasure-houses of the Church, so that every poor and infirm soul may have its share of this treasure, so in a mysterious way the sins of the faithful impoverish the whole of Christendom. Our generation, which has seen how the horrors of war and the concentration camps have fallen alike on the guilty and on those who by human reckoning were the most guiltless, should find it easier than our forefathers, with their naive belief in personal success as a reward for personal service, to understand the dogma of the Church that we all have our share in the rewards of all the saints and the guilt of all sinners.”
This theological astuteness alongside its novelistic imagery is what sets Undset’s biography of Catherine of Siena apart from others. For those who are becoming acquainted with Catherine for the first time, there is plenty of biographical information to let you know who she is and why she matters. What new acquaintances and longtime devotees of Catherine will reap together, though, are new seeds of contemplation regarding one of the most powerful women in history who, even when frail, drew all her power from Christ. Everything that is breathtaking, challenging and beautiful in Catherine is, in the end, a radiance of the unending mystery of Christ’s divine charity in human flesh.
“We only know [your saints] as the blind know colors, and the deaf, melodies,” Undset says, quoting Catherine’s spiritual director and first biographer, Blessed Raimundo of Capua. “But in our attempts not to be entirely ungrateful we ponder over and admire the great gifts of grace which you give so generously to your saints, and to the best of our ability to offer our poor thanks to your majesty.”
Here Undset comes close to divulging the inspiration for her own biography. Hers is a work of admiration and of gratitude: admiration in terms of seeing the reflection of divine glory first from a distance, and then gratitude as the gift of that vision blooms into the joy of receiving more from God’s holy one than could ever be explained.
St. Philip Neri
All accounts of St. Philip Neri converge on one seemingly undeniable fact: This man’s personality was unrepeatable. It was a personality that made crowds flock to him; young people entrusted themselves to him, grown men followed his counsel without hesitation, popes and cardinals confessed their sins to him with regularity, and downtrodden sinners changed their lives. Pope St. John Paul II simply called him the “saint of joy.” It is all but impossible to represent joy in a biography, and so every testament to Philip Neri is bound to come up short, because no matter how many words are said about him, nothing can substitute for his joyful presence. Still, many worthy and even great biographies of this saint do exist. The best classic account is likely Antonio Gallonio’s “The Life of St. Philip Neri.” The best modern book is Paul Türks’s “Philip Neri: The Fire of Joy.” And the best sermon about the saint is John Henry Newman’s The Mission of St. Philip Neri. But among all of these, the closest one gets to the real joy of the man who is hailed as “the second apostle of Rome” may not be from a book at all, but rather from the film “I Prefer Heaven.”
This film is long — 3 hours and 20 minutes — and in Italian with English subtitles, which would ordinarily be two strikes against enjoyment for most people. And yet — if I may appeal to a personal anecdote — my children stayed glued to the film as I watched it in our living room. Afterwards, one of them said, “I like that guy,” and another said, “He’s really funny.” Likability and humor are indicators of the joy Neri possessed and exuded, which, in this case, reached through a screen to a 5-year-old and an 11-year-old. “I Prefer Heaven” gives viewers a sense of what every other biography attests: This man of joy had an unrepeatable personality.
What you see and feel in the film is that Neri took himself lightly and took heaven seriously. Like the best humorists, he could see reality for what it is and point out the irony or outright absurdity of a given situation. When others heaped praise on him, he made himself the center of a joke so as to look ridiculous. By doing so, he restored right perspective. But his mission was no laughing matter: He did nothing less than reform the Church, which was rotting from its foundation in his adopted home of Rome.
There is more to say about, learn from and emulate in St. Philip Neri than a 3-hour film ever could capture. Nevertheless, “I Prefer Heaven” offers something that other biographies struggle to express: his likability and humor in living color. The film may be either a fitting introduction to the life of the saint, or a joyful immersion into a new kind of representation of the saint’s personality — a representation that, though inherently limited, still produces a delightful affect in the eye and heart of the viewer.
Leonard J. DeLorenzo, Ph.D., serves in the McGrath Institute for Church Life and teaches theology at the University of Notre Dame. His book on the theology of the communion of saints is “Work of Love” (University of Notre Dame Press, 2017).