Getting to Know Lesser-Known Saints

by Bob Burnham

Many people know St. Francis of Assisi, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, and St. Ignatius of Loyola. And then there are the Evangelists and Apostles; a person can’t read the Gospel without getting to know them. But how many people have heard of St. Teresa Margaret Redi? Or St. Paul Le-Bau-Tinh? And who are the North American Martyrs we remember with St. Isaac Jogues?

While it’s easy to find information about saints like Francis, Thérèse, and Ignatius, there are hundreds of lesser-known saints about whom we know very little. I was once asked by a catechist friend what I knew about St. Expeditus. (She had a student who wanted to take Expeditus as his Confirmation name.) It was a very short conversation.

As difficult as it can be, I like to spend time getting to know these lesser-known brothers and sisters of our faith. Here’s how I’ve done so.

  1. Recognize the limitations. First, admit that there will not be a lot of information about the lesser-known saints. After all, one reason saints like Francis, Ignatius, and Thérèse are well-known is because they left a lot of footprints in the form of writings, legends, and witness. Second, recognize that for a lot of lesser-known saints, especially those who lived early in the history of the Church, what we know comes from oral legends and traditions surrounding them. Hagiography is not biography.
  2. Look for inspiration, not information. Whenever I do research about a saint, the only question that needs to be answered is, “How does this person help me be more like Christ?” That question frees me from the concerns that historians and biographers would have. When I write about the saints, I’m clear-eyed in understanding that I’m not writing a biography. I’m trying to learn little lessons that will help me live the Gospel.
  3. Consult as many sources as possible. I never settle on a single source. I’m lucky that I have easy access to sources like Butler’s Lives of the Saints, which is a gold standard for me. Find trusted websites, and look for whatever sources are cited by them.
  4. Study the saint’s charism. Religious orders and congregations love to talk about the people who have helped add to their charisms. I have found tons of great information by searching the sites of religious orders and congregations. These sites also offer insight about the charism that influenced the saint, if the saint being researched is one who was in religious life or closely associated with an order or congregation.

When I was asked about St. Expeditus, I asked my friend why her faith-formation student wanted Expeditus for his Confirmation name. “Well,” she told me, “he said that St. Expeditus is the patron saint of procrastinators, and that he’s always putting things off until the last minute.” I spent some time researching St. Expeditus. The only thing I learned for certain was that his name was listed among Roman martyrs since the early days of the Church, but his popularity exploded in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. An apocryphal story told by a German poet named Christian Morgenstern has a group of nuns assigning the name “Expeditus” to some remains they received in a crate marked “expedite.” Since St. Expeditus was listed among the Roman martyrs, I told my catechist friend that she could rest easy about the young man’s name choice. St. Expeditus was inspiring the young man to improve himself. That’s why we learn about the saints.

When we take the time to learn about the lesser-known saints, we are blessed with a glimpse of how vast and universal the Catholic Church is. Holiness isn’t reserved for the giants of our faith, because holiness isn’t a popularity contest. The lesser-known saints can help us see the infinite number of ways people throughout history have modeled holiness, and that can make it easier for us to believe that we can model holiness for others too.

Image credit: Saint Expeditus. Oil painting by a painter of Palermo, 19th century. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY 4.0.

 Bob Burnham

Bob Burnham

Bob Burnham is a Secular Franciscan, spiritual director, and catechist.

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