Be a Name Dropper! Familiar and Unfamiliar Saints for June

June 9: St. Ephrem

c. 306–373
Patron Saint of spiritual directors and spiritual leaders
Pre-Congregation canonization
Declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Benedict XV in 1920

Ephrem was born in Nisibis, near Syria’s border with present-day Turkey. At the time of his birth, Nisibis was a diverse city of Syrians, Arameans, Arabs, Greeks, Jews, Parthians, Romans, and Iranians within the Roman Empire. Among the religious beliefs were Judaism, Christianity, and polytheism. Aramaic was commonly spoken and, to a lesser extent, Greek and Latin.

When Ephrem was a boy, Emperor Constantine the Great issued the Edict of Milan, legalizing Christianity throughout the empire. Though Ephrem likely learned the faith at an early age, he failed to practice it. One day when Ephrem was walking through a field and saw a cow, he threw rocks at it, forcing the beast to run. Ephrem pursued the cow, pelting it until the poor animal died. He later denied to the cow’s owner that he had ever seen the animal, a double sin that he would later regret.

Months later, Ephrem was with a shepherd friend. Having had too much to drink, the shepherd lost the flock to thieves or wolves. The shepherd and Ephrem were arrested and imprisoned for stealing the sheep. In prison, an angel visited Ephrem, explaining that though he was innocent of the crime against the sheep, he was not innocent of other crimes, such as the cow’s death. Upon his release two months later, filled with remorse and repentance, Ephrem vowed to turn his life around.

Ephrem asked the local bishop-monk, Bishop (later, Saint) James of Nisibis, for spiritual direction. The bishop took Ephrem under his wing, mentoring him in the ways of monastic life. In northern Syria, monasticism was lived out within the community of believers. The ascetics did penance and prayed devoutly, but they also served the local church community. Ephrem took vows of poverty and celibacy, living in caves and the wilderness, while performing good works in the community.

Over the next forty to fifty years, Ephrem lived an ascetic life of prayer, penance, and service. He was a prolific writer of hymns, poems, biblical commentaries, and homilies. During his lifetime, he composed as many as 400 hymns and 3,000 poems that were tools for catechetics and worship. Some were composed in honor of the sacraments or the Blessed Virgin, while others defended the faith. Over the centuries, he has been referred to as the “Harp of the Holy Spirit.” Ephrem also assisted Bishop James in teaching at the School of Nisibis, an education center in the Syriac Church. 

In 363, after the Persians defeated the Romans, all Christians were expelled from Nisibis. Ephrem settled in Edessa, about 125 miles to the west. There, he taught, wrote, founded a school, and served the community. Ephrem became known as the saint of daily living because he often emerged from solitude to teach people how to live the faith in a practical way. Ordained a deacon, he distributed food to the poor during a famine. When a plague struck, he cared for the sick. In 373, Ephrem contracted the plague and became a martyr of charity.

Pope Benedict XV declared Ephrem a Doctor of the Church in 1920. He is the only Syrian Doctor of the Church and is highly revered in the Eastern Catholic Church and in the Orthodox Church. 

Saint Ephrem, God used you as an instrument to lead many to glorify Him. Please pray that I may become the Holy Spirit’s instrument, giving all my gifts for God’s greater honor and glory. Saint Ephrem, pray for me. Jesus, I trust in You. Amen.

June 19: St. Romuald

c. 951–1027
Invoked for reformation of the Church and monastic life
Canonized by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582

Saint Romuald was born into a noble family in Ravenna, located in modern-day northern Italy. When Romuald was twenty, his father killed a relative in a duel to resolve a conflict over land ownership. Horrified by his father’s actions. Romuald fled to the Benedictine monastery of San Apollinare-in-Classe, just south of Ravenna. After a forty-day retreat of prayer and penance to atone for his father’s sin, Romuald decided to stay and become a monk.

In Romuald’s day, many European monasteries, which had relaxed their emphasis on prayer and had become political in nature, were undergoing reform. While reforms had started at the Monastery of San Apollinare-in-Classe, Romuald lost his temper and lashed out at his fellow monks for their lax lifestyle. Unpopular among the more worldly monks, Romuald received permission from the abbot to move to Venice and live as a hermit under the spiritual direction of another hermit named Marinus. For several years, Romuald lived a strict life of solitude, silence, prayer, and penance and developed his own monastic lifestyle.

Around 978, Romuald and Marinus built a hermitage at the border of France and Spain near the Monastery of Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa. After living a hermit’s life for nearly two decades and possessing a new theological and practical understanding of monasticism, Romuald began traveling across Europe. He founded hermitages and monasteries and provided spiritual direction to existing ones in need of reform. He visited his father, who had repented of his former lifestyle and became a monk himself. Before his father died, Romuald helped him more fully embrace his monastic vocation. Holy Roman Emperor Otto III asked Romuald to become the abbot of Otto’s first monastery, San Apollinare-in-Classe. However, the monks resisted Romuald’s reform efforts so vehemently that he left in frustration within a year.

In 1012, Romauld used donated land in Camaldoli, near Arezzo in Tuscany, to build five hermitages, marking the beginnings of the Camaldolese Hermits of Mount Corona. His new form of monasticism harmonized the silence and solitude of hermits with the shared meals and shared prayer of monks. Over the next fifteen years, Romuald founded several more monastery-hermitages, firmly establishing his new form of monastic life within the broader life of the Church.

The “Brief Rule” that Saint Romuald left his brothers directed them to love their cells, be detached, self-observant, attentive to praying the Psalms, reverent before God, intense in asceticism, and become childlike in their receptivity to grace.

Saint Romuald passed away in the solitude of his cell, a place he referred to as “paradise.” Those who prayed at his tomb reported numerous miracles. One account states that Romuald’s body remained incorrupt and was relocated to Fabriano, Italy, where his order had constructed another monastery. Today, this church is known as Saint Romuald’s.

Saint Romuald, God called you to a glorious vocation as a gift to the Church. You responded generously and left a legacy of holy men. Please pray that I will more fully commit myself to a life of silence, solitude, and prayer in order to discover the beautiful life that will more fully prepare my soul for Heaven. Saint Romuald, pray for me. Jesus, I trust in You.  Amen.

June 20: St. Alban

Saints Stories for All Ages
St. Alban, the first English martyr, was executed during an imperial persecution sometime in the mid-third century. A prominent Roman citizen of the ancient city of Verulamium, he was beheaded on a lovely hill thirty miles north of London. There his namesake church now stands, surrounded by the town of St. Albans.

Alban, while he was still a pagan, hid in his house a certain priest, who was running from the persecutors. He observed his guest engaged in continual prayer and keeping vigil day and night. And prompted by a sudden infusion of divine light, he began to imitate the priest’s example of faith and piety. Gradually instructed by his wholesome admonitions, Alban cast off the darkness of idolatry, and became a sincerely committed Christian. The wicked prince heard that the holy confessor of Christ was concealed at Alban’s house. So he sent some soldiers to make a strict search for him. When they came to the martyr’s house, St. Alban, dressed in the priest’s long coat, immediately presented himself instead of his guest and master, and was led bound before the judge.

Enraged that Alban had substituted himself for the priest, the judge ordered him to profess his faith in the Roman gods. Alban stoutly refused. The judge tried to break the saint’s adamantine will by having him flogged. But the saint endured through every torture, so the official condemned him to death.

Being led to execution, Alban came to a rapidly surging river which ran between the wall of the town and the arena where he was to be martyred. There a multitude had so obstructed the bridge that he would not be able to cross that evening.

St. Alban, eager for his martyrdom, approached the stream. And as he lifted his eyes to heaven, the channel immediately dried up, and he saw that the water had departed and made way for him to pass. The executioner observed this and, moved by divine inspiration, he hastened to meet Alban at the place of execution. Casting down the sword which he had carried ready drawn, he fell at Alban’s feet, and prayed that he might suffer with the martyr or, if possible, instead of him. Alban walked up a hill near the arena. To make it clear to all that his prayer had dried the river, Alban asked aloud that God would give him water and a spring bubbled up at his feet. Then he and his new Christian companion were beheaded.

A beautiful church was built on the site of Alban’s death, where centuries later Bede said, “sick folk are healed and frequent miracles take place to this day.” Even now Alban’s wondrous spirit still seems to linger there. Visitors to St. Alban’s Church report that they sense a near palpable holiness at the place of his martyrdom and are drawn to God in prayer.

June 23: St. Joseph Cafasso

St. Joseph Cafasso’s body was twisted with curvature of the spine. Yet in a society that looked down on the disabled, this shriveled little priest became a successful teacher, preacher, and confessor. His life tells us to value people with physical deformities. And his example signifies hope to all disabled persons.

Ordained in 1833, Joseph Cafasso first became a popular lecturer and then, in 1848, the rector of the church and Institute of St. Francis in Turin, Italy. However, Don Cafasso became best known as a confessor. He had a gift for releasing penitents from scruples. “When we hear confessions,” he wrote, “the Lord wants us to be loving, merciful and fatherly to all.” His friend and biographer John Bosco told this story:

Forty-five hardened criminals had promised to go to confession on the vigil of a feast of Our Lady. But when the day came, none of them would confess his sins. Don Cafasso’s ingenious charity and courage found a way out of the difficulty. With a smile, he approached the biggest and strongest prisoner. Without a word Don Cafasso grabbed his long, “owing beard. Thinking the priest was fooling around, the man said, “Take anything else you like, but leave me my beard!”

“I won’t let you go until you go to confession,” replied Don Cafasso.

“But I don’t want to go to confession,” said the prisoner. “You may say what you like,” said the priest, “but you won’t escape until you confess.”

“I am not prepared,” said the prisoner. “Then I will prepare you,” said Cafasso. If the prisoner had wished, he could have easily freed himself. But whether it was by respect for the priest or by God’s grace, the man surrendered.

He allowed himself to be led to a corner of the room. Don Cafasso sat on a bundle of straw and prepared his friend for confession. Shortly there was a commotion. The prisoner was so moved by Don Cafasso’s exhortation that his sighs and tears almost prevented him from telling his sins. Then he who had been most vehement in refusing to make his confession went to his companions. He told them he had never been so happy in his life. And his experience persuaded them all to go to confession. Over the years Don Cafasso accompanied sixty condemned men to their public executions. His regarded these “hanged saints” as his favorite parishioners.

As a teenager John Bosco idolized Joseph Cafasso, and the two became close friends. Joseph Cafasso died on June 23, 1860, and John Bosco preached at his funeral.

June 28: St. Irenaeus

Irenaeus linked the Church at the time of the twelve apostles and the Church of the second century. He wrote and taught the faith handed on by the apostles and preserved it when it was attacked. His chief concern was unity among the churches. Irenaeus was born about 130 in Smyrna, a port town in western Turkey.

He traveled to Lyons, France, where he was ordained a priest. Eventually, he became its bishop. Irenaeus faced a strong battle against Gnosticism. This heresy claimed that eternal life could be gained only by receiving special knowledge about God, knowledge available to a chosen few. Irenaeus taught that, according to Scripture, God wished all people to be saved and to know the truth. The name Irenaeus means “peace,” and this saint was true to his name.

At one time, a group of Christians in Irenaeus’s homeland did not want to celebrate Easter at the time the Church in Rome had decided. Irenaeus explained to Pope Victor I that this was not a matter of faith. The date for celebrating Easter was an old tradition for these people. His pleading helped the pope decide in their favor. Irenaeus was an important writer and a strong witness to the teaching of the Church as it came from Peter and the other apostles. Perhaps Irenaeus was martyred; we know only that he died in about 200.


June 30: Venerable Pierre Toussaint

No matter who you are or where you are in life, you can love God and love his people. Our saints let us see this clearly, because they come from all walks of life and from all over the world. One such saint is the Venerable Pierre Toussaint, who began his life as a slave.

Pierre was born around 1766 in Haiti, which is about one-third of an island in the Caribbean Sea. At this time, Haiti was one of the wealthiest places on earth. It was owned by the French, who grew rich from the sugar cane grown on the island.

In Haiti, enslaved people from Africa were brought to work the land after disease killed off most of the island’s native peoples. Pierre was a descendent of these African slaves.

In 1793, the slaves in Haiti were getting more and more dissatisfied, and it was clear that war would come soon. The Bérard family, with Pierre as one of their slaves, moved to New York, and soon after they began what they had hoped would be a short stay, rebellion broke out back home. They heard the news that their plantation had been burned to the ground, and Monsieur Bérard died.

Madame Bérard was left without anything and anyone to help her. Except, of course, Pierre.

In New York, Pierre had been training in what you might think of as an unusual job: he’d been learning how to be a hairdresser. In those days, hairdressing was about a lot more than haircuts. If you can remember pictures you’ve seen of ladies during that time, you’ll recall that hairstyles, especially for wealthy women, were very fancy, with hair stacked high, and lots of curls and ribbons hanging from the mountain of hair on their heads. It took skill to put a look like that together. It took time, and it took money. It seems as if Pierre was in just the right profession, after all.

From the time that Monsieur Bérard died, it was Pierre Toussaint who supported the family. He worked for sixteen hours a day, going from home to home, fixing the wealthy women’s hair. The money he earned was enough to support the household until Madame Bérard died. When she died, she gave Pierre his freedom, and now, free of other obligations, Pierre was finally able to marry Juliette, the young woman he loved.

Of course, being a good hairdresser isn’t what makes Pierre Toussaint a saint. During his long life, he was a strong witness to the love of God to all he met. He was completely dedicated to living the virtue of charity.

Pierre spoke of God’s love and the beauty of the Catholic faith to his customers and others, most of whom weren’t Catholic and many of whom didn’t really like Catholics very much. He brought sick people into his home and cared for them. He went into neighborhoods devastated by fevers and plague, places where everyone else was too frightened to go, and brought help to the sick who had often been abandoned by their own families.

Mother Elizabeth Seton—another saint who lived in New York during this time—started an orphanage in 1817. Pierre Toussaint provided a great deal of the support for the orphanage. He gave of his own money and constantly collected donations from his customers.

Pierre and Juliette also were important in the founding of the first New York Catholic school for black children. And they supported a group of black women who were trying to form their own religious order of sisters.

When Pierre Toussaint died in 1853 at the age of eighty-seven, he was well-known in New York City for his love and generosity. The newspapers even carried articles about all he had done for the poor people of New York and how deep his love for God was. In a time when black people were treated badly, were bought and sold as property, and were seen as inferior to white people, it says a great deal about Pierre Toussaint’s holiness and his importance in New York that the newspapers would even mention that he had died, much less offer him great praise!

Yes, the world is a big, busy place full of great need, and we are so small. All of us—grown-ups, too—wonder sometimes whether we can make a difference when we’re just one person and the world is full of so many people who need God’s love. The story of Venerable Pierre Toussaint teaches us to not wonder about such things and to not be discouraged by how the world sees us.

He was born a slave in the world’s eyes, but through the virtue of charity that he shared with all he met, he brought the warmth of God’s love into countless lives. No matter who we are or where we are, no matter how small the world tries to make us feel, we can always and everywhere practice the virtue of charity and share God’s love with everyone in our life.