You don’t have to be a good student to be holy
In her book, The Shepherd Who Didn’t Run, on the life of Fr. Stanley Rother, America’s first declared martyr, María Ruiz Scaperlanda details how poor scholarship, possibly stemming from a learning disability, almost derailed Rother’s ordination. There’s a beautiful prayer for struggling students to Saint Joseph Cupertino, another famously weak theologian, and it got us thinking about how God uses the sublimely brilliant, like Aquinas and Augustine, as well as everyday folks who do not feel called to be scholars, for his divine purposes.
For instance, look at these three saints who failed numerous academic examinations, but continue to influence thousands of lives through their example:
Saint John Vianney – Born to peasant farmers, the future Curé d’Ars felt called to the priesthood at a young age, but was prevented from going to school because of the French Revolution. After tensions died down in France, Vianney enrolled in a local school but struggled with the curriculum even though he was the oldest in his class. He was constantly teased for his ignorance; once a younger student made fun of him because he couldn’t answer a question and punched him in the face. That student was Mathias Loras, who ended up becoming friends with Vianney and later became the first bishop of Dubuque, Iowa.
Eventually Vianney was allowed to study in seminary, but was considered “too slow” by his instructors. After Vianney failed an examination the seminary rector said, “John-Baptist, the professors do not find you fit for sacred ordination to priesthood. Some of them have called you an ass knowing nothing of theology. How can we promote you to the reception of the sacrament of priesthood?” Vianney famously responded, “Monsignor, Samson killed one hundred Philistines with the jawbone of an ass. What do you think God could do with a whole one?”
Vianney was ordained a priest on account of his holiness and went on to become one of the greatest parish priests ever known. Pope Benedict XVI even named him “patron of all priests.”
Saint Bernadette Soubirous – Born to a family of millers, Bernadette was hired out at a young age as a shepherdess due to economic difficulties. This allowed little time for study and prevented her from learning her catechism. At the age of 14 Bernadette still had not received her First Communion and struggled with reading. One of her teachers, Jean Barbet, said about her: “Bernadette has difficulties retaining the words in Catechism which she cannot study because she does not know how to read.”
Our Lady appeared to Bernadette — this girl without any theological knowledge who had not received her First Communion — and said to her, “I am the Immaculate Conception.” This is what convinced the local pastor that the apparitions were real, for the illiterate Bernadette could never have conceived of that theological dogma on her own accord.
Bernadette would go on to live a hard life, but she persevered in holiness and simplicity. She is one of the few saints whose body is incorrupt, a sign of special graces, and thousands of pilgrims flock to the apparition site in Lourdes each year.
Venerable Solanus Casey – Born to Irish immigrant farmers in Wisconsin, Solanus Casey received very little education growing up and, after feeling a call to the priesthood, entered a high school seminary in Milwaukee at the age of 21. However, Casey wasn’t able to keep up with the classes, which were taught in German and Latin. He was advised to join a religious order, where he could be ordained a simplex priest. This meant he would not be able to hear confessions or preach.
He was admitted into the Capuchin Order, but continued to struggle in seminary. His superiors agreed that he should be ordained a simplex priest because of his lack of studies and general ignorance, and they assigned him the post of porter, or doorkeeper — one of lowest tasks in the community. However, Casey believed it was a great blessing and took his responsibilities as a porter very seriously, listening to everyone who came to the monastery. His reputation of holiness spread and Casey was transferred to a different monastery to get away from the crowds who came to him. They soon found out where he was stationed and started to come by the busloads.
Even though he was a doorkeeper for most of his life, Casey was revered for his holiness, and many miracles have been attributed to his intercession.
The lives of these three saints reveal to us that God’s grace is not reserved to the theologian or scholar. In fact, God often uses those who are the weakest to bring about the greatest good. Everyone is called to be a saint and God will use our faults or handicaps for the spreading of his Gospel.