A few weeks ago I was loaned a little book outlining the life of Blessed Francis Seelos. Especially readers in South Louisiana will recognize the name as the 19th century Bavarian priest who served approximately one year in New Orleans before succumbing to yellow fever. Many healings are attributed to him. He was beatified in 2000 by the previous Pope.
I expected the book, A Life of Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos by authors Carl W. Hoegerl, CSsR, and Alicia von Stamwitz (Liguori Press), to be a typical hagiographical account of a local holy man prepared for the benefit of his cause for canonization. In fact, the book is constructed exactly as the typical vita sancti: a childhood punctuated with unmistakable intervention of and interaction with the Divine, adulthood defined by still more intense religious experiences, a death with a religious cheerfulness, followed by an epilogue of attributed miracles and experiences by witnesses included to support the previous story. The first half of the short biography and well into the beginning description of Seelos’ life as a religious include material from every other vita ever written: visions of the BVM, dream interpretations, accounts of persons who claim to have witnessed the subject levitating in prayer. Nothing new under the sun. These bio’s are often very formulaic and predictable: instant hagiography, just insert name.
On the other hand, there is something very real and special about this particular vita. I’ve read my share of saints’ lives, and even prepared the first English translation, Latin analysis, and commentary of one (St. Emmeram of Poitiers – The work is in the Fulbright College Honors Thesis Library in Fayetteville, if you’re interested). Whereas the majority of saints’ lives leave me in the cold, closing the book with a “yeah, sure, whatever” attitude, this particular account carried with it a certain “realness”, despite its traditional construction. There was something more here than just the same old visions of Mary, the floating up off the floor, the reclining in extasy, I had a dream of orchards…etc., etc., etc. Humdrum, here we go again with the saint business. Topos. Pure topos. But wait. There’s something here besides all that. Brush all that aside as we find a real, flesh-and-blood man, a sincere, real worker for the kingdom that is usually omitted from most vitae. The super-human stylite-ascetic-visionary, sundance-witness, hermit-living-only-off-a-communion-host-in-a-cave-delivered-by-a-spotless-virgin he ain’t. Here is a man whose sainthood, official or not, is plain and simple, discernable from his own human action -- the care he showed to his fellow humans, parishioners, students, and confreres. I’m not impressed by visions of the Jungfrau, by mystical dreams, or even by accounts of levitation. Tell me some more news.
The authors made me think that they themselves knew that most readers of vitae find such literature predictable, trite, and cliché. Just add the name. As a child, Seelos’ mother read him the story of Francis Xavier who had a fervent desire to become a missionary. According to the account, Seelos forshadowed his own missionary career by exclaiming “I want to be a Francis Xavier”. The author is quick to observe that were this a typical hagiographical text, young Frank should have exclaimed “I want to be a Liguori!”. Catty comment, that, but dead on. Kudos to the authors for pointing a satirical finger at their own genre and promising something different. Well, they delivered.
After we sift through all the necessary ingredients (I’ve already outlined those), we see the man emerge. The real, human saint. He was a happy, playful person, known for his good sense of humor, effective and animated preaching, and intense concern for his fellow man. He was upset by injustice and sought to make it right. He failed to be shaken by rumors – that’s not to say he mystically lived “above rumors” – his having visited a dying prostitute at her bedside attests to that. “Just let the fellows gossip”, he said, by whom, I assume from the text, he meant his fellow priests – no big surprise: they “hear things”, you know. Seelos didn’t care. He saved a soul.
Seelos loved the Church, and he was deeply grieved when souls were forced away from the Church and the Sacraments by the actions of rogue priests. Seelos gave the Church a human face, a Christ-like face, a shepherd’s face. He did not stand as a stony brocade and lace draped authoritarian eager to exercise his ordination-given “right” to chide, to damn to hell. He was eager to hear confession and to grant absolution and show mercy. He did not find a gleeful enjoyment in casting a soul into hell and cutting him off from God. Christ did not do this. Seelos mentions the woman caught in adultery described in Holy Scripture. Mercy. The authors include Seelos’ scorn for such priests who find enjoyment in tormenting the faithful: “The priest who is rough with the people does injury to himself and to others. He sins, at least in ignorance…and he scandalizes all who see him and hear him…Thousands reject the Church and the sacraments and perish in eternity solely because they have been badly treated by a priest.”
A human saint for humans. A caretaker of souls. A shepherd. A little Christ. This is who is described to us here. Not some pompous cleric searching the “good life” in material ways from the Church. Seelos came from humble beginnings and remained a humble priest serving others, pushing himself to physical exhaustion. He often even slept in his clothes, on the ready, should a sick call come in. He was no queeny “Don’t bother me while I’m in my private chapel” dandy. Seelos saw Christ, yes, in the sacrament, but he saw Christ most clearly in others and showed Christ to others by his actions. Scripture reminds us “By their fruits shall ye know them”. So true. It doesn’t take a saint to see that. Seelos wasn’t looking for fame, not for glory, not for position. He strove to be holy. He didn’t seek to catch the attention of his superiors for his creative bookkeeping, his extravagant renovations, his self-indulgence in material gain. He worked, rather, for the kingdom of God, which isn’t of this world. The authors conclude this excellent biography with this important lesson for priests and faithful alike:
“The Church tells us that Blessed Francis practiced the Christian virtues in an heroic degree, but what are the heroics? There aren’t any. That’s the message of his life. Father Seelos tells us that you do not have to do the things that the world in general, or showtime, says are great and heroic. All you have to do is live your life, as God has ordained it for you, in the best way you know how and every day…The heroics consist in doing it all the time and to please God. That’s the way Father Seelos did it. He was just a simple priest who every day of his life tried to be holy, tried to do God’s will wherever that might lead him, tried to do what he could for others, especially the most needy. He tried to be like Jesus all the time. And because he did this, he was happy, very happy, always happy.”
Two thumbs up for this book. Pick up a copy at your local bookshop. On my next trip to the Crescent City, I plan a stop off at the Seelos sites. I know it will be worth the trip.