Sins of the saints

Augustine was not the only saint to have ‘once been a great sinner’. Beyond the hagiographies many lived lives of great scandal.

When Catholics discuss saints who were once great sinners, the first one that comes to mind is St Augustine of Hippo. And for good reason: as a teenager Augustine abandoned the Catholic faith in which he had been raised by his mother, St Monica, moved in with a mistress, and together they had a son out of wedlock.

Catholics who are well read in the Fathers of the Church might mention St Jerome, the linguist and translator who gave us the Vulgate Bible, and who was also the most thin-skinned, short-tempered and cantankerous of the Doctors of the Church.

After that, the conversation is likely to peter out, because for generations well-meaning parish priests have presented all the other saints as just so, well, saintly.

And that is not helpful for all of us who are wrestling with venial and mortal sins pretty much on a daily basis.

It was not always thus. In the early centuries of the Church and all through the Middle Ages, writers were perfectly candid about saints who initially were far from saintly.

It is from these ancient sources that we learn of St Mary of Egypt trolling the streets of Alexandria for new sexual conquests and St Olaf’s imperfect understanding of how to convert a nation.

Without minimising the seriousness of Augustine’s sins, or dismissing how unpleasant it must have been to be on the receiving end of a tongue-lashing from Jerome, compared to other sinners-turned-saints, Augustine and Jerome were underachievers.

So how did we go from candor to the sanitised stories of the saints we have heard since childhood? We can blame it on writers of the 19th century (or perhaps earlier), who went out of their way to gloss over the more embarrassing years of their lives with the phrase “he/she was once a great sinner”. When I was a kid and I ran across that phrase, I couldn’t help thinking, “I wonder what he did”. I don’t doubt the hagiographers’ good intentions, but it was misguided to edit out the wayward years of a saint’s life. Continue reading



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