As an unrepentant history geek, I’ve often wondered about the less than saintly descendants of saints. Sometimes we don’t have to wonder, because the saints’ relationships with their immediate families are part of what demanded their heroic virtue.
Venerable Cornelia Connelly (1809-1879) was the wife of a Protestant minister who decided to convert to Catholicism and become a Catholic priest. There being no dispensation from celibacy in those days, Cornelia, who entered the Church with her husband, Pierce, had to agree to enter religious life so he could be ordained. She did so wholeheartedly, even though it meant giving up her marriage. Her husband, on the other hand, eventually left the Church, took the couple’s children away from Cornelia and poisoned them against their mother. He also tried suing Cornelia in anti-Catholic England to force her to return to him as his wife. Cornelia’s perseverance in her vocation to the religious life found its greatest testing thanks to her family.
But what about saints a few generations removed from their less than saintly relatives? It’s not hard to imagine St. Louis IX, from his heavenly perch, praying strenuously for the conversion of notorious descendants such as his profligate successors, Louis XIV and Louis XV, whose wild excesses and spiritually bankrupt reigns were responsible for the atheistic French Revolution that nearly tore France from the Church and from which, from a religous perspective, the country has never fully recovered.
Something I did not know until just today, when I was surfing through online Catholic history pages, is that St. Louis himself was the direct descendant of a rather notorious royal couple, not French but English. St. Louis’ mother, Blanche of Castile, was the granddaughter of Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine—making St. Louis the great-grandson of the king responsible for the martyrdom of St. Thomas à Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury whose showdown with Henry II is often considered to have set the stage for the later showdown between Henry VIII and St. Thomas More.
It is not hard to see that grace is not passed along the family tree with eye color and hand dominance. It is a gift that each generation must be given directly by God and must work with to grow in Christian virtue. That is the reason for the old saying “God has no grandchildren.” He is Father to all.
In reading about the family tree of St. Louis of France, though, I think it’s also fair to say that God also has no grandfathers. God’s work in a person’s life is not dependant on who the person’s ancestors were. Certainly nature and nurture play their part in making a person receptive to grace. St. Therese of Lisieux said of her parents, Blesseds Louis Martin and Zelie Martin, “God has given me a father and mother more worthy of heaven than of earth,” but she didn’t ride into heaven on the robes of their sanctity. She had to become a saint herself.
I recently read an interesting article by a therapist who works with children who suffer emotional disorders similar to those of Adam Lanza, the young man who murdered his mother and then killed over two dozen others, mostly children, at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. The therapist makes some good points, and I certainly defer to her greater knowledge and training in mental health. But I kept thinking that something was missing. Not every child who bonds poorly with his parents and grows up feeling unloved does what Adam Lanza did. There may be some biological flaw at work, but even then children can and do surmount incredible physical disabilities. If a child has the use of reason, then there must also be something spiritual at work.
Blaise Pascal once wrote “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any created thing but only by God.” St. Augustine defined evil as the absence of some necessary good. What makes us saints in every generation is to always seek to fill all the holes in our lives—no matter their origin or cause—with God.
For Thou hast made us for Thyself and our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee (St. Augustine).