Writing about the saints

My newest writing project is about the saints. However, I approach it with some fear and concern (as well as excitement) because I’ve read so many badly-written lives of the saints. Hagiography is its own subgenre of biography, and has its own conventions, some of which I disagree with strongly.

It’s hard to write a well-balanced life of a saint. Saints are people who practice virtue to a heroic degree. How do you compare and contrast their ordinariness with their heroism? How can a biographer avoid putting them on a pedestal or idealizing them, without downplaying the truth about their receptivity to the action of God’s grace in their lives?

The Founder of the Pauline Family, Blessed James Alberione, offers some insights about this, and I agree with his approach. Here are just a few excerpts:

“Some people know next to nothing about the saints; the understanding that others have of them is confused, erroneous, and clouded by strange and false prejudices.

“Since human beings are naturally led to admire those persons who distinguish themselves for knowledge and valor, the [writer] should, at the right time and place, point out that the persons most worthy of note are the saints; in other words, persons whose distinguishing mark is virtue.

“The great, in the world’s eyes, often give a picture of humanity encumbered with blemishes, faults and mistakes. The saints, instead, always reflect a…clear and serene light. Their remembrance is immortal and eternal….

“A particular help is to clearly set out Catholic teaching as regards the essence of holiness. Some well-intentioned hagiographers insist and place such emphasis on the humility, obedience and particular virtues of the saints, with such a turn of words, as to make people believe that these are the loftiest virtues of holiness.

“…You cannot go from faith to love without humility and obedience, virtues in which holiness matures. Humility, obedience, mortification are, of themselves, dispositions, a grounding and condition for reaching God. But the peak and essence of holiness is charity, charity towards both God and neighbor.”

Do you agree? What do you look for in a life of a saint? What kinds of saints do you like to read about, and why? I’d love some comments/insights as I get started on this new project.


2 thoughts on “Writing about the saints

  1. When I have from time to time tried to write about a saint – or, as has more often been the case, someone who Catholics admire but who has not yet been canonised – I have tried to do three things.

    1. Tell the story of their life, at least in outline – a mini-biography, if you like.
    2. Try to say something about what they were like as a person, so that readers can have some sort of feel for what it would have been like to meet them. This I have sometimes done by way of an anecdote.
    3. Try to identify and explain their “charism” – ie what aspect of Christian life the person has particularly lived out, or the activity that represents their particular mission in the Church and the world. It is their faithfulness to this mission that is at the origin of their holiness.

    I share your suspicion of hagiography as a literary genre.

    I hope that you will feel able to write about people who have not yet been beatified/canonised.


    • Joe, thank you for your excellent insights! I’m relieved that I am not the only one who is “bothered” by certain kinds of lives of the saints–lives that ignore the saint’s humanity.

      On the other hand, if we want to explore how to live the Gospel, there is no better way than by delving into the life of someone who took seriously a life of holiness.

      And yes, I’m doing a few people who are “on the way” to canonization as well. Thanks again.


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