“The Saints: A Short History”
by Simon Yarrow.
Oxford University Press (New York, 2016).
155 pp., $16.95.
There seems to be an almost endless supply of inspirational, biographical and hagiographical books about saints.
There are dictionaries of saints and classic sources, like Butler’s “Lives of the Saints” and the classic from the late Middle Ages, Jacobus de Voragine’s two-volume “Legenda aurea” (English edition, “The Golden Legend: Readings on the Saints”). In a few cases, saints even wrote books themselves, most notably the Rule by St. Benedict of Nursia, St. Therese of Lisieux’s “Story of a Soul” and St. Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises.
British scholar Simon Yarrow’s book belongs in none of these categories. Rather, it is an academically informed popular historical study of the phenomenon of saints. Yarrow guides the reader on a walk through the world of saints from the crucifixion of Jesus down to the present.
His sources include literature, art and politics, and he enlightens with insights into how churches’ understandings of saints changed with the passing of the centuries. Finally, Yarrow examines characteristics of sainthood including martyrdom, asceticism, virginity, etc.
Bringing his discussion into the 21st century, Yarrow’s book puts the present into perspective in comparison with earlier eras. “One hundred and fifty-eight saints were made between 1846 and 1978,” he writes. “Since then more than a thousand saints have been canonized and a small army of the beatified await promotion to full cult status upon their completion of a second miracle.”
St. John Paul II, Yarrow adds, “was the first great canonizing pope of the modern age. He canonized 483 saints during his pontificate, more than all his predecessors combined.”
“The Saints” is a book to read not so much for inspiration as for information, most of it the result of solid historical research. Some readers, however, may find some of Yarrow’s observations perplexing. One example: “A curious parallel exists between the frequent death of young saints (e.g. St. Aloysius Gonzaga) at the age of 24, and the likes of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse, all known for their early deaths as members of the ’27 Club.'” Yarrow even finds a place in his discussion for, yes, Superman!
Overall, “The Saints” is a captivating study of saints and the saint-making process down through more than 2,000 years. Anyone devoted to a few or many saints would do well to read this book to allow the results of scholarship to nourish an increased maturing to their devotion.
Finley is the author of more than 30 books on Catholic themes, including “What Faith is Not” (Sheed & Ward) and “The Rosary Handbook: A Guide for Newcomers, Old-Timers and Those in Between” (Word Among Us Press).
Join the CatholicPhilly.com family
CatholicPhilly.com works to strengthen the connections between people, families and communities every day by delivering the news people need to know about the Catholic Church, especially in the Philadelphia region, and the world in which we live.
By your donation in any amount, you and hundreds of other people become part of our mission to inform, form in the Catholic faith and inspire the thousands of readers who visit every month.
Here is how you can help:
- A $100 gift allows us to present award-winning photos of Catholic life in our neighborhoods.
- A $50 gift enables us to cover a news event in a local parish, school or Catholic institution.
- A $20 gift lets us obtain solid faith formation resources that can deepen your spirituality and knowledge of the faith.
- A small, automated monthly donation means you can support us continually and easily.
Won't you consider making a gift today?
Please join in the church's vital mission of communications by offering a gift in whatever amount that you can ― a single gift of $40, $50, $100, or more, or a monthly donation. Your gift will strengthen the fabric of our entire Catholic community and sustain CatholicPhilly.com as your trusted news source. Thank you in advance!
Make your donation by credit card here:
Or make your donation by check:
222 N. 17th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19103