It is not an easy time to be a teenager. Teens today are facing temptations and attacks that even their Millennial siblings never had to worry about. And with every new dire report blasting terrifying numbers about suicide or sexual assault or drug addiction, those of us who love young people can become more and more afraid, more convinced that it’s impossible to get through adolescence unscathed.
But in the Catholic Church, we are never alone. The Father holds us close, of course, and the Holy Spirit courses through our veins while Jesus walks beside us as we climb up Calvary. But the saints go with us, too. Our Mother Mary surrounds us with her love while our path is lined with our baptismal saints, our confirmation saints, and other holy friends we’ve made along the way.
Along with them are saints who know these struggles, saints who’ve suffered or been tempted in ways that leave so many of us feeling isolated and unseen. If your teen is struggling, one of these saints (or saints-to-be) might be just the friend to walk with them and remind them that through the Cross there is joy and peace, healing and freedom, no matter your sin or suffering or shame.
St. Columba Kim Hyo-im (1814-1839) was a survivor of sexual assault. Raised a Catholic in Korea when the Church was severely persecuted, she and her sister St. Agnes had taken a vow of virginity before being arrested for their faith. On the day they were arrested, Columba protested against the way the police were treating her younger sister, insisting that they would gladly submit to their arrest and didn’t need to be abused in the process.
But it was only going to get worse. The sisters were tortured. When they refused to deny their faith, they were stripped naked and their bodies burned and beaten. Then they were thrown—naked—into a cell filled with the worst of the male prisoners.
Mercifully, the two sisters were protected from any further assault as they huddled naked in a prison cell surrounded by criminals. After two days, they were given their clothes and brought before a judge to stand trial for their faith. Columba and Agnes remained strong, though they knew that their faithfulness would cost them their lives.
After the death sentence was handed down, though, Columba had something to say. She asked permission to speak and then described the molestation the two women had endured. “Whether she is the daughter of a noble or a commoner,” she said, and her voice must have been shaking with some mixture of rage and shame and fear, “the chastity of a young woman has the right to be respected. If you want to kill me according to the law of the country, I will willingly accept the punishment. However I do not think it is right to have to suffer insults that are not part of the law and I object to them.”
The judge was outraged to hear that such a thing had happened and ordered those responsible punished. It didn’t change the fate of the sisters, but it shines a light on Columba as a powerful model for those who have suffered sexual assault. St. Columba Kim’s courage in speaking out, her understanding of her own dignity, and her willingness to accuse her assailants make her a formidable intercessor for protection against sexual assault and for courage and healing for survivors.
Ven. Carlo Acutis (1991-2006) doesn’t seem to have had social media, but he was a teenager who used the internet, which makes him a much-needed intercessor for teens today. Carlo grew up in Italy and was devoted to the Eucharist from a young age, attending Mass every day once he made his first communion at seven.
Carlo’s devotion to the Eucharist led to a deep interest in Eucharistic miracles. He began to research when he was 11 years old and asked his parents to take him to visit various sites of Eucharistic miracles. Two and a half years later, he had a catalogue of 136 miracles, complete with accounts of the miraculous occurrence and images.
But Carlo was something of a computer geek as well. He had a talent for working out tech problems and saw the internet as a powerful tool for evangelization—and the perfect venue to share what he had learned about these Eucharistic miracles. With a talent for web design as well as programming, Carlo built a website that is available to this day and an exhibit that continues to travel around the world.
Carlo was an ordinary teen in so many ways, but his deep relationship with Jesus made it possible for him to accept suffering with joy and grace. When he was diagnosed with leukemia, he offered his suffering for the Pope and the Church, and died at only 15. For teens who are trying to be in this world but not of it, to use social media for the glory of God and to avoid the pitfalls of the darker side of the internet, Ven. Carlo Acutis is an indispensible heavenly friend.
St. Mark Ji TianXiang (d. 1900) was an opium addict for the last thirty years of his life. He was born to a Chinese Christian family and became a doctor, treating the poor for free. But he contracted a stomach ailment and treated himself with laudanum, an opiate that was commonly used as a medication. Unfortunately, he became addicted. Again and again he went to confession, but no matter what he tried, he couldn’t break his addiction.
During the 19th century, very little was understood about addiction, so his confessor didn’t realize that Mark wasn’t freely choosing to use opium, that he wanted to turn from this sin but was unable. All the priest could see was that this man kept confessing the same sin. It seemed to him that Mark must be unrepentant, so finally he refused him absolution and told him not to return to confession or communion until he had gotten clean.
In a situation like that, it would have been awfully easy to give up, to walk away from a Church that seemed to be rejecting him. But St. Mark Ji TianXiang loved the Lord and he loved the Church, even though he must have been hurt and discouraged. So he kept showing up. For 30 years. And for 30 years he prayed that he would die a martyr because he was convinced it was the only way he could be saved.
In 1900, the Boxer Rebellion broke out, a movement of Chinese nationalists who were opposed to everything Western, particularly Christianity. When they came for St. Mark and his family, bystanders must have been sure that such a “weak-willed” man would break under torture. But St. Mark asked only that he be killed last so that nobody in his family would have to die alone. Then he went to his death singing the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary, an opium addict who’d been away from the sacraments for 30 years and a saint. For those who struggle with addiction and for those who just feel like outsiders in the Church, St. Mark Ji TianXiang stands as a witness to the power of God’s grace and mercy at work within one who loves him, whatever the obstacles.
St. Mary Magdalen
Sr. Mary Magdalen knew Jesus in an intimate way, but that didn’t stop her from feeling abandoned and alone. She suffered from depression and her mental illness was so severe that she began to despair and was tempted to suicide. For five years, she wrestled with sexual temptation, depression, and suicidal ideations, her prayer life painfully dry even though she was still experiencing visions of Jesus himself. She even found herself ridiculed by the other nuns in her convent because she didn’t quite fit in.
Still, she persisted. She prayed, she trusted. Ultimately (after years), she was set free from the temptation to suicide, but she struggled with mental illness throughout her life. In all this, though, she knew that God was with her, even when she couldn’t feel him. She was never alone.
It is essential for us to remember that mental illness isn’t a result of a lack of faith, nor does coming to know Jesus necessarily alleviate all symptoms. While we may pray for miraculous healing from cancer, we should still seek medical treatment; the same is true of mental illness. Which means not only that we need to get help for our teens who struggle with anxiety and depression and the like, but also that we mustn’t ever believe the lie that only sinners struggle in this way. There are other saints who have been tempted to suicide (including St. Ignatius Loyola and St. Thérèse of Lisieux, both after their conversions). Mental illness is not a spiritual failing. It is important for your teen, and you, to understand that you are not a worse Catholic if you struggle in this way. In fact, you’re in very good company, and St. Mary Magdalen
There is a lot of ugliness in this world, but that’s nothing new. Rather than let ourselves be overwhelmed by the dangers and horrors of this world that our teens are facing, let’s fix our eyes on Jesus surrounded by the cloud of witnesses who’ve gone before. Let’s trust, with the saints interceding, that God will bring good out of all our struggles.