Do most male saints have beards? You might think so walking around our Catholic churches. Many of the most recognizable saints and role models carved into marble relief — Peter, Joseph, Augustine, Francis — all have beards and are recognized as distinguished older men.
Sometimes by placing saints on a pedestal (sometimes literally), we forget that saints were ordinary men and women, like us.
This summer, Pope Francis offers us a beardless saint — an ordinary and unusually young person, not yet enshrined in memory or marble. On July 19, Francis announced that he would declare Nunzio Sulprizio, a young Italian man who lived to be 19 years old in the 1820s, a saint. The canonization will take place during #Synod18, an international gathering of bishops and church leaders this October that will focus on how the Church can journey with our generation.
So who was this young man, and why is he saint?
Nunzio Sulprizio had a hard life. He was born in Italy in 1817 and lost both his parents as an infant. His grandmother raised him, but she died when he was only nine. After teenage years spent doing hard labor with his uncle, he got a painful infection in his leg and spent much of his life suffering in a hospital before he died in 1826 at the age of 19. What set Nunzio apart was how he accepted the constant suffering he faced in patience and peace, trusting in God and becoming an example to others.
When the Church declared him ‘blessed’ in 1963 (a step on the road to being identified as a saint), then Pope Paul VI said that “Nunzio Sulprizio will tell you that the period of youth should not be considered the age of free passions, of inevitable falls, of invincible crises, of decadent pessimism, of harmful selfishness. Rather, he will rather tell you how being young is a grace.”
Where were you at age 19? As we look back at our youth, we can be tempted to see those teenage and college years as the good old days, carefree, without responsibility or consequences. A period of wild nights and fun mistakes that everyone should go through before the real world takes over and we settle into a more boring life, day after day.
For Nunzio, his youth wasn’t about chasing new experiences or awaiting a boring life to come, but about living each day, often filled with suffering, with extraordinary love, and with grace. He didn’t delay greatness until he was older, but discovered it in the midst of his daily life, including his suffering.
Like Nunzio, we young people today are no strangers to suffering — debt, unemployment, immigration, addiction, etc. When we are faced with pain, we can choose to internalize it — trying to mask it with an Instagram filter or with something that can numb the pain — or throw it onto others in a show of frustration or anger.
Nunzio faced more than enough suffering by age 19 but instead of burying it or lashing out, he gave it over to God. Offering his suffering to God was not about getting rid of his suffering, but allowing God to walk with him in it.
Walking the journey of suffering with God, he learned that there is grace in the midst of suffering and joy even in the midst of death. This is the message of Jesus that Nunzio followed. He didn’t blame others or pass along His suffering. Instead, he offered His life for others.
By recognizing Nunzio as a saint, Pope Francis reminds us that we are not made for a boring life or an overly filtered Instagram page. We are made to do great things, even if it requires sacrifice.
As Pope Francis challenges us, “The Lord asks everything of us, and in return he offers us true life, the happiness for which we were created. He wants us to be saints and not to settle for a bland and mediocre existence.”
God wants to do something amazing in our lives but we don’t have to wait to accept that invitation until we’re older. God wants us to be saints today, like Nunzio, by striving to live every moment of life with love and grace, even when it requires suffering or sacrifice.
Each of us can start today by allowing our awareness of God’s love to transform our everyday challenges and frustrations — conversations with co-workers, daily social media posts, or feelings of anger or disappointment.
Having a beard isn’t a prerequisite for sainthood. What makes the saints great is not being wise in their years. Sometimes saints look like us. Just ask Nunzio.