Brother and Sister Saints
For better or for worse, siblings often have great influence on one another. I experienced this in growing up with seven siblings. Though I love them all, I am ever grateful toward my only sister. She helped me shop for clothes, sent me care-packages in college, and laughed at my jokes. Most importantly, she’s been an excellent example and friend. While sibling saints are relatively common, brother and sister saints are less so. This article considers three sets of brother and sister saints and their influence on one another.
Saints Benedict and Scholastica (c. 480-543)
Pope St. Gregory the Great fortunately preserved the lives of these holy siblings in his Dialogues. He relates that they were born as twins in Nursia (modern-day Norcia), Umbria. The parents belonged to the nobility and provided the children with a good education and devout home, as Scholastica had been "consecrated to the Almighty Lord from the time of her childhood."
Around the year 500, Benedict traveled to Rome to complete his studies. However, the general decadence of the city caused him to seek a quieter life in Effide (Alfile). From there he moved to a cave in Subiaco to live as a hermit. Eventually, he attracted followers, whom he organized into a community. He gave them a rule to order their daily life on Monte Cassino. This was the cradle of the Benedictine Order. Scholastica became a nun in Plumbariola, several miles from the Monte Cassino Abbey.
Benedict and his sister cherished a close friendship. Once a year, she came to visit her brother at a house just beyond the monastery gate. “They spent the whole day in the praise of God and in holy conversation,” says Gregory. Together they prayed, ate, and conversed on sacred subjects till nightfall. Indeed, the conversation was so engrossing that time vanished like a summer breeze. Scholastica made a humble request of her brother: “I beg you, please do not leave me this night; let us go on until morning talking about the delights of the spiritual life.” Of greater pragmatism, Benedict protested, “Sister, what are you saying? I simply cannot stay outside my cell!”
The Heavens Respond
As they conversed, the sky was calm and clear. Despite her brother’s refusal, Scholastica was not discouraged. Such was her love for Benedict and confidence in God that she sprang into action. She joined her hands on the table and plunged into God. As she raised her head from the table, great peals of thunder broke the silence. The heavens opened to such a torrential downpour, that neither Benedict nor his brethren could step beyond the threshold.
“May God forgive you, sister!” he complained, “What have you done?” “Well,” she answered, “I asked you, and you would not listen; so I asked my God and he did listen. So now, go off if you can, leave me and return to your monastery.” Her saintly brother had no choice but to stay and continue their lively exchange till dawn. St Gregory notes that Scholastica obtained more because of her greater love. Benedict learned a valuable lesson from his twin sister: in the eyes of God, love often takes precedence over common sense.
Three days later, Benedict saw his sister’s soul ascending to the heavens as a dove. He sent some of his monks to bring her body back that he might place it in the tomb he had prepared for himself. About forty days later, Benedict himself died and the monks placed his body in the same tomb. “So it happened to these two,” says St Gregory, “whose minds had ever been united in the Lord, that even in the grave their bodies were not separated.”
Sts. Willibald (700-781), Winebald (702-761), and Walburga (710-779)
These three English siblings were likewise born into nobility. Their father, St. Richard the Pilgrim, went on an extended pilgrimage to Italy with Willibald and Winebald. Unfortunately, their father became ill and died in Lucca. After burying their father, the brothers journeyed on to Rome where they were infected with the Plague of Justinian. Happily, while one was bedridden, the other had strength enough to act as nurse; thus, by caring for each other they gradually regained full health.
After Winebald’s recovery, he joined a monastery in Rome. Willibald, on the other hand, traveled with two companions to Palestine and other countries. Upon his return, he joined the monastery at Monte Cassino. Several years later, the brothers met again in unique circumstances. St. Boniface, the so-called Apostle of Germany, was their uncle and likewise a native Englishman. Pope Gregory III charged him to evangelize Germany. Through the recommendation of Boniface, the Pope also sent the two brothers there as missionaries.
The Brothers Meet Again
On separate occasions, Uncle Boniface ordained the brothers to the priesthood. In the course of his travels, Willibald met Winebald in Thuringia and remained as a guest in his house. It had been eight and a half years since they last saw each other. A contemporary account says, “They were glad to see each other and congratulated one another on their meeting.” Boniface visited them and made Willibald the bishop of Eichstätt. As bishop, Willibald founded the double-monastery of Heidenheim (Würtemburg). A double-monastery was more common in the Middle Ages. It involves monks and nuns living separately on the same monastic property but sharing the same liturgical life.
Before St. Richard began his pilgrimage with his sons, he entrusted Walburga to the nuns of Wimborne Abbey, Dorset. She was eleven years old at the time and remained with the community for 26 years. When St. Boniface sought to establish convents in Germany, he summoned Walburga. She crossed the Channel with a number of other nuns, eager to see her brothers again.
Indeed, their family reunion was a joyous occasion. Bishop Willibald realized the unique gifts of his siblings and asked Walburga to govern the nuns of Heidenheim and Winebald to direct the monks. Winebald remained abbot for about twenty years. As he was dying, his two siblings came to his side. Walburga then became the abbess of both houses. Because of her excellent education by the nuns of Wimborne, she wrote a biography of her brother Winebald in Latin. As a result, she’s considered the first female author of both Germany and England.
Saints Francisco (1908-1919) and Jacinta de Jesus Marto (1910-1920)
Unlike the preceding saints, these two siblings were neither well born nor highly educated. They were poor shepherd children from Aljustrel, Portugal and are presently the youngest non-martyr saints canonized by the Catholic Church. This ceremony took place on May 13, 2017 in Fátima, Portugal. These siblings experienced several remarkable visions along with their cousin, Lucia de Santos.
Heaven Visits Earth
The first vision occurred in 1916, as the three tended their family’s sheep. A beautiful angel appeared to them saying, “Do not be afraid. I am the angel of peace. Pray with me.” He taught them this prayer: “My God, I believe, I adore, I hope, and I love you. I ask pardon for those who do not believe, do not adore, do not hope, and do not love you.” This same angel visited twice more during the year. He taught them additional prayers and asked them to perform certain ascetical practices. These penances were evidently in preparation for more spectacular apparitions coming in 1917.
In May of 1917, as the children tended the flocks, they built a small playhouse from sticks and rocks. Suddenly, there was a bright flash of light in the clear blue sky. They thought it was lightning. They went on playing and when it occurred again, they stood up and gazed with wonder: a sizable orb of light descended to rest above an evergreen bush. The orb of light enclosed a beautiful young woman dressed in white. The children drew near and the Lady bid them not to be afraid. She asked them to come back on the thirteenth day of the next six months.
An Angel of Peace
Francisco and Jacinta’s Character
Why did the Lady choose these children to convey her message? After all, they seem so ordinary at first glance. Only with time does their uniqueness emerge. According to the memoirs of Lucia, who later became a nun, Jacinta had a very sweet and vivacious disposition; she could also be quite pouty and a little possessive. She had a good singing voice and a gift for dancing.
Unlike Jacinta’s personality, Francisco was quiet and placid. If he lost at a game or had something taken from him, he displayed genuine indifference. He preferred to play the flute rather than dance. Their qualities were complementary, with each perfecting the other unwittingly. Francisco’s calm strengthened Jacinta, while Jacinta’s chirpiness infused new life into Francisco.
They were also enamored of the natural world around them: the sunset, moon, and stars filled their young souls with sparkling wonder. Nature bedazzles many children, however, so what sets them apart? The personal generosity they exhibited. After the angel told them to “make sacrifices and pray,” they often gave their lunch to poorer children and forewent water on certain days. In addition, they continually prayed as the angel instructed them.
The Miracle of the Sun
Curiously, Francisco saw Mary but did not hear her speak. He relied on Jacinta and Lucia to teach him what she said. The Virgin shared with them various messages and prophecies. For instance, she said, “Russia will continue to spread her errors,” and a more devastating war would come unless the world turned to God. The Bolshevik revolution had yet to occur. In July of 1917, Lucia asked the Virgin to perform a miracle to help people believe that it was she. The Lady said that there would be a miracle at her final visit in October.
When the children announced that there would be a great miracle on October 13, 1917, nearly 100,000 persons came to the site. Though eyewitness reports vary, the majority of people saw the sun emerge from rain clouds in a state much duller than normal and therefore observable to the eye. It began to spin like a disc and cast various colors like the rainbow across the countryside.
Witnesses said it then careened toward the earth as if it were going to crush it, and then went back to its normal position in a zigzag motion. People got down on their knees and started to pray. Besides this spectacle, the three children received visitations from the Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, and the Archangel Michael. As unusual circumstances often unite siblings, so these events helped permanently tie the Marto siblings together.
However, it was not only shared joys that brought them closer, but also the experience of shared misery. Following the first apparition of the Lady, the children agreed among themselves to keep it a secret. Alas, Jacinta gave way to weakness and told everything to her family that evening. Word of the apparitions consequently sailed on the winds, much to the parent’s concern. The children were often harassed and ridiculed; Lucia’s mother even told her to tell people that she had lied. Regardless of her mother’s pleading, Lucia refused to comply.
The mother’s worry was not groundless. The children had to appear before a tribunal and answer questions. A provisional administrator put them into jail for two days, believing the apparitions and messages were politically motivated against the secular Portuguese government. After their entrance into jail, Francisco comforted Jacinta, as she was unable to control her tears. If shared joys unite siblings together, mutual sufferings often create even stronger bonds.
Mary told the children that she would soon take Francisco and Jacinta to heaven while Lucia had to remain on earth for many years. The siblings succumbed to the terrible Spanish flu pandemic. Francisco died in 1919 and Jacinta in 1920. They encouraged each other to the end, rejoicing in the thought of heaven and seeing the beautiful Lady again. After the children’s death, a torrent of donations came in from around the world. This enabled the construction of a large basilica at the sight of the apparitions. The children’s bones rest next to each other inside the basilica.
Benefits of a Good Sibling
A virtuous sibling is a spring of pure water nourishing the roots of good character. He or she is an encouragement in this life and a spur for the heavenly life to come. Not all siblings are so good and loving as those described here; nonetheless, these examples reveal the benefits of mutual support among siblings. Moreover, the Blood of Christ creates one family from all the nations: “The one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. That is why Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.” (Hebrews 2:11) May these holy siblings pray for us till we reunite in the heavenly homeland.
The Dialogues of Pope St. Gregory the Great.
The Life of St. Benedict.
Butler’s Lives of the Saints, Vol. I, edited by Herbert Thurston and Donald Attwater, P.J. Kennedy & Sons, 1955
An 8th century Life of St. Willibald, by Huneberc of Heidenheim.
An article on the Angel of Peace.
Fátima in Lucia’s Own Words.
Questions & Answers
© 2018 Bede