Jim Graves is a Catholic writer and editor living in Newport Beach, California. He previously served as Managing Editor for the Diocese of Orange Bulletin, the official newspaper of the Diocese of Orange, California. His work has appeared in the National Catholic Register, Our Sunday Visitor, Cal Catholic Daily and Catholic World Report.
When an individual’s cause for canonization is underway, he becomes a “Servant of God.” Their stories are typically fascinating to read, and demonstrate a profound devotion to their Catholic faith. The following are profiles of three Servants of God, each of whom lived in the 20th century, whose stories are not only interesting, but whom have left a vast amount of writings worth reading.
Cora Evans (1904-57). The cause for Cora Evans’ canonization is currently underway in the Diocese of Monterey, California. She is a convert from Mormonism who lived in Utah and California and claimed to have had mystical experiences throughout her life.
Cora spent the first part of her life in Utah, raised as a Mormon. She married husband Mack in the LDS temple in Salt Lake City. The couple enjoyed a happy marriage and had three children.
Yet Cora had doubts about key aspects of Mormon teaching, and embarked on a 10-year study of other religions before becoming Catholic. Her conversion began in 1934 when, while living in Ogden and sick in bed, she heard the radio program “Catholic Hour” with Msgr. (later Bishop of Salt Lake City) Duane Hunt. She stood up and yelled to Msgr. Hunt through the radio, “You’re lying! How can you lie?”
Cora overcame her anti-Catholic bias and visited her local Catholic parish, St. Joseph, to discuss the Catholic faith further. She met the associate pastor, Fr. William Vaughn, in her home. He introduced her to Catholic teachings, and in subsequent visits would sometimes debate the Mormon elders Mack would invite over in an attempt to refute the priest’s beliefs.
Cora took a great interest in Catholic doctrine, and converted to Catholicism in 1935. Mack and their two daughters converted as well. (Their son died from an infection while still a toddler).
Cora paid a heavy price for her conversion, however. Members of her extended family disowned her, and Mack was fired from his job as a milkman. The family ultimately moved to Los Angeles so Mack could find work. Yet despite the persecution, Cora’s example drew many converts from Mormonism.
Cora reported having mystical experiences throughout her life beginning at age 3 with a reported apparition of the Blessed Mother. After an experience of ecstasy in 1938 she resolved to serve God for the remainder of her life. She wrote, “It was necessary for me to live my chosen vocation with Him as my companion. By loaning Jesus my humanity for Him to govern as well as dwell within, would make my life a living prayer for He was life, living life within me, and my body now dead to me was His living cross, His cross to take to Calvary, Calvary, the door to eternal life.”
The way of prayer entrusted to Cora is known as the Mystical Humanity of Christ, a Eucharistic spirituality encouraging the faithful to live each day with a heightened awareness of the living, indwelling presence of Jesus in their lives.
Cora was also said to have a number of mystical gifts, including the stigmata (wounds of Christ), bilocation and the fragrance of roses associated with her presence, known as the odor of sanctity.
Cora spent the last two years of her life in Boulder Creek, in the Diocese of Monterey in Northern California, before dying of cancer in 1957. The diocese is investigating her life and writings. See www.coraevans.com for additional information.
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Fr. Walter Ciszek, SJ (1904-84). Fr. Ciszek was an American Jesuit priest who was imprisoned for 15 years in labor camps and another eight with restricted freedom in the former Soviet Union, before being allowed to return in the United States in 1963. During his imprisonment he often struggled to survive under harsh conditions, including the constant threat of starvation. Much of his time in the Soviet Union was spent doing a variety of jobs, such as shoveling coal, mining and performing construction work. When the opportunity arose, he cared for the spiritual needs of the people with whom he lived, providing Mass and the sacraments. He tells his story in With God in Russia (1964) and He Leadeth Me (1973).
Father was trained under the old Jesuit regimen; he was well educated, with a solid grasp of philosophy and theology, and fluent in multiple languages. He was humble, but tough, the rare prisoner who survived many years of imprisonment in the Soviet gulag. He’d bear the cross, referring all things to God.
He was gentle yet firm with others, taking the time to listen to anyone who needed help. His attitude when he met someone was that Christ put that person in his life at this moment, how can he refuse to help him? He would give all his attention to such a person as if Christ Himself were visiting.
For many years he was on the verge of starvation in the gulag. So, when he was freed and returned to the United States, he’d treat every piece of bread as a treasured gift.
He was never embittered by his experiences in Russia, instead he prayed for his captors and the people of Russia. Father had great pity for the communists, and was sad that so many in Russia were so far from God.
Upon returning to the U.S. he marveled at its excess, which he offered as an observation rather than a criticism. At times, he seemed more at home in Russia than in the U.S.
Upon returning to the U.S., Father continued his priestly work at the John XXIII Center at Fordham University, which is now the Center for Eastern Christian Studies at the University of Scranton, Pennsylvania. He lived in community, celebrated the Byzantine liturgy, gave retreats, offered spiritual direction and kept up a voluminous correspondence. He helped out at local parishes, saying Mass and hearing confessions.
For additional information, visit www.ciszek.org.
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Brother Marcel Van (1928-59) – Van was a Vietnamese mystic who adopted St. Therese of Lisieux’s “Little Way” to achieve great holiness in his short life.
Van was born in the Catholic village of Ngam Giao in Northern Vietnam. He had a devout Catholic mother, and was attracted to the Faith and devoted to the Blessed Mother from a young age. He wanted to be a priest and share his faith with non-believers.
He experienced many hardships growing up, both at home and in school. His older brother, Liet, for example, was blind, which prompted his father to begin drinking heavily and start gambling. Flooding destroyed the family’s rice farm, leaving the family impoverished. His deep spirituality led some at his Catholic school to envy him, leading to physical abuse.
Van entered the minor seminary with the French Dominicans in 1942. The Dominicans introduced Van to “The Story of a Soul” by St. Therese of Lisieux (1873-97). He enjoyed a unique spiritual relationship with St. Therese for the rest of his life, becoming her “little brother.” Van had a dogged determination to become a priest, yet in a mystical experience with St. Therese he learned that it was God’s will for him that he would not become a priest, but that his vocation was to be the “heart of priests.”
In 1944, at age 16, Van became a brother in a Redemptorist monastery in Hanoi. He wore the habit and took the name Brother Marcel, and served as both tailor and sacristan for the community. It was during this time that he claimed to have mystical conversations with Jesus, and recorded his revelations under the guidance of the novice master, Fr. Antonio Boucher.
Van also had conversations with the Blessed Mother and St. Therese, from whom he developed his “little way of spirituality.”
Van moved to different communities within the country, and made his final profession in 1952. In 1954, the communists took over North Vietnam, and many Catholics fled to the South. Van received permission to move to the North, however, as he sought to love God in a place where there was little love for Him. He was arrested and sent to prison in 1955, and died four years later. He was 31.
Despite his young age at death, Van left an abundance of writings behind, much of it written under obedience to his superiors. These include his autobiography, conversations with Christ, correspondence and miscellaneous writings.
Van’s cause for canonization was introduced in France in 1997. It is being promoted by the French organization “Les Amis de Van.”
For additional information, visit www.marcelvanassociation.com.