St. Conrad of Piacenza and the Imperfect Path to Holiness

One night, several years ago, I was lying in bed, closing my eyes and praying in the quiet moments before falling asleep. All I could see were the many ways I had failed to love as I should.

Lord, I prayed, I just want to be a saint, and I’m not!

No, I heard the Lord respond clearly in my mind. You just want to be perfect, and you’re not.

The truth hit me like a brick as I felt the Holy Spirit convict me in the depths of my soul. How long had I spent equating perfection with holiness? I wanted to be flawless in virtue, to respond perfectly in charity, to be blameless in the journey to sanctity.

 

But perfectionism isn’t driven by holiness; it’s driven by pride. Mistakes are humiliating.  Human frailty is hard to accept, and it’s tempting to try to control it. This trap is self-love, not charity.

In time, I began to understand that flaws are necessary for humility. Without humility, I might begin to think that I can gain heaven on my own steam. The painful truth is that I am weak, errant, and full of faults. Not a day goes by when I don’t fail in something. But my weakness teaches me to lean on His strength.

As the Lord tells St. Paul: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9)

How far He must stoop to pick me up! How good He is to love me still!

In a letter of spiritual direction from the book Thy Will Be Done!, St. Francis de Sales writes:

“You complain that many imperfections and defects occur in your life, in opposition to the desire you have of perfection and purity of love for our God. I answer you that we cannot quit ourselves altogether while we are here on earth; we must bear ourselves until God bears us to Heaven….

So we must have patience, and not expect to be able to cure in a day so many bad   habits, which we have contracted by the little care we have had for our spiritual health….The soul needs, if you please, to have patience with all the world, but first with itself.”  

If I’m ever tempted to think that perfection is a requirement of sainthood, one saint whose intercession I can ask is St. Conrad of Piacenza. He knows what it’s like to make mistakes.

St. Conrad’s Story

St. Conrad of Piacenza, whose feast day is February 19, was a nobleman living in Italy at the turn of the fourteenth century.

One day, he went hunting with a group of attendants. When the game proved difficult to spot, Conrad told them to smoke it out. They set fire to the brush and waited for the game to emerge.

Suddenly, a strong wind picked up, and the fire grew out of control. Conrad and his entourage escaped, but the wildfire raged. When it was over, it had burned down a forest, destroyed cornfields, and spread to nearby villages.

In shame, Conrad and his attendants told no one the truth about how the fire began. He kept his silence — until he learned that a poor man who had been gathering sticks near the forest on the day of the fire had been arrested, convicted of starting the fire, and sentenced to execution.

Devastated by this tragic turn of events, Conrad rushed to the innocent peasant’s defense and revealed the truth about what happened that day.

The peasant was freed, and Conrad was ordered to make restitution to everyone who had lost homes, fields, and crops to the fire. It took nearly all of his wealth to repay the people. But in the loss of those riches, Conrad and his wife, Euphrosyne, saw the finger of God directing their lives. They decided to give the rest of their fortune away and to dedicate the rest of their lives to serving God in poverty.

In his lifetime, St. Conrad’s reputation for sanctity grew so wide that pilgrims traveled from all around to seek his prayers. He died praying before a Crucifix.

A Patron of Imperfection

When I first read about St. Conrad, my first thought was, This would be a great story for a children’s book! Three years later, I’m happy to say that my newest picture book, St. Conrad and the Wildfire, beautifully illustrated by Ken Woo, is forthcoming this spring from Emmaus Road Publishing.

Aside from the compelling drama of his story, I’m drawn to St. Conrad because he was flawed. He’s not officially the “patron of imperfection” (he’s actually a patron for people with hernias), but I often think of him that way, endearingly. His story proves that the road to sainthood is not barred by personal failures. We do foolish and irresponsible things sometimes—yet the finger of God directs our lives even in the wake of our biggest mistakes.

Conrad made grievous errors in judgment in starting the fire and in keeping his guilt hidden. Yet when he learned that an innocent man’s life was at stake, he stopped wallowing in his own shame, summoned his courage, and confessed his guilt despite great personal cost. That moment became the turning point of a saint. His confession laid the first stone on his path to holiness. The worst day of his life became a gateway to eternal joy.

When I’m tempted to wallow in shame over my lack of virtue, St. Conrad reminds me that humility and honesty can lift me out of the pit far more effectively than self-pity. No mistake is too big to overcome. Every fall can be a step on the road to sanctity.

Through the intercession of St. Conrad of Piacenza, may we always find hope in remembering that even the greatest failure can be a bridge to God’s mercy and grace.

Maura Roan McKeegan

By

Maura Roan McKeegan is the author of a series of children's picture books about biblical typology, including: The End of the Fiery Sword: Adam & Eve and Jesus & Mary; Into the Sea, Out of the Tomb: Jonah and Jesus; and Building the Way to Heaven: The Tower of Babel and Pentecost (Emmaus Road Publishing). Her articles have appeared in publications such as Catholic Digest, The Civilized Reader, Franciscan Magazine, Guideposts, and Lay Witness. You can contact her at Maura.Roan.McKeegan@gmail.com.

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