Who Was the Most Influential Saint of His Time?

Reread that headline carefully. The question is not who is the most influential saint of all time, but rather of his or her time. The answer to the former is probably easy. I imagine many of us would tick of one of the following—St. Francis, St. Catherine, St. Patrick, St. Anthony, St. Joseph, St. Therese of Lisieux, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Dominic, to name just a few—it’s a long list. But the second question—who was most influential in his lifetime?—is a bit of a head-scratcher.

Think of your own answer to this question and e-mail me (bealenews@gmail.com) your thoughts before reading further. (Please, in addition to listing your nominee, give a reason. I may post the runners-up in a follow-up, but I’ll keep your names out of it!) I imagine that few of us, including yours truly, would have come up with the answer that noted Catholic historian Warren Carroll does:

Answer: St. Bernard of Clairvaux.

Here’s what Carroll writes of him:

No man before or since who held no office of power throughout his life bestrode his age as did this monk of genius and of leashed but flaming passion, juridically only one of the many hundreds of abbots in the Church, yet the terror and inspiration of emperors and kings, the shield and sword—and where necessary the goad—of Popes. No historical determinist theory, no calculations of material or institutional power and influence can begin to account for St. Bernard of Clairvaux and what he did.

This is high praise, even for a saint, but St. Bernard deserves it. During his life, he launched a sweeping reform of the religious life in Europe, squashed a major anti-trinitarian heresy, nearly single-handedly averted a schism in the Papacy, and sparked a new crusade to Jerusalem, according to Carroll’s account. His achievements do not stop there. St. Bernard, among other things, also drew up the rule for the legendary Knights Templar and was one of the founders of the Cistercian order. He is also credited with writing about ten treatises. And, it is to him, that we owe prayers like the “Memorare” to Mary and hymns such as “O Sacred Head Surrounded.” Indeed, it is hard to think of a saint whose do deeply touched so many different areas of the social, political, and spiritual life of his time.

UPDATE: I have received numerous responses from readers as to whom they would nominate for being the most influential saint of his or her time. I am poring over your responses and rest assured I will be following up with the results by the end of this week. Thank you for your feedback…. stay tuned!

Stephen Beale


Stephen Beale is a freelance writer based in Providence, Rhode Island. Raised as an evangelical Protestant, he is a convert to Catholicism. He is a former news editor at GoLocalProv.com and was a correspondent for the New Hampshire Union Leader, where he covered the 2008 presidential primary. He has appeared on Fox News, C-SPAN and the Today Show and his writing has been published in the Washington Times, Providence Journal, the National Catholic Register and on MSNBC.com and ABCNews.com. A native of Topsfield, Massachusetts, he graduated from Brown University in 2004 with a degree in classics and history. His areas of interest include Eastern Christianity, Marian and Eucharistic theology, medieval history, and the saints. He welcomes tips, suggestions, and any other feedback at bealenews at gmail dot com. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/StephenBeale1

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  • Babagranny

    Does Saint Paul not count?

  • Howard Richards

    I had the same thought as Babagranny.  I’d also throw in St. Peter for consideration.  There’s also St. Gregory the Great, who saved Rome, and Constantine, who is considered a saint in the East at least, and who issued the Edict of Toleration and was the first Christian Emperor (baptised on his deathbed).  Dr. Carroll seems to have been excluding apostles, popes, kings, and emperors.

  • Normanbates81

    St. Michael the Archangel?… It’s STILL his time!!!

  • thymos

    Oh Rats, you took my answer.  St. Bernard!

  • Jonhall

    Sts. Ambrose of Milan and Francis of Assisi. (Can I have two??)

  • Jonhall

    I’m sorry…I want two more. I can’t decide. Among God’s mightiest daughters, I’d focus on Sts. Hildegarde of Bingen and Theresa of Calcutta. I’ll be quiet now.

  • mickakers

    Bernard of Clairvaux!  Excellent choice.  After due consideration, I concur.  I would have never picked him.  Thanks for the insight.

  • Carlsommer

    How a bout St. Athanasius.  He defied three emperors and numerous heretical bishops to preserve orthodox Christology for all time.  To top it off, his Life of Anthony popularized monasticism and facilitated the spread of the monastic way of life throughout the Christian world.  In his lifetime he was a towering figure.

  • The problem with St. Bernard is that, by the end of his life, his influence rapidly waned. My candidates are St. Augustine of Hippo and St. Catherine of Siena.

  • Manneohagan

    What  about St Pius V? 

  • Seth Wm. Peters

     I agree! Who had more influence in his own time than St.Paul?

  • Ann

    I agree with Paul, but he’s an Apostle. So, St. Patrick is my choice. He not only converted the good part of an entire people/culture, but those people returned the favor, strengthening Christianity in a beleaguered Europe. 

  • Dan

    I agree completely – just consider the extent of the church following his death – it encompassed virtually the entire known world, due mainly to his efforts.  As well as his missionary efforts, he can also lay claim to being the first Catholic theologian, looking backward on the life, death, and teachings of Jesus and beginning to integrate those into a coherent theological structure. 

    He IS an apostle, but why exclude him on those grounds?

  • Babagranny

    Patrick is good also.  Technically, Paul was not an apostle because Jesus did not appoint him before Jesus’ death on the cross.  

  • steye

    With all due respect for other nominees, there is one not mentioned.  Though not canonized YET, John Paul II may be considered among not just the greatest saint of his time, but perhaps even the greatest person, saint or not, of all time.  His influence goes well beyond his absolutely compelling personal oddyssey from actor/athlete to intellectual, to resistance against fascists, to underground seminarian, to priest, to academic and mystic, to bishop, to Council father, to Pope, and his personal example of forgiving his would-be assassin, and his public decline and suffering in faith. 

    As compelling as all that is, just consider that as Pope he managed to draw the church back from the chaos of the post-Vatican II “spirit” –a monumental feat in itself, he also inspired a whole new generation of youth from ALL AROUND THE WORLD to a new and dynamic Catholic faith, he is also credited with inspiring the resistance in Poland which would lead to the fall of Soviet Communism –both Reagan and Gorbachev claimed he did more than any other individual in this regard. No small player in world politics.

     And if all that weren’t enough, he articulated a counter ideology to the enlightenment dualism which has led to the moral chaos which is otherwise destroying our culture.  His Theology of the Body is the light which will guide the church in her mission to counter the cultural darkness of our day.  This influence will be a determining inspiration for generations yet to come.  And as articulate and sophisticated as it all is, it is deeply personal, and can and will affect regular people at the deepest core of their lives and their families and their societies and cultures… not just something for the leaders of the day and academics later. 

    Long live John Paul the Great!

  • Stephen Beale

    To everyone who commented: 

    Thanks for your feedback. It will be incorporated into a follow-up post on the results tomorrow! 

    In the meantime, I’d like to hear more from those who nominated St. Ambrose and St. Hildegarde as to their reasoning – please e-mail me at bealenews@gmail:disqus .com 



  • servus humilis

    For her time, it would have to be St. Joan of Arc.  This unlettered peasant girl literally changed modern European, thus world, history.  England would not be what she is today unless she had completely relinquished her French territories.  This was the ultimate vision of St. Joan’s voices: the English had to go home.
    There simply would be no U.S.A. without Joan of Arc.

  • Olympianjohn

    Yes, those people are probably my ancestors. Time for a new Patrick to rise from the ashes.