10 FAMOUS CATHOLICS
Here is a list of ten of the most famous Catholics, beginning with the most famous. But take heed: Just being baptized Catholic doesn’t mean a person is a good Catholic.
The Catholic Church believes that a good Catholic is one who regularly and faithfully practices his faith every day of his life. A person who dissents from official Catholic teaching on faith and morals, who never or only irregularly attends Mass, or who has a scandalous, immoral lifestyle is not considered a practicing — or a good — Catholic.
SAINT MOTHER TERESA OF CALCUTTA (1910–1997)
Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu was born August 26, 1910, of Albanian ancestry. She was baptized August 27, 1910, in Skopje, Macedonia, and was later known to the world as Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
She joined the Sisters of Loreto in 1928, was trained in Dublin, Ireland, and took her final vows in 1937. Known as Sister Teresa at the time of her final vows, she was named headmistress of a middle-class girls’ school in Calcutta, India, after some years of teaching history and geography. Later, on a train ride to Darjeeling on September 10, 1946, she said that she had a strong intuition and message from the Lord to work among the poorest of the poor in the world.
Probably the most famous Catholic of the 20th century, this nun, who earned the Nobel Peace Prize (1979) and who was only the fourth person in the world to be named honorary citizen of the United States (1996), traveled the world spreading the message of love for the poor — especially the poorest of the poor. Regarded as a modern-day St. Francis of Assisi, Mother Teresa is respected by peoples of all faiths, religions, cultures, and political persuasions. Whether a person was an “untouchable” leper in India or someone dying of AIDS in North America, she saw Christ in those who suffer. She was a true servant of charity to them.
Mother Teresa died on September 5, 1997, the same day as Princess Diana’s funeral in England. Six years later, Pope John Paul II beatified Mother Teresa on October 19, 2003, with more than 300,000 pilgrims in attendance at Saint Peter’s Square, Rome.
ARCHBISHOP FULTON J. SHEEN (1895–1979)
Born on May 8, 1895, in El Paso, Illinois, the son of Newton Morris and Delia (Fulton) Sheen was baptized Peter John (P.J.) Sheen. Later, he took the maiden name of his mother and was thereafter known as Fulton J. (John) Sheen.
Ordained in Peoria on September 20, 1919, Fulton did graduate work at Catholic University of America and then post-graduate studies (PhD) at the University of Louvain, Belgium (1923). He also attended the Sorbonne in Paris and the Angelicum University in Rome, where he earned a doctorate in theology (1924).
Pope Pius XI made him a monsignor in 1934, and then he was ordained and consecrated an auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of New York in 1951. Later that same year, Fulton was asked to host a weekly television series, titled Life is Worth Living. The program ran for five seasons — from February 12, 1952, to April 8, 1957 — first on the Dumont Network and then on ABC. And at one point, it beat The Milton Berle Show as number one in the ratings. Fulton exhibited a classy, edified, yet also patriotic and pastoral approach, which helped to erode some deep-seated and hateful anti-Catholic bias prevalent since the days of colonial America.
Many famous celebrities, musicians, and politicians owe their conversion to Catholicism to Fulton J. Sheen. Actor Martin Sheen adopted his stage name because of this famous Catholic. He died at the age of 84 on December 9, 1979.
Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen.
MOTHER ANGELICA (1923–2016)
Rita Antoinette Rizzo was born in Canton, Ohio, on April 20, 1923, the daughter of John Rizzo and Mae Helen Gianfrancesco. Six years later, her parents divorced, and Rita and her mom were on their own. Rita entered the Franciscan Sisters (Poor Clares) of Perpetual Adoration in Cleveland, Ohio, on August 15, 1944, as Sister Mary Angelica of the Annunciation.
In 1973, Mother Angelica inaugurated a Catholic book and pamphlet apostolate to spread the faith. But the big stuff was yet to come; Mother Angelica decided to go into television, and on August 15, 1981, the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN) was launched, broadcasting four hours a day to 60,000 homes. She reached 1 million homes in less than two years, and in 1987 the network was transmitting 24 hours a day. Today, through EWTN’s own satellite, cable, radio, and short-wave broadcasting, 160 million people are reached across 140 countries. (EWTN is also online.) EWTN has become the world’s largest and most-watched Catholic network, and Mother Angelica is still very much a part of it.
In 1946, Mother Angelica suffered many injuries due to an accident with a floor-buffing machine when she was a novice (a new nun in training who hasn’t yet made vows). On January 28, 1998, while she was praying the rosary with an Italian lady she didn’t know, she was miraculously cured — her legs and back no longer needed braces or crutches.
Mother Angelica suffered a major stroke in 2001 that rendered her speechless. She later became bedridden but had the foresight to relinquish control of the network to a lay private corporation a year before her illness. On March 27, 2016, she died from complications of her condition. Thousands of faithful attended the funeral, and millions watched on EWTN.
JOHN F. KENNEDY (1917–1963)
John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States of America, was the first Roman Catholic to hold the highest office in the land.
Born in Brookline, Massachusetts, on May 29, 1917, to Joseph P. Kennedy and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, he was one of nine children in this affluent and influential family. His father was the head of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and later became the Ambassador to Great Britain.
John graduated from Harvard in 1940 and a year later enlisted in the U.S. Navy before the attack on Pearl Harbor and the declaration of war. The boat he commanded (PT-109) in the Pacific theater was attacked and sunk by the Japanese. He saved his crew but seriously injured his back. He was discharged in 1945 and ran as a Democrat for the U.S. Congress in 1946. He was re-elected twice.
On September 12, 1953, he married Jacqueline Bouvier, who gave him three children (Caroline, 1957; John, Jr., 1960; and a son who died in infancy). He became a U.S. Senator from Massachusetts in 1953. Seven years later, he ran against Vice President Richard M. Nixon and won the presidency.
Historians still debate whether John was a devout or practicing Catholic. What’s known is that he was the first Catholic to be elected president and that his Catholicism received positive press coverage during his term in office: He, Jackie, and the kids went to Sunday Mass, bishops and cardinals frequented the White House, and an elaborate, solemn, and sad Catholic requiem Mass was said for his funeral following his assassination in November 1963.
BLESSED JOHN HENRY CARDINAL NEWMAN (1801–1890)
One of the most famous converts to Catholicism from England, he was initially an Anglican priest and pastor of St. Mary’s Church, Oxford, England. Here he ministered to countless university students. It was his studies of the Early Church Fathers that lead to his intellectual conversion, which resulted in his conversion to Catholicism. Newman was famous for his long sermons that he delivered at St. Mary’s Anglican Church. He joined and was instrumental in the Oxford Movement, a grassroots effort to restore certain Catholic elements of worship so as to reinvigorate the Anglican Church. The deeper he studied and prayed, the more he came to the conclusion that conversion to the Catholic Church was not an option for him but a necessity.
He was received in the Catholic Church in 1845 and ordained a Catholic Priest in 1847. This resulted in his being ostracized by the Anglican community, Oxford University, and many of his intellectual friends. He established the Oratory of St. Philip Neri, Birmingham, England, and continued to write and publish works on apologetics, all while establishing a Catholic University in Dublin and a school in Birmingham.
As an Anglican in Oxford, Newman ministered to the intellectual elite. In Birmingham, he served the poor Irish immigrants. Pope Leo XIII promoted him to Cardinal in 1849. After his death, about a century later, during the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to England, Newman was beatified on September 19, 2010. He is considered a genius and at the same time a humble pastor.
BISHOP JOHN CARROLL (1735–1815)
Carroll was the third son of Daniel Carroll and Eleanor Darnall. In 1753 he entered to the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) and was ordained a priest in 1769. After the Jesuit order was suppressed temporarily (1773–1814), Fr. Carroll returned to Maryland, only to find strict anti-Catholic laws and no parish assignment.
In 1776 the Continental Congress asked Carroll to go to Quebec and persuade the French Canadians to help the American Revolution. He was able to influence some of the founding fathers to prohibit discrimination against religion in the Constitution. Only four states ratified this in the beginning: Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Delaware. Years later (1791), religious liberty would be enshrined as the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights.
Pope Pius VI appointed him the first bishop of Baltimore (1789), the very first diocese of the United States of America. He battled anti-Catholicism throughout his life and showed personally that Catholics, especially clergy, could and should be patriotic citizens while still being faithful to their religion. Archbishop Carroll encouraged St. Elizabeth Ann Seton to move from New York to Baltimore and then later to Emmitsburg, Maryland, where she established the Sisters of Charity (now the Daughters of Charity). With his blessing and support, she established the foundation of the Catholic (parochial) school system in the United States.
JOHN RONALD REUEL TOLKIEN (1892–1973)
J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, was born in South Africa in 1892, but after his father died four years later, he and his mother and younger brother, Hilary, moved to England. There, his aunt and mother converted to Catholicism, which annoyed both sides of the family. Ronald (as he was known then) and his brother, however, embraced the Roman Catholic religion. A contemporary and close friend of C.S. Lewis, the author of the Chronicles of Narnia and the Screwtape Letters, Tolkien learned to use fantasy writing to strategically but subtly convey Catholic values while retaining imagination and excitement in his works.
GILBERT KEITH CHESTERTON (1874–1936)
Born in London in 1874, G. K. Chesterton was baptized in the Church of England. Surprisingly, he wrote many of his famous Father Brown mysteries before joining the Roman Catholic Church in 1922. Those mysteries tell of a quiet, unassuming priest who solves mysteries like Sherlock Holmes, Lord Peter Wimsey, or Hercule Poirot. Ironically, this author didn’t learn to read until he was 8 years old, but he would eventually be a prolific and scholarly author of 17 nonfiction books, 9 fiction books, and numerous essays and poems. His book Orthodoxy remains a classic for Catholic apologists — people who defend Catholicism through the use of logic, reason, and debate — and for literary critics alike.
DOROTHY DAY (1897–1980)
Dorothy Day converted to Catholicism in 1927. A writer and social activist, she hobnobbed with the literary and social elite prior to her conversion. Dorothy wrote for several socialist and progressive publications in the 1910s and 1920s. She had an affair, an abortion, and a child out of wedlock before giving herself over to Jesus and converting to the Catholic Church. She became Catholic through an encounter with a Sister of Charity, who helped baptize both her and her daughter.
She founded the Catholic Worker movement along with former Christian Brother, Peter Maurin. Day edited and wrote in the Catholic Worker, a newspaper that promoted the social teachings of the Catholic Church, and refuted the Communist paper, the Daily Worker. She was a die-hard pacifist, which made her unpopular during World War II. Many individual Catholics and Catholic institutions (schools, hospitals, and so on) banned her newspaper. Dorothy Day tangled with Cardinal Spellman of New York when he tried to break the gravedigger strike of 1949 by sending seminarians as replacements, or scabs (the incident is described in detail in a 1998 Fordham Urban Law Journal article by David L. Gregory).
She lived a radical view of the Gospel in showing concern and commitment to the poor, the disenfranchised, and the marginalized. Most of all, however, she was a woman of deep faith and conviction as well as service to those in need. Day has the title of Servant of God, which is the first step in possible beatification and canonization in the Catholic Church.
FATHER BENEDICT GROESCHEL, CFR (1933–2014)
Born Peter Groeschel in Jersey City, New Jersey, he was the oldest of six children. He entered the Capuchin Franciscan Friars in 1951 and took the name Benedict. In 1959 he was ordained a priest and later earned a doctorate in psychology from Columbia University. Father Benedict served as chaplain to emotionally disturbed children and taught at several Catholic universities and seminaries, including Fordham and Saint Joseph Seminary, Dunwoodie. He also founded Trinity Retreat Center, used by many priests. Author of many books on spirituality, Groeschel also hosted numerous television series for EWTN (Catholic TV network).
Groeschel and seven other Capuchins formed a new religious community called the Congregation of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal (CFR) in 1987. They wanted to return to the original charism of the Capuchin Franciscans and work with the poorest of the poor. Being good friends and colleagues with Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Fr. Benedict attracted many men to this new order.
A frequent guest on Mother Angelica’s live show on EWTN, Father Groeschel became a poplar retreat master, preacher, spiritual director, and conference speaker across the U.S. His psychology training enabled him to evaluate, counsel, and provide recommendations to clergy with various mental health issues. In 2004 he was injured during a visit to Florida in a car accident while crossing the street. Five years later, he suffered a minor stroke. Those and other health issues led to his death on October 3, 2014.