Deciding to follow Christ as a teenager can be an unpopular decision. Many teens face not just the usual challenges of adolescence, but also a culture that's uncomfortable with organized religion and unsure of what is right and what is wrong.
But as author Colleen Swaim, 29, researched the lives of the saints for her book, "Ablaze: Stories of Daring Teen Saints," she discovered eight young Catholics who lived lives of extraordinary virtue, despite the pressures of society and age.
"If we look at the times these people were living in, they were difficult, very much like our own," said Mrs. Swaim. "But they also lived in times of serious strife - sometimes, when one could lose their life if they witnessed to Christ. This gives us hope because if they can do it, so can we."
Liguori Publications had mentioned the need for a book on saints for teenagers to Mrs. Swaim and her husband and fellow author, Matthew.
Mrs. Swaim knew that her experience as a high school English and religion teacher at Newport High School in Newport, Ky., had given her some insight into the minds and spirituality of teens, so she offered to tackle the book project.
The author aimed to introduce teens to saints representing both genders and all continents - saints who are well-known and unknown, but all of whom were young.
Mrs. Swaim even bounced ideas off her students about which saints to include. Together, they came up with eight young Catholic saints: Ss. Maria Goretti, Dominic Savio, Stanislaus Kostka, Teresa of the Andes, Alphonsa and Kitizio of Africa, plus Blessed Chiara Luce Badano and Blessed Pedro Calungsod.
"I loved researching the lesser-known saints," Mrs. Swaim told The Evangelist. "I had to order a lot of books in foreign languages from all over the world and contact those directly associated with the saints and their beatification efforts. It shows that these people aren't all famous figures, but they're all accessible. You just have to break through to find real people."
Even in their time, the young saints experienced the trials of peer pressure. But Mrs. Swaim noted that they also exerted "positive peer pressure" on their friends and family.
She told The Evangelist that though sometimes saints seem untouchable, they actually have a lot in common with teens today:
St. Dominic Savio, who died at age 14 from illness, was tempted by pornography and skipping school.
St. Teresa of the Andes was only 19 when she entered religious life as a Carmelite novice. She passed away only a few months later from typhus. But back when the future saint began high school, she'd written in her diary about hating her classes, calling her classroom a "dungeon" and hoping it would be "reduced to ashes."
"She was so melodramatic," Mrs. Swaim remarked.
Blessed Chiara Luce Badano is a fairly recent figure. Born in 1971, she was 18 when she passed away in 1990 from cancer. While she loved athletics, she found school challenging. Though she put in a great deal of effort into her studies, her grades were still poor.
"She failed one of her classes, but that just shows that you don't have to be perfect. Your grades don't have any effect on God's love for you," said Mrs. Swaim. "These saints give us inspiration that this is possible."
As for young Catholics today, the author believes that the Church's emphasis on youth ministry and Blessed Pope John Paul II's love for and focus on the youth of the world has made the perfect situation for young Catholics to thrive.
Mrs. Swaim told The Evangelist that the same kind of holiness achieved by the eight young men and women in her book can still be reached by teens today.
"No matter what our age, we're all called to sanctity," she said. "The fire that was lit by Pope John Paul II is continuing and we're calling for all youth to become ablaze."
The sequel to "Ablaze," which will examine the lives of even more young saints, will be published in summer 2012.