If you’re a mom of teens like me, you’re constantly on the lookout for books and resources that will help inspire your family. With the new book Ablaze: Stories of Daring Teen Saints by Colleen Swaim — her first, but hopefully just the start of a prolific writing career — we discover a treasure of the faith for Catholics young and old.
Ablaze is aimed at teens, but truthfully, the resources contained within this book will aid anyone looking to grow in sanctity and faith. Colleen profiles the lives of eight young saints and blesseds, sharing their path to sainthood with accounts that are filled with insight and detail. She has a voice that truly manages to bring these stories to life. Perhaps it’s her work as a high school teacher that has provided her with an insight into what will move, challenge and inspire young people. Ablaze is filled with so much more than simply biographical details, including sidebars, vocabulary descriptions, maps, sacramental lessons, and even recipes. Journal prompts, prayers, scripture references and reflection questions help the reader to fully interact with the content presented, applying it to the challenges of every day life.
Each of the saints profiled, though living in different periods of history, has a freshness and a relevance to the world our teens face today. Colleen Swaim aptly brings their heroic virtues to light in a way that will have teens (and grown ups too!), eagerly interacting with her content and asking for more. I give Ablaze: Stories of Daring Teen Saints my highest recommendation and will enjoy sharing it with my own son this summer. I hope you enjoy the following conversation with Colleen Swaim, and that you’ll consider making this great book a part of your family’s faith library.
Q: Colleen, congratulations on the publication of your wonderful book Ablaze: Stories of Daring Teen Saints. Please share a bit about yourself and your family for our readers.
I grew up as a cradle Catholic in Maryland, right outside of Washington, D.C., and did my undergraduate work at The Catholic University of America. My husband Matt and I have been married six years and reside in Cincinnati, Ohio. In addition to tending to our cantankerous English Bulldog, I’m an English teacher in a co-ed Catholic high school and he produces The Son Rise Morning Show for Sacred Heart Radio, which is syndicated on the EWTN global Catholic radio network. We are parishioners at Saints Peter and Paul Church and are fortunate to live in a city with a tremendous Catholic heritage, which is reflected in the many parishes and some beautiful church architecture. We are also blessed with a great bishop and nice Lenten fish fry selection!
Q: I’ve read a bit about your background Colleen and know that you’re a high school teacher. I’m curious to hear about your venture into writing and how you came up with the wonderful concept for this book.
I really have my husband to thank. Liguori Publications was interested in releasing a saint book for teenagers, and so they contacted Matt to see if he might have any ideas of someone who might be up to the task. He asked me if I might know of anyone, and since it was June of 2010, and so I was out of school for the summer, I said, “What about me?” I ended up submitting a proposal with a long list of saints and blesseds I would be interested in profiling, as well as some title, marketing, and chapter ideas, and then went about my way through the rest of the summer. I heard back from Liguori in September, and then took the Fall to pare down my list of saints, research, and write.
Q: For readers who haven’t yet seen Ablaze, how would you describe the book?
Ablaze: Stories of Daring Teen Saints sets out to profile eight individuals from all over the world who really stood against the tide of the prevailing culture as teenagers to live for Christ, which is what I hope they inspire the teens who read the book to do themselves!
Q: What efforts did you take to make this book different from others we’ve seen on the lives of the saints?
Ablaze really sets out to provide an interactive, catechetical resource that can be used by individuals, for small group study, or by an entire class. The hagiographical info is written in a way that is accessible to teenagers, and is joined by sidebar texts (definitions, additional info or reading), journal prompts and journaling room (what can I say, as an English teacher I couldn’t resist!), papal quotes and saint/blessed quotes, Scriptural memory verses, prayers, saintly challenges, connections to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, as well as some recipes! It really seeks to link these holy stories with ways to live out their heroism in teenagers’ daily lives today.
Q: How did you go about selecting the saints you profile in the book?
This was probably the most difficult aspect of the entire process. My aims were to choose 4 teenage girls and 4 teenage guys who are reflective of the lived Faith all over the world, representing as many continents as possible. I also wanted to include some lesser known saints/blesseds along with the classics that Catholic teenagers and/or their parents are apt to be at least a bit familiar with, to spread their stories further. Along with each saint’s hagiography, there is a unique story as to how he or she ended up in the book. One new blessed who was recommended to me is Chiara Luce Badano, who has an amazing story and was only beatified this past September, literally days after I began writing the book. Others profiled include Saint Alphonsa, Saint Dominic Savio, Saint Kizito, Saint Maria Goretti, Blessed Pedro Calungsod and Saint Stanislaus Kostka.
Q: What resources and references were helpful to you in researching the book?
Because the profiled saints span many centuries, I used a wide variety of source types, from out of print books dating from the 1800’s to live television coverage and websites.The Vatican’s website is a wonderful storehouse of papal homilies and speeches on the occasions of canonizations and beatifications. Some sources which were especially helpful, and which I would encourage young and old to check out after they get introduced via Ablaze include:
– Don Bosco’s The Life of Dominic Savio
– Fr. Michael D. Griffin’s God, the Joy of My Life: A Biography of Saint Teresa of Jesus of the Andes
– Godfrey Poage, C.P’s Saint Maria Goretti: In Garments All Red
Q: I have to ask about the amazing design elements of this book! From the totally cool cover to the layout and extra elements, it’s really a standout! What did you think when you saw the artwork for the project?
Liguori did an absolutely amazing job with the book’s graphic design. As someone who works with teenagers on a daily basis, I know that wanting to appeal to adolescents and really nailing it are two totally different things – so many items geared toward adolescents look more goofy than edgy. In a world where graphics become dated- looking very quickly, it looks like it will be able to stand on its own. It was important to everyone involved in the process that the look be highly reflective of the content, as well as rather gender neutral, so as to appeal to both girls and guys. The biggest critics are my students, and they approved, so that is more than good enough for me!
Q: What did writing about the lives of these amazing young souls do for you spiritually and emotionally in your own faith life?
I really feel very strongly that I had some heavenly intercessors working on my behalf as I wrote this book. While writing each chapter, I had the opportunity to become immersed in another culture, time period, and spiritual life, and it was both fascinating and humbling. First and foremost, it made me really feel like I need to get my act together – I’m 29, and some of these saints/blessed were martyred before they were even half my age! It is a good reminder that heroic virtue is for people of all ages, and even though it is harder than ever today to seek quiet in such a noisy world, people in previous times did not have it so easy themselves.
Chiara Luce Badano’s story, from her conception on, has really resonated with me. She was born in 1971 to a couple who tried for many years to have children, with no avail, and was conceived after fervent prayer at a local shrine. Eighteen years later, she died, and while we now know she shares a heavenly home with the Father, I found most touching the selflessness and gratitude for her life which her still-living parents exhibited at her beatification. These people who had so wanted a child exhibited virtuousness akin to Abraham’s binding of Isaac. Needless to say, I wrote frantically and cried throughout the live viewing of her beatification in Italy, as her story unfolded for the world, and daily prayed for Blessed Chiara to intercede for me in life’s daily trials, which were nothing compared to what she bore. Like Chiara’s parents’ witness, there is a real importance in fostering a domestic church and being open to all that life has in store, including the unexpected and painful. I am not entitled to anything, but offering up praise to the Father of all life in all situations is a non-negotiable. I’m still working on this…
Q: What do you hope the audience for your book gets out of the experience of not only reading, but more fully interacting with your book? What types of feedback have you had from young readers?
I hope that this is a book both parents of teenagers and teenagers themselves feel is a good resource in their home. It was important to me that the book be both relevant to the current age and timelessly faithful to the teachings of the Church in its scope. From my experience, far from the changeability many adults think adolescents crave, they are really yearning for solid answers to life’s questions and something firm to stand on (a Rock, perhaps?) and take on the world. What better resources are there than the Church’s treasures – its Scripture, its Tradition, and the people called Saints and Blesseds who embody these things? I’ve had students who knew that I was writing a book on teenage saints flip through the final product and be surprised by its inviting lay-out, telling me it’s much more interesting-looking than they had expected. They really hold nothing back (and I have really great teacher ears, so I’d know if something was whispered) and it totally passed muster! It’s only just come out, but I’m looking forward to feedback from young readers who have read it in its entirety.
Q: Now that this book is behind you and the result is so amazing, are you pondering any future writing projects? You know I’m a big fan of your husband’s work – any chance that the two of you would ever consider working on a book project together?
I would definitely be interested in researching and writing more on saints and blesseds, but would also be intrigued by a project that involves my obsession with the classic murder mystery story, which, anyone with a familiarity with Chesterton’s Fr. Brown knows should be as much about goodness as it is about evil. I love my husband, which is the reason I’m afraid to write a book with him! In all seriousness, though, his The Eucharist and the Rosary and Prayer in the Digital Age (both available from Liguori Publications, as well) really spur me on to continue in my own writing, so whether we ever co-author a book or not, each book is a joint effort of some sort due to those matrimonial ties we’ve got going on.