Q&A with Colleen Swaim, author of “Radiate: More Stories of Daring Teen Saints”

As I wrote in my March column, I’m a big fan of Colleen Swaim, who’s written a second book in a series of “teen saints” biographies.  First was 2010’s  Ablaze: Stories of Daring Teen Saints, (here’s my review of that), and just a few months back Radiate: More Stories of Daring Teen Saints.

I did a Q&A with Colleen when Ablaze was released, so I knew I wanted to do another one.  Colleen is the kind of person I just know I’d love to meet for coffee and talk over books and everything else (for instance, she and her husband write a blog together called Duel to the Death), and I hope I will some day.  Thanks, Colleen, for being willing!


Tell “Reading Catholic” readers a little more about you, your family, and your writing.

My husband Matt and I live in a late nineteenth-century era house in Cincinnati, Ohio with our 14-month-old son Zeke and Libby, our 10 year old English Bulldog. When we’re not writing books, I teach high school religion and English in the Diocese of Covington and Matt produces the EWTN-syndicated The Son Rise Morning Show from Sacred Heart Radio. We enjoy exploring the city, cooking together, and are really looking forward to a fun summer of seeing the world through our toddler’s eyes – everything’s new and an adventure!

You had a lot of success with Ablaze: Stories of Daring Teen Saints, and so I’m glad you decided to write a “sequel” book with more saints.  Did you have any trouble picking the saints for the book?

Making the choices of whom to write about has been the primary challenge of each book, although with Radiate I focus on ten stories of saints, two more than the eight I originally profiled in Ablaze, so it was a little less difficult. However, my aim was the same with both books, as it was very important to concentrate on stories focused on an equal number of young men and women from all over the globe and spanning the ages of the Church.

I think that, with Saints Agnes; Gabriel of Duisco, Louis Ibaraki, Juan Soan of Goto, and Thomas Kozaki (The Japanese Martyrs); Bernadette; Lucy; Gabriel of the Sorrowful Virgin; Luigi Gonzaga; Rose of Viterbo; and Peter Yu Tae-Chol; as well as Blesseds Laura Vicuña and Ceferino Namuncurá, that balance was again able to be struck.

– I found Radiate more appropriate for older readers than Ablaze, both in the writing style and the content–there is more intensity in some of the martyr stories, for instance. Your thoughts on this, and who you consider to be the “ideal” reader for Radiate?

One of the things that is a goal of mine both as a writer and a teacher is to convey the saints’ stories, their hagiographies, in a way that both grabs onto the sensibilities of present-day teenagers with the sometimes high drama of these holy people’s stories – encompassing both their joys and trials/tribulations – without jeopardizing the precious commodity that is young people’s inherent integrity, including their senses of modesty and chastity. With stories like, for instance, Laura Vicuña’s, where the subject matter involves abuse, that can be a precarious path to tread, but I maintained a tone of honesty and nuance that I hope parents of pre-teens and teenagers can appreciate.

That’s why, when family members, religious educators, or others who are buying specifically for young people ask me, I recommend Radiate for students roughly in the 12-19 year old age range. Both Ablaze and Radiate are formulated for individual, small group, or classroom use, so they can really lend themselves to a variety of learning and reading environments.

– I asked this question in our last Q&A, but I think it’s worth re-visiting.  You’re a high school teacher. Other than this book, how do you challenge students immersed in the popular culture to pause and really take a look at these saints and their lives?

The single most important thing for Catholic young people living in the world today to realize is that, to paraphrase G.K. Chesterton, keeping the commandments is way more radical and counter-cultural than breaking them! Of course, personal and familial holiness are issues we all struggle with on a day to day basis, but teenagers especially need to realize that the yearning that they seem to have (and I believe that they all indeed have it) for solidity and truth is noble and needs to be nurtured.

The saints were some of the most fascinating people to ever live, they’re now with God for eternity in heaven, and they can offer us both a framework and the inspiration to do likewise amazing things. One of my favorite things when researching saints’ lives is to draw the connections between them.

I’ve never run across a saint who wasn’t deeply influenced on the path to holiness by yet another saint or blessed, and as a flawed human being who is holiness work in progress, I find that very comforting. Young people need to be imbued with the sense that sanctity is going to be foolish to a lot of people out in the world, but it is the best opportunity we have for both happiness and fulfillment, even if it can be quite arduous at times. Teenagers like a challenge, and the call to be a saint is the ultimate.

– I also asked this question when we discussed Ablaze so let me ask it again.  Do you have a favorite saint in Radiate?  If so, why?

I can honestly say that I resonated with every single saint or blessed in the book, otherwise they probably wouldn’t have made an appearance at all, but I have to say that the story of the Japanese Martyrs just blows me away. It is difficult to imagine a group of young men, part of a religious minority in a land that was intensely hostile to Christianity, acting more courageously than those teenagers led by St. Paul Miki.

Whenever I hear of a martyr group of “and companions” my curiosity is piqued – “Just who were all of those companions?” – and this situation was no exception. These young men were berated, abused, made examples of, and literally lashed to crosses to die, and they did it all with a sense of fearlessness that is just awe-inspiring. They were not the only group of martyrs to die in Japan during this time period, as its estimated that there were about 1, 200 over the course of several hundred years of persecution and the Church going underground, but the witness of their blood made it possible for about 20, 000 Japanese Catholics to keep the faith alive underground in Japan for about 250 years without an organized church.

Can you imagine living your whole life as a Catholic without ever meeting a priest? It makes you want to pray for people who are dealing with similar religious persecutions in the world today, and makes me as an American want to cherish and fight even harder for the cause of religious liberty, both here and abroad.

– What’s your next writing project?  Will there be another in this series?  If so, can you share some of the saints you might explore?

I don’t anticipate another book that is specifically a sequel to Ablaze and Radiate, however my husband Matt and I just released a new book, Your College Faith (Liguori, 2013), which is, in many ways, a natural follow-up. It is meant for high school seniors and college students who want to ignite the flames of their faith, and do it in such a way that is conducive to the college experience, whether that is at a faithfully (or unfaithfully) Catholic college or university, a state school, another sort of private institution, or anything in between.

In Your College Faith, we do profile saints within each chapter in the Alumni Directory feature, such as Saints Peter Gonzalez, Tarcisius, Monica, Augustine, Josephine Bakhita, Edith Stein, Maria Faustina Kowalska, Maximilian Kolbe, as well as Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati. It is also set up with some of readers’ favorite features from Ablaze and Radiate, like the reflection questions, prayers, memory verses from Sacred Scripture, practical steps to take, as well as some new features.

It was a new experience writing a book with my spouse, but one which I’m looking forward to doing again. Additionally, having written Radiate and Your College Faith while I was in the third trimester of pregnancy and then with a newborn/infant, I’ve become very interested in early childhood catechetical materials, as I seek out some for my own family, so perhaps one of my next writing projects might even span into that arena. 

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