Tuesday, July 09, 2019

The Martyrs of Gorkum

The Roman Martyrology notes today as the feast of a group of Saints known as the Martyrs of Gorkum. Their feast has never been on the general calendar, but is celebrated in many places, and by the various religious orders to which they belonged, the Franciscans, who were the majority of the group, the Dominicans, Premonstratensians and Augustinian Canons. They were solemnly canonized in 1867 by Bl. Pius IX, as part of a year-long series of celebrations to commemorate the 18th centenary of the martyrdom of Ss Peter and Paul, then generally held to have taken place in 67 AD.

The Glorification of the Martyrs of Gorkum; engraving of the year 1675 after a painting by Johan Zieneels. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
In 1572, Dutch Calvinists in rebellion against the Spanish Catholic rulers of the Hapsburg Netherlands, as they were then called, seized control of the town of Gorkum. Eleven members of the local Franciscan friary, three secular priests, including the local parish priest, and an Augustianian canon were taken by the soldiers; when a member of the local Dominican community came to administer the Sacraments to them, he was also taken and imprisoned with them. Shortly thereafter, two Premonstratensians and another secular priest were added to their number, a total of nineteen. Over the course of several days, beginning on June 26, the soldiers subjected them to terrible cruelties, partly out of hatred for the Catholic religion, partly in the hopes of getting hold of precious vessels from the church which they believed the religious had hidden. On the morning of July 7th, they were transferred to another town, called Briel, and in the presence of the Calvinist commander, the Baron de la Marck, and several Calvinist ministers, told they would be set free if they would abjure the Catholic doctrine on the Blessed Sacrament, which they refused to do.

The baron then received a letter from the leader of the rebellion, the Prince of Orange known as William the Silent, ordering that they all be released. He agreed to this on the new condition that they publically repudiate the primacy of the Pope, which they also refused to do. On the morning of July 9th, they were taken to an abandoned monastery in the countryside near Briel and hanged from the beams of one of the outbuildings, with the nooses placed in their mouths. Even this incredibly slow and painful death did not satisfy the barbarity of the Calvinists, who also mutilated the bodies, some of them while they were still alive. One of the Franciscans, a Dane named Willehad, was 90 years old; three others were in their seventies. When the bodies had been taken down, their remains were left in a ditch, and not recovered until 1616, during a truce in the Eighty Years’ War between Spain and the Netherlands; they are now kept in the Franciscan church of St Nicholas in Brussels. There is also a pilgrimage church dedicated to them at the place of their martyrdom in Briel.

The Martyrs of Gorkum, by Cesare Fracassini; this painting was made specifically for the canonization ceremony of 1867. One of the traditional customs of the canonization ritual was that images of the Saints were hung within decorative frames from the balconies in the central rotunda of St Peter’s Basilica, but covered with plain pieces of burlap, which were then allowed to drop to the floor, exposing the image for the first time, once the Pope had finished reading the bull of canonization. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
Perhaps the most appalling of Calvin’s many appalling doctrines was that of double predestination, the belief that we are all pre-destined to eternal salvation or damnation. (Calvin also taught that perhaps 100 souls would be saved from among the entire human race, although there was still enough human left in him at least to recognize that this was a “horrible conclusion.”) Inevitably, this drives people to search through their lives for signs that they are among the pre-saved; hence the idea that material prosperity in this life is a sign of pre-election in the next, a doctrine which has, with equal inevitability, now degenerated to truly parodic levels. But, as Catholic apologists immediately noted, this doctrine is pastorally disastrous, since it encourages not just the sinful, but also those who have repented of a sinful life, to see their past or present sins as a sign that they are among the pre-damned, and thus despair of their own correction and salvation. (A friend of mine who grew up in a Calvinist church and is now a Catholic priest once expressed the attitude that results as follows: “If I’m going to hell anyway, I might as well take the champagne flight.”)

Against this, we may adduce as particularly notable witnesses, the first meaning of the Greek word “martyr”, the lives and deaths of two among the company of Gorkum, which demonstrate that the door of conversion is not closed to anyone in this life, not even to the most obdurate sinner.

One of the two Premonstratensians, James Lacops, had formerly renounced both his vows and the Catholic Faith, after being reproved by his superiors for a very irregular life, and declared contumacious. Having been reconciled to the Church, he and St Adrian Jansen were captured in Gorkum when they opened the door of their presbytery to a man claiming that he wished to receive the Last Rites. Although the town was under occupation, and they knew that it might be a trick (as indeed it was), they would not risk letting someone die without the ministrations of a priest, and so they were taken to torture and death. It is, of course, especially appropriate that a son of St Norbert, who was himself rather a lax cleric in his youth (though nowhere near so egregiously) should die for the Catholic teaching on the Blessed Sacrament.

Even more interesting is the case of one of the secular priests, St Andrew Wouters, who was well-known as a womanizer and the father of more than one illegitimate child; despite being in disgrace, he joined the company of the others voluntarily. The Calvinist soldiers mocked him on account of the sins for which he was so notorious, and, in accordance with the logical conclusions of their creed, fully expected such a bad-living priest to apostatize and save his skin. This he did not do, and his last recorded words were, “Fornicator I always was, but heretic I never was; I will go to my death with the others.” As the article about them in the revised Butler’s Lives of the Saints wisely states, “it is a significant warning against judging the character of our neighbor, or pretending to read his heart, that, while a priest of blameless life recanted in a moment of weakness, the two who had been an occasion of scandal gave their lives without a tremor.”

Despite their disdain for religious vows and priestly celibacy, Calvinists did not of course believe that fornication was not sinful, and thus they would have seen in the sinful life of Andrew Wouters a clear sign of his eternal predestination to hell. To Catholics, his death as a martyr and canonization as a Saint are a reminder that we should never look on any sinful life, including our own, as anything other than a call to pray for conversion, which can happen even at the very last moments of life.

The reliquary of the Martyrs of Gorkum at the Franciscan church of St Nicholas in Brussels.
The full names of the martyrs are as follows.

The secular priests: Leonard van Veghel, pastor of Gorkum, Nicholas Poppel, Godfried van Duynen, and Andrew Wouters.
The eleven Franciscans: Fathers Nicholas Pieck, (who is listed first on the Franciscan liturgical calendar, since he was the guardian of the friary at Gorkum), Jerome of Weert (the vicar), Theodore van der Eem, Nicasius Jansen, Willehad of Denmark, Godfried of Mervel, Antony of Weert, Antony of Hoornaer, and Francis de Roye; the two lay brothers, Peter of Assche and Cornelius of Wyk near Duurstede.
The Premonstratensians: Adrian Jansen van Hilvarenbeek and James Lacops.
The Dominican: John of Cologne.
The Augustinian canon: Jan Lenartz of Oosterwyk, chaplain of the beguinage in Gorkum.

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