Saturday, July 01, 2023

A Week of Peacemakers: The Saints from July 4 to 9

St Elizabeth of Portugal, by Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664), ca. 1635. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.

The 1969 new General Calendar observes the feast of Saint Elizabeth of Portugal on July 4, but in the U.S. it is transferred to July 5, as if the celebration of this great Catholic monarch, whom we shall meet momentarily, were a distraction from our exuberance over American democracy. Instead, the Proper Calendar for the dioceses of the United States of America lists July 4 as “Independence Day.” Whatever one’s views of the American Founding, surely it is a stretch to consider it a liturgically significant event, like the victorious death of a saint or a mystery in the life of Christ. There is nothing wrong with celebrating a secular holiday or offering up a Mass for one’s country, but it is certainly weird for a Church to spend half her time demoting the sacred to the level of the secular (as we see with flattened, happy-clappy celebrations of the Mass) and the other half elevating the secular to the level of the sacred.

Fortunately, there is an alternative. As Saint Augustine once famously observed, the point at which the City of God intersects with the earthly city is in their common desire for peace. American Catholics can be grateful to their country for the temporal peace they enjoy, and they in turn can contribute to their country’s welfare by sharing and acting on the peace that only Christ can give. Peace is also a theme that unites a remarkable series of feast days, mostly from the traditional universal calendar, that begin on July 4 and end on July 9. It is by reflecting on this week of saints that we can gain valuable lessons in the Catholic engagement of the body politic.
Ghent Altapiece
Commemoration of All Holy Popes, July 4
A little-known feast day that never made it to the universal calendar, but was allowed to be observed in some places prior to the Second Vatican Council, was the Commemoration of All Holy Popes. Fittingly, this commemoration fell within what was once the Octave of Saints Peter and Paul which, before it was suppressed in 1955, began on June 29 and ended on July 6. Of the 266 Vicars of Christ that the Catholic Church has had so far, around 80 are canonized saints – a fairly impressive percentile given some of the notoriously corrupt Pontiffs that history has produced. And if we interpret today’s commemoration to include all holy popes and not simply those who have been canonized, we may also reverently call to mind Venerable Pius XII (reigned 1939-58), Blessed Pius IX (reigned 1846-78), and God knows who else – which we do not mean flippantly but literally. There is even a saint who was an anti-pope, Saint Hippolytus of Rome (anti-reigned 217-236), though I suppose we should not number him among those honored today.
One of the duties of a Pope is to keep peace within the household of God by promoting mutual charity and, if necessary, excommunicating various wolves in sheep’s clothing such as heretics and schismatics. But the papacy has also assumed an important role in promoting civic peace, and it is fascinating to reflect on the diversity of papal policies used over the centuries to that end.
The Meeting of Pope Leo the Great and Attila the Hun, by Francisco Solimena, early 18th c.
Saint Leo the Great faced Attila the Hun unarmed and out in the open to protect the city of Rome, while Venerable Pius XII and Saint John XXIII used their diplomatic skills behind the scenes to save countless Jews from Hitler’s death camps and to end the Cuban Missile Crisis, respectively. [1] Saint John Paul II used both methods, openly supporting the Solidarity Movement in Poland and secretly collaborating with President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to end the Cold War and bring about the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
President Ronald Reagan Meeting with Pope John Paul II at The Fairbanks Airport in Alaska, 5/2/1984
Other holy Popes did not shrink from the sober truth that peace often comes at the cost of war. Blessed Urban II called for the First Crusade in response to an appeal from the Byzantine Emperor to protect Christians in the Middle East, while Saint Pius V assembled the Holy League and personally recruited its heroic leader, Don John of Austria, to defeat a mighty Turkish navy at the Battle of Lepanto. Finally, some holy Pontiffs promoted peace by temporarily disturbing it, generating political strife by publicly chastising Christian rulers such as Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV and Queen Elizabeth I of England: the latter was excommunicated by Pius V, and the former was excommunicated three times by Gregory VII (d. 1085).
Saint Maria Goretti, July 6
Maria Goretti (1890-1902) is sometimes called the “Saint Agnes of the Twentieth Century” because like her fourth-century counterpart, Maria was a holy youth who chose chastity over life. After the death of her father, Maria’s impoverished family moved in with the Serenelli family. Though illiterate, Maria had great piety: she prayed a rosary for the repose of her father’s soul every night and visited the shrine of Our Lady of Graces as often as she could.
The only known photograph of St Maria Goretti, taken in 1902. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
One of the Serenellis was a twenty year-old man named Alessandro. Alessandro was a virgin, but as he recounted later in his life, he fell under the influence of “print, mass-media, and bad examples which are followed by the majority of young people without even thinking.” [2] Despite his friendship with Maria, he decided to seduce her, and after she rebuffed him twice, he resolved to kill her if she resisted again.
On July 5, 1902, Alessandro approached the shy girl with the intent to rape her. Maria, who was to celebrate her twelfth birthday in three months, fought back, crying out “No! It is a sin! God does not want it!”, and warned him that he would go to Hell if he continued. Alessandro proceeded to choke her, but when she still refused him, he stabbed her fourteen times. Maria was rushed to the hospital. As she lay dying, a priest asked her, “Maria, Jesus died while forgiving the penitent thief at His side. Do you forgive with all your heart your attacker and murderer?” “Yes! Yes!” she replied, “For the love of Jesus, I forgive him, and I want him to be with me one day in Heaven!” She died of her wounds approximately twenty-four hours after receiving them.
Serenelli, who was considered a minor under Italian law at the time, was sentenced to thirty years in prison. Initially he remained unrepentant, but after three years he had a dream of Maria gathering lilies in a garden and handing them to him. Alessandro felt the power of forgiveness, and his heart was forever changed. In 1929, he was let out of prison three years early – two for good behavior and one as part of a general pardon for the Italian victory in World War I. Later, one Christmas night, he fell to his knees before Assunta Goretti, Maria’s mother, and begged her forgiveness. The kind matron did so immediately, adding that she could not do otherwise given her daughter’s example.
Alessandro eventually found his way to the monastery of the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin, where he became their gardener and a lay brother, and where he died at the age of 88 in 1970. According to some reports, he also joined Maria’s mother along with over 250,000 people at Maria’s canonization ceremony in Rome on June 24, 1950.
Pius XII at the canonization of St. Maria Goretti
Addressing the throng on that festive day, Venerable Pius XII asked: “Why does this story move you even to tears? Why has Maria Goretti so quickly conquered your hearts, and taken first place in your affections?” The Pope continued:
The reason is because there is still in this world, apparently sunk and immersed in the worship of pleasure, not only a meager little band of chosen souls who thirst for heaven and its pure air – but a crowd, nay, an immense multitude on whom the supernatural fragrance of Christian purity exercise an irresistible and reassuring fascination. During the past fifty years, coupled with what was often a weak reaction on the part of decent people, there has been a conspiracy of evil practices, propagating themselves in books and illustrations, in theaters and radio programs, in styles and clubs and on the beaches, trying to work their way into the hearts of the family and society, and doing their worst damage among the youth, even among those of the tenderest years in whom the possession of virtue is a natural inheritance. [3]
All this in 1950: Imagine the Supreme Pontiff’s reaction today!
The Holy Father’s sermon reminds us of the first of at least two important lessons to heed from the life and death of Saint Maria Goretti. The first is the assault on chastity and purity being waged in the current age and the countless evils that it engenders. Without a doubt, the $8-billion-a-year pornography industry ranks among the chief engines of this pernicious attack, yet both Alessandro Serenelli and Pius XII also point to the mainstream media and contemporary fashions, which are passed off as normal and acceptable. In a sad irony, the modern age’s worship of the body involves its denigration, sacrificing the body’s natural goodness to artificially aggravated disorders of the soul hiding behind banners of freedom and self-expression. But as the case of Maria Goretti proves, there is nothing dignified or liberating about impurity – for the victim or the perpetrator.
The second lesson concerns forgiveness. Forgiveness is a difficult matter to discuss let alone implement when the abuse of innocent children is involved, and it has not been made easier in our own time by the despicable way that some bishops hid behind the concept of forgiveness to justify their mishandling of the clerical abuse scandals.
Forgiveness does not involve forgetting what was done, approving the behavior of the offender, or ignoring the requirements of justice. Maria may have forgiven Alessandro, but the courts still remembered what he did and put him in jail for it, and rightly so. When minors are abused, victims and their families should expect and receive complete retributive justice from all offending parties, from the monsters who committed the crimes to the vile colluders who sheltered them.
But while Catholics seek to drive the filth from their Church and reestablish justice in their midst, they must also have forgiving hearts, if only to bring peace to their own lives. “We forgive because we need to be healed,” states the aptly named Maria Goretti Network, a national Catholic support group that helps victims of abuse. “Not to forgive is to be a perennial victim of those who have hurt us.”[4] As a decision not to seek vengeance, forgiveness liberates the soul from a corrosive and destructive anger
 A feast day for Maria Goretti was not added to the Roman calendar prior to Vatican II nor was she included in the Roman martyrology, but an Optional Memorial for her on July 6 was inserted into the new General Roman Calendar in 1969.
Saint Goar, July 6
July 6 is also the feast (mentioned in the Martyrology) of an obscure saint named Goar of Aquitaine (ca. 585-649). Born in the southwest of France, Goar was a priest known for his sanctity and forceful preaching. After a while, however, he wished for a more quiet life, and so he moved away to dwell as a hermit in a cave at Oberwesel on the banks of the Rhine in Germany. Goar’s sanctity was eventually discovered by the locals, and soon he found himself ministering to their spiritual needs. Kind to all, he built a hospice and a chapel for the people, and from that humble beginning grew the town of Sankt Goar. Today the Saint is the patron of innkeepers, potters, and vine growers, since the vineyards around Sankt Goar are famous for their Rieslings.
Fresco of Saint Goar, 1450
Saint Goar’s life is an example of what has been called the “Benedict option,” a reference to Saint Benedict of Nursia’s decision to leave everything behind and found a monastery devoted to the evangelical counsels of perfection. Abandoning the world may sound like an odd way to contribute to civic peace, but as the legacy of Saint Goar and others attest, pursuing holiness outside the walls of the city can paradoxically lead to the founding of a new city. Numerous towns in Europe, such as Germany’s “Munich” – which means “by the monks” – were established around monasteries because of the monks’ stability and sanctity. [5] There is even a country thus founded: the tiny Republic of San Marino grew around the chapel and hermitage of Saint Marinus (d. 336), a deacon who had fled pastoral ministry after being accused by an insane woman of being her husband.
Saint Elizabeth of Portugal, July 8
The “Benedict option” is not for everyone, especially when one is a ruling monarch. Elizabeth of Portugal, aka Isabel or Isabella (1271-1336), was named after her great aunt Saint Elizabeth of Hungary. Even as a girl, Elizabeth said the entire Divine Office, went to High Mass at least once a day, fasted and did penance, and avoided frivolous amusement. She maintained her virtue and went to extraordinary lengths to help the poor, even after being married young to a dissolute king who kept a corrupt court.
Her goodness incurred jealousy among the king’s lackeys, and she was once falsely accused by a page of infidelity with another page. The enraged king ordered a lime-burner to throw into his furnace the first page who came to him and then sent the accused page to the lime-burner. On the way, however, the good page stopped for Mass. Impatient over the lack of any news, the king sent the wicked page to see what had happened, and the lime-burner threw him into the furnace. The astonished king interpreted these events as a divine confirmation of Elizabeth’s innocence.
Saint Elizabeth of Aragon in the Alvalade Battlefield, 1917, by Roque Gameiro
Elizabeth is sometimes called “the Peacemaker.” She once reconciled her son Affonso and her husband when the former, tired of his father’s preferences for his illegitimate children, rebelled. Elizabeth rode in between the two opposing armies and made peace before the battle was met. After her husband died, Elizabeth tried to take up the “Benedict option” by becoming a tertiary in a convent of Poor Clares that she had founded earlier, but her religious retirement was interrupted when Affonso, now king of Portugal, marched against the king of Castile. Despite her age and weakness, the holy queen dowager again rushed out to where the two armies were drawn up and helped establish peace. This last exertion proved too much for her, and she died “full of heavenly joy” soon after.
Saints John Fisher and Thomas More, July 9
To do justice to the two English martyrs sharing today’s feast, a separate article would need to be written. John Fisher (1459-1535) was a cardinal and the Bishop of Rochester who was beheaded on June 22, 1535 for his opposition to King Henry VIII. A humble and holy man, Fisher was arguably the only virtuous bishop in all of England when that “miserable monarch” (to quote the Baronius Missal) established his own church.
Portrait of Sir Thomas More, by Hans Holbein
Thomas More (1478-1535) was the most successful private lawyer in the country when he agreed to become the Chancellor of England under King Henry VIII. He is most famous, however, for refusing to sign the Act of Supremacy that recognized Henry as the head of the Church in England, a refusal that led to his martyrdom on July 6, 1535 – fittingly, then the Octave of Saints Peter and Paul.
After More was canonized in 1935, his feast day was assigned to July 9, the first free ferial day after July 6, and kept by several dioceses in England. It was never assigned to the General Roman Calendar until 1969, at which point it was transferred to June 22, the date of Saint John Fisher’s martyrdom. There was also an excellent Votive Mass to St. Thomas More in use in England prior to Vatican II.
More and Fisher were not only deeply pious Catholics, they were also remarkably learned men. Fisher was the Chancellor of Cambridge University who, after being re-elected annually for ten years by his peers, was given a lifetime appointment. During this time Fisher invited Erasmus to campus, and ensured that the study of Greek at Cambridge, unlike at Oxford, would be met with no resistance. Thomas More, on the other hand, was perhaps the most celebrated Renaissance humanist of the day: an eloquent Latinist with a solid command of Greek, he was also a brilliant student of theology and philosophy.
Fisher and More, however, had different approaches to Henry VIII’s tyrannical apostasy. John Fisher did not hesitate to be the “bad cop.” When he defended Catherine of Aragon in the legates’ court from the false accusations that the king had made against her, he stunned all by his bluntness and by his declaration that he was willing to die like John the Baptist for the indissolubility of marriage. Henry VIII, who had once studied under Fisher, hated him from that day forward.
A portrait of St John Fisher by Hans Holbein
More, on the other hand, was the “good cop” who quietly resigned his position as Chancellor only when it became impossible for him to continue in good conscience. But More was no coward: even after imprisonment in the Tower of London he continued to write, discreetly but unmistakably, against the direction his king and country were taking, all in an effort to persuade them to change their disastrous course. As More wrote earlier in his life:
If you cannot thoroughly eradicate corrupt opinions or cure long-standing evils to your own satisfaction, that is still no reason to abandon the commonwealth, deserting the ship in a storm because you cannot control the winds… By indirection you should strive and struggle as hard as you can to handle everything deftly, and if you cannot turn something to good at least make it as little bad as you can. [6]
More’s last words before being executed for high treason are frequently reported as “I die the king’s good servant, but God’s first.” This, however, is inaccurate. The real quote is: “I die the king’s good servant and God’s first.” Even on the scaffold, More saw no contradiction between serving his king and serving God. Indeed, by serving God first Thomas More made a better servant to his king, offering Henry not only impeccable and conscientious service but much-needed fraternal correction. And by serving his king thus, More the traitor may well have been the most loyal Englishmen in the realm.
“Blessed are the peacemakers,” Our Lord assures us, “for they shall be called children of God” (Matt. 5, 9). The children of God that the Church celebrates as saints found different ways, sometimes dramatically different ways, to make or defend peace; yet they were all peacemakers whose work directly or indirectly enriched the lives of their fellow man. There is no cookie-cutter model for Catholic civic engagement. Some will engage by wielding civil authority responsibly, like Thomas More when he was chancellor or Elizabeth of Portugal when she was queen. Others will be like Cardinal John Fisher and the Holy Popes, active in public affairs through their clerical vocations; they are the ones who fulfill the verse in the Office for a Bishop and Confessor: “and in a time of wrath he was made a reconciliation.” (Sir. 44, 17) Still others will contribute to politics paradoxically by relinquishing political life for the monastic ideal, like Saint Goar. And some, like Maria Goretti, will simply live in the midst of the world resisting its temptations and loving their enemies, reminding us all that goodness is possible in every day and age.

An earlier version of this article appeared in The Latin Mass magazine 25:2 (Summer 2016), 36-40. Many thanks to its editors for allowing its publication here.

[1] The Israeli historian and diplomat Pinchas Lapide puts the estimate as high as 860,000, and that was before Vatican documents were discovered indicating that Pius XII issued travel visas to 200,000 German Jews after Kristallnacht in 1938.
[2] From a last testament that he wrote on May 5, 1961.
[4] See the Maria Goretti Netwok—for Recovery and Forgiveness:
[5] And, of course, we are not even considering the prayers that contemplative orders offer up for the rest of us as another contribution to our peace and welfare.
[6] Thomas More, Utopia, trans. Clarence H. Miller (Yale University Press, 2001), 44.

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