Today is the feast of Saint Fidelis of Sigmaringen, (+1622) whose original name was Mark Rey: ‘Sigmaringen’ was his birthplace in what is now Germany, and he took the name ‘Fidelis’ – faithful – in religion, after he joined the Capuchins in the first decade of the 1600’s. This was just in the era of the ‘wars of religion’, the eve of the brutal Thirty Years War (1618-48), as Catholics were put to death across Europe, even in Elizabethan England, while Shakespeare – likely a secret Catholic, whose own day of death was yesterday, eight years before Fidelis’ – was writing his sonnets and plays.
Mark’s first job was as a lawyer, in which task he was known for his honesty – yes, I know – and his pro bono work for the poor, definitely not in the normally profitable profession for the money or prestige. Still, the moral compromises he did have to make compromised his conscience, and rather than continuing in sorrow, young Mark Rey was prompted to choose a higher path, to sell everything, follow Christ, put his hand firmly to the plow, and never look back. As Pope John Paul II puts it in his Letter to Youth, when we perceive that ‘gaze of Christ’, we must respond, like the Apostles, without delay.
He entered the austere Capuchin Franciscans, a reform of the Order founded a century before by Matteo da Bascio, and was sent to preach and convert the Calvinists, still in the throes of their early misguided zeal. But Father Fidelis’ own zeal was deeper and more pure, founded on the truth of Catholicism, flowing from the sacraments and the prayers of all the saints who had gone before him.
Father Fidelis’ was a persuasive preacher, steeped in the Faith, and put his logical and rhetorical skills to presenting the truth in a way that was irresistible. His phenomenal success in converting wayward Calvinists back to Catholicism was such that their only response was, well, to kill him – the old ad baculum fallacy of which Aristotle speaks – ‘to the stick’, which has never really gone out of style, as our own era attests. Beat thine opponents into submission, or death.
On April 24th, 1622, the priest gave an unusually eloquent sermon, even for him, after which he gazed into heaven in ecstasy, realizing, by divine grace, that what he had foretold in the days and weeks previously was now to be fulfilled, when he began signing his letters, P. Fidelis, prope diem esca vermium : ‘Father Fidelis, close to the day he will be the food for worms’
After that fateful homily, in a church nestled in the breathtakingly beautiful canton of Seewis, Switzerland, Fidelis was confronted by a group of Calvinist soldiers, with their pastor at their head, who had just roused them to fury with his own sola scriptura sermon. The armed band demanded the priest renounce his Catholicism and join them, an offer which he of course refused, instead declaring that he had come to convert them from their heresy. One soldier smacked him on the head with his sword, and the priest, gaining his senses, prayed that their sin be not held against them, that they knew not what they did:
Pardon my enemies, O Lord: blinded by passion they know not what they do. Lord Jesus, have mercy on me. Mary, Mother of God, succor me!
The soldiers split his head open, stabbed him numerous times, and chopped off one of his legs in revenge for its bringing him on so many missions to spread the faith.
The Calvinist pastor, realizing what he had done – killed a saint – eventually realized the error of his ways, and converted to Catholicism, we may presume at the intercession of Saint Fidelis, and so, we may hope, did some of the soldiers.
Pope Benedict in his Regensburg address in 2006 – one year after his own election to the papacy on this day in 2005 – declared, using the words of the early emperor Manuel II Paleologus, about another certain religion which uses violence to ‘convert’ those they see as ‘infidels’:
God”, he says, “is not pleased by blood – and not acting reasonably (σὺν λόγω) is contrary to God’s nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats… To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death
Faith must be free, prompted by our own reason, or it is not faith. The same may be said for anything held by our ‘reason’, opposed to any form of exterior coercion.
Although the Faith begins with reason, it does not end there, for we are called to go beyond this life, into the very infinite mystery of the ineffable God. This is where the witness of martyrdom has its own voice, and the glorious death of Saint Fidelis is perhaps the best, and most rational, sermon he ever gave.
Ora pro nobis, servus Dei.