Today is the feast of Saint Fidelis of Sigmaringen, whose original name was Mark Rey: His names comes from his birthplace, with the Fidelis his name in religion, after he joined the Capuchins in the first decade of the 1600’s, as Shakespeare was writing his sonnets and plays in England just after the Elizabethan era, and the so-called ‘Reformation’ at its height.
Mark’s first job was as a lawyer, in which task he was known for honesty, and his work for the poor, definitely not in it for the money or prestige. The moral compromises implicit in the profession prompted him to ‘come higher’, sell all things, and follow Christ without reserve. He gave his life to the austere Capuchin Franciscans, and was sent to preach and convert the Calvinists, still in the throes of their early zeal. But Father Fidelis’ 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’ success in converting the wayward Calvinists back to Catholicism was such that they plotted to kill him, and the Franciscan foretold his own death, signing his letters P. Fidelis, prope diem esca vermium ‘Father Fidelis, close to the day he will be the food for worms’
After preaching on April 24, 1622, 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. They demanded he 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 himself, prayed that their sin be not held against them, that they acted out of passion, calling on the names of Jesus and Mary. 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 pastor eventually converted to Catholicism at the example and intercession of Saint Fidelis, and so, we may hope, did some of the soldiers.
Pope Benedict in his Regensburg address in 2006 declared, using the words of the early emperor Manuel II Paleologus,
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.
It would be difficult to find a Protestant who would martyr you nowadays, which is both good and bad, for it signifies that they may have lost some of their initial zeal, however misguided.
Not so Islam, which is still as zealous as ever, but not much more willing to debate and dialogue than when it began a millennium before Saint Fidelis, as Paris and many others parts of Europe are finding out the hard way.
But martyrdom has its own voice, and the death of Saint Fidelis is perhaps the best, and most rational, sermon he ever gave.
Ora pro nobis, servus Dei.