As I began reading Joseph Pearce's Heroes of the Catholic Reformation: Saints Who Renewed the Church, published in 2017 and available at EWTN Religious Catalogue, a personal experience returned to mind.
The summer I was 19, I traveled to Europe and visited the Tower of London. After a long wait in line with hundreds of people, followed by a hasty viewing of the Crown Jewels, I walked across the courtyard to visit the prison cell where St. Thomas More, one of the featured saints in Pearce’s book, spent his final year before his beheading by order of King Henry VIII.
I entered through the doorway, now in the company of only one other person, and was struck by the contrast between the noise and opulence I had just left with the royal gems to the silence and austerity of the martyr’s cell. I followed with my gaze to the top of the jagged stone wall to the barred window casting a meager stream of daylight into the bleak, unfurnished space. In awe, I prayed for St. Thomas More’s intercession, filled with an awareness of the ultimate price he paid out of love for the Church. As if meeting a new friend, he also became a new hero.
In Pearce’s book, I learned more details about him as well as other heroes who countered the 16th-century English Reformation and Protestant Reformation. With each saint, I was reminded of the words of St. Paul and pondered how to apply the same exhortation in my own life: “Stir into flame the gift of God that you have from the imposition of hands. For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but rather of power and love and self-control” (2 Timothy: 6-7).
I asked myself: Am I courageous enough to witness with “power and love and self-control” as John Fisher did in defense of the indissolubility of marriage? Do I have the courage to witness with “power and love and self-control” as Thomas More did in defense of the supremacy of God’s law over unjust secular laws? More’s response at his trial after receiving a guilty verdict for failure to take the Oath of Supremacy to the monarchy must rank among the most inspired of all time:
“Forasmuch, my lords as this indictment is grounded upon an Act of Parliament directly repugnant to the laws of God and his Holy Church, the supreme government whereof, as any part thereof, may no temporal prince presume by any law to take upon him, as rightfully belonging to the See of Rome, a spiritual pre-eminency by the mouth of our Savior himself, personally present upon the earth, only to St. Peter and his successors, bishops of the same see, by special prerogative granted, it is therefore in law among Christian men insufficient to charge any man.”
Sadly, in defense of “our Savior himself,” More was hated. But he never returned in kind to his enemies. Rather, witnessing with “power and love and self-control,” five days later, he ascended the scaffold to his death. He was indeed God’s good servant first.
Could I be as selfless? Or as fearless as St. Teresa of Ávila, who, later in the century, persevered through illness, hardships and opposition from both secular and religious detractors as she answered her call to reform the Carmelite order? Following upon a conversion 20 years into her religious life, she was distressed by the mitigated observance of the order’s rule and by the harm being done by the Protestant Reformation. With characteristic passion, she appealed to her Carmelite daughters and wrote in her Way of Perfection, “I wept with the Lord and begged him that I might remedy so much evil. ... All of my longing was and still is that since he has so many enemies and so few friends that these few friends be good ones. As a result, I resolved to do the little that was in my power; that is, to follow the evangelical counsels as perfectly as I could and strive that these few persons who live here do the same. I did this trusting in the great goodness of God, who never fails to help anyone who is determined to give up everything for him.”
Endowed with the same resolve, St. John of the Cross soon became her co-reformer for the friars. But like Jesus in his passion, John was arrested, bound and gagged, scourged and then led to stand trial before a jury. His accusers were not secular powers, but rather members of the Carmelite General Chapter threatened by the reform. John defended his actions, sanctioned by the papal nuncio, but was, nevertheless, branded a rebel and punished to imprisonment within a tiny closet in the monastery. There, for eight months, in near darkness, without proper food or a change of clothes, he prayed, witnessing to the “power and love and self-control” of the Holy Spirit as poetry flowed into his soul. The Dark Night and Spiritual Canticle are now considered masterpieces.
St. John of the Cross attributed his miraculous escape from prison on the Solemnity of the Assumption of Mary to the intervention of Mary herself. In the same way, I am sure that Mary, as she did for Jesus at the foot of the cross, interceded on behalf of the other saints featured in Pearce’s book. From the English martyrs — Edmund Campion, Robert Southwell, Margaret Clitherow and Anne Line — to Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus, and Francis Xavier, the great Jesuit missionary who carried the Gospel and sacramental life of the Catholic Church to the Far East. Pius V ordered the public recitation of the Rosary that gained the miraculous victory for Christians in the Battle of Lepanto, and Charles Borromeo reformed lax practices among the clergy, implemented the reforms and decrees of the Council of Trent and oversaw the completion of the first Catechism of the Catholic Church.
I know that I will never be called upon to perform the same works as the saints of the 16th century, or to witness in the same ways as they did. But I do know that if I am open to receive God’s grace through Mary, like my holy heroes, I, too, will be able to “stir into the flame the gift of God” and witness with “power and love and self-control” to the Catholic faith in my life.
Jennifer Sokol writes from Shoreline, Washington.