3 Catholic Historians Talk on Catholic Heroes of Church History

Insights from John Coverdale, Robert Senkewicz and Phillip Campbell

L to R: John Coverdale, Robert Senkewicz, Phillip Campbell
L to R: John Coverdale, Robert Senkewicz, Phillip Campbell (photo: Register Files)

I spoke with three Catholic historians and authors who have written about different aspects of Church history and asked them to share their insights on the Catholic heroes they’ve studied.


Phillip Campbell, teacher and author of Heroes & Heretics of the Reformation

Talk about the Council of Trent (1545-63), some of the key heroes who made it happen and attempted to implement its reforms.

Trent was a pivotal moment in the life of the Catholic Church. It reaffirmed traditional Catholic teaching, elucidated answers to the Protestant attack and defined the orientation of Catholicism for the next four centuries. Many in the Church at the time recognized the need for an Ecumenical Council to answer the challenge posed by Protestantism; the man who brought the Council to fruition was Pope Paul III. One amazing thing readers will learn from my book is just how many political obstacles there were to getting Trent summoned.

But Paul III had the vision to see it through, and the wisdom to get the right people in the right places to move the heavy bureaucracy of the Church in the right direction. Other notables from the era are St. Charles Borromeo, who was entrusted with the task of implementing all the reforms of the Council in Milan with the effect of turning it into a “model diocese” for other bishops to emulate. There are so many others we could enumerate – Pope St. Pius V, pope in the immediate aftermath of Trent, who reformed the liturgical life of the Church and was the last sainted pope until the 20th century.


The Catholic Church was blessed by many saints during the time of the Reformation, both martyrs and those who labored for the true reform the Protestants said they were seeking. Could you touch on a few of your favorite of these Catholic saints, and the good work they accomplished?

I love St. Peter Canisius, the saint with whom I chose to open my book. He chose to combat the errors of his day by patient scholarship and reasoned discourse – and by education. He spent his life founding schools. As an educator myself, this is very dear to my heart. Of course, I love the greats like St. Ignatius Loyola and Pope St. Pius V, both of whom were instrumental in the pivoting the Church toward her Counter-Reformation stance. Also, although she is certainly not a saint, I have to say I have always had a soft spot in my heart for the tragic story of Mary Queen of Scots. I devoted an entire chapter to her in my book.


Talk about the most famous Catholic martyrs of this period.

The English martyrs come to mind, especially the Benedictine martyrs killed by Henry VIII during the monastic closures, but also St. Edmund Campion, “God's braggart,” to whom I devoted an entire chapter. Also of worthy mention is St. Fidelis of Sigmaringen, a Capuchin friar murdered by Protestants in Switzerland. And, of course, there are St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher, renowned martyrs of the English Church, who suffered death for disagreeing with the claims of Henry VIII.

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Robert Senkewicz, history professor at Santa Clara University since 1976, volunteer tour guide at Mission Santa Clara de Asis (on the University grounds) and author (with his wife, Rose Marie Beebe) of Junípero Serra: California, Indians, and the Transformation of a Missionary.


Tell me about St. Junípero Serra.

He was a Franciscan. Since the time of St. Francis (1181-1226), Franciscans have appreciated God’s presence in nature … Brother Sun, Sister Moon … and have had a missionary outreach. In fact, at one time Francis traveled to Egypt and preached to the Sultan in an attempt to convert him. The Franciscans continued to have a tremendous outreach to the Muslims in the 1300s and 1400s.

The Franciscan emphasis on nature and being a missionary was central to Serra’s identity. I believe it was what attracted the Native Americans to him. Also, since the Franciscans had taken a vow of poverty and the Indians had few possessions themselves, that’s something else they had in common.


How successful were the Franciscans at winning converts among the Indians?

They were successful in converting some, but not others. The first group of 12 Franciscans came to the New World in 1524. They were nicknamed the Twelve Apostles. They worked with the recently defeated Aztecs and had success converting the Aztec nobility.

As the years passed, they moved north into the frontier. Some Indians were receptive to their message. Fr. Serra, for example, had success in converting the Pame Indians of the Sierra Gorda Mountains in Mexico. But other Indians, like the Comanche in Texas, did not convert.


What was Fr. Serra like?

He had tremendous energy. He was physically afflicted by an infection in his leg, but he was still a man driven and never satisfied. He was always looking for his next project, and to push himself more.

He was a man of genuine humility, as was typical of Franciscans. He thought that the worst sin he could commit was the sin of pride. He didn’t want to take credit for God’s doing. He was a very accomplished man, and many people in that situation would have struggled with the temptation to pride. But he very much saw himself as working for God.

He had a gentle touch. You can see it in his letters. In one, he writes of returning from Mexico City to Carmel in 1774. He tells of meeting an Indian boy and asking about his religion. He listened respectfully as the boy told of his ancestors, of demons and darkness.

Another time, he writes to a missionary in San Diego who is depressed. Serra wrote him a tender letter, telling him he knew the man’s life was difficult and that he was struggling, and that he’d pray for him. He said he’d let him leave the mission if he wanted to, but to pray to God to know His will.

He was tough, and let you know if he thought you were wrong. In 1777, the government wanted to found a pueblo. Serra was concerned that the settlers would want to put the Indians to work. He wrote the authorities a letter, opposing the decision vigorously.

Serra was constantly battling with the civil and military authorities. He never met a governor he liked. He thought they just wanted to put the Indians to work for them. He was successful in getting the first military commander replaced, and the next one transferred. The final commander he battled with was transferred too, but promoted to a higher position. The conflict ended in a stalemate.

He also had a good sense of humor. On his way from Baja to San Diego in 1769, a cook in the Portola expedition killed a burro. He wrote that the cook was guilty of “burro-cide.”

All told, he had many different sides and was a well-balanced individual.

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John Coverdale is a professor at Seton Hall University Law School in New Jersey, Opus Dei numerary (celibate member) and author of Uncommon Faith: the Early Years of Opus Dei. He worked for Opus Dei in Rome 1960-68, and had regular contact with St. Josemaría Escrivá, the founder of Opus Dei. He is considered among American Opus Dei members their leading expert on the saint’s life and work. He offered input for the 2011 film There Be Dragons which has St. Josemaría as one of its main characters.


How did you get to know St. Josemaría and what was he like?

At the College of the Holy Cross [in Rome], during our social time at dinner, he’d often come and interact with us. Also, I saw him at the public relations office daily.

I found him to be a man of great faith, who loved God, loved Our Lady and those around him. He had a great personal concern for each person with whom he interacted, which surprised me considering that we were a large international organization.

He was also quite funny. It wasn’t so much that he told jokes, but had that particular turn of phrase or lifting of the shoulders and eyebrows that could get the room laughing. If you watch old movies of him talking to groups, you’ll notice that people laugh a lot.


And didn’t he remain cheery despite having some significant health problems?

Yes. He had severe diabetes for 15 years, which gave him terrible headaches, and made him thirsty and weak. It culminated in one instance when the doctors changed the insulin he was receiving. After receiving an injection, he went down to join his community for dinner, but was physically overcome. During his attack, he saw Msgr. Alvaro del Portillo—or “Don Alvaro,” the man who would become his successor—and cried out “Alvaro, absolution!”

St. Josemaría thought he was dying and was requesting absolution. As Don Alvaro gave it to him, St. Josemaría fell to the floor and lost consciousness for 15 minutes. When he woke up, he didn’t have diabetes anymore. The doctors were amazed.


Was it a miraculous cure?

St. Josemaría never used the word miraculous. But his doctors said such a cure was unheard of. Josemaría wasn’t one for talking about miracles, despite the fact that there were many special interventions of God in his life. In fact, when Pope John Paul II canonized him in 2002, he referred to him as “the saint of ordinary life.”


What were some of the unique challenges St. Josemaría had to overcome in his life?

The first was overcoming hostility to his basic message, the universal call to sanctity. Today, it’s enshrined in the documents of the Second Vatican Council and considered to be a standard part of Church teaching. But in the early days of Opus Dei, many people did not accept this idea. Some thought it heretical. One convent in Barcelona burned his book, The Way. People thought if you really took your religion seriously and wanted to be close to God you had to become a priest or religious.

Josemaría’s bishop in Madrid, however, defended Opus Dei. Josemaría warned him that his support for Opus Dei would cost him a promotion, becoming Archbishop of Toledo and Primate of Spain. The bishop replied, “Josemaría, what I risk losing is my soul. I will not cease defending you.” He never received the promotion.

While some rejected Josemaría’s ideas altogether, others found The Way too challenging, and would leave. Josemaría would say, “They slip through my fingers like eels in the water.”

And, the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) came along and the few people he had were dispersed. Some were killed.

After the war ended, Josemaría again faced severe criticism and even calumny. People went to the families of Opus Dei members and warned them that their child who was a member was going to lose his soul.

He had no money. There was a struggle to find a place for Opus Dei in the Church’s legislation. There wasn’t a provision for those who dedicated their lives to God, sought sanctity and received special formation, but not be priests or religious. He never found a satisfactory solution during his lifetime.