Bl. Ralph Milner: Of Rash Vows, George Bailey, and Dad-Martyrdom

The story of Ralph Milner is a stark reminder that our prior and overarching commitment is to God himself.

(photo: Register Files)

“The man who makes a vow makes an appointment with himself
at some distant time or place. The danger of it is that
himself should not keep the appointment.”
G.K. Chesterton


We all know him as “Doubting Thomas,” and I’m sure every preacher everywhere at least mentioned that moniker last week on the feast of St. Thomas the Apostle (July 3). It’s a fair cop, considering Thomas’s faltering after the Resurrection. Yet, this is the same St. Thomas that, with great zeal and fortitude, went on to spread the Gospel to the furthest reaches of the globe. To this day, his spiritual descendants throughout India refer to themselves as “Thomas Christians.”

So, whence the switch from “doubting” to “dauntless?”

Actually, there was no switch. Like you and me, Thomas had both traits simmering on his interior burners at all times. We can see his fortitude, for example, when he pipes up just before Jesus heads off to Bethany to tend to Lazarus, recently deceased. Bethany’s proximity to Jerusalem, not to mention the timing (Passover was just around the corner) and the heated atmosphere (Jesus’ miracles were riling up the masses), made it a perilous destination. Nonetheless, it’s Doubting Thomas who declares, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (Jn 11.16).

It was a noble sentiment and commendable. “He meant it when he said it,” as Frank Sheed points out, “and there was splendor in it – all the more, perhaps, because he did run later: courage costs braver men less!” Thomas, like his mercurial colleagues, wasn’t elevated from timidity to fearlessness just because Jesus chose him as an apostle. We have Judas to remind us of that fact in perpetuity. No, Thomas remained a mix of coward and hero throughout his life, which makes his legacy as a martyred witness in India all the more remarkable. In fact, you could say that his impulsive promise on the brink of disaster, his decision to follow Jesus come what may, was a marker that ratified his apostleship, regardless of subsequent backtracking and equivocations. The marker made the man.

It’s the same kind of marker I’ve always associated with that one scene in “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946), that one brilliant scene where George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) commits to a life of self-effacing virtue. He’d stayed at home, reluctantly, to keep the Bailey Savings and Loan afloat while his brother, Harry, went off to college. After four years of toil and resentment, George is ready for freedom – ready to do what he wants to do. He’s at the train station, welcoming Harry and assuming his brother is prepared to take over the family business. Yet it turns out that Harry has married and has other plans, and George has to choose: Insist on his own way, or make radical adjustments in deference to his brother’s unanticipated circumstances.

It’s a split-second decision that director Frank Capra stages with subtle brilliance. George is silent as he turns from brother to sister-in-law, his face contorted with frustration and confusion, pent-up aspirations battling with an inclination to serve – what will he do? Regardless of what we think he actually owes his brother (with reference to justice, and maybe prudence as well), George opts for self-effacement. His subsequent path is filled with ups and downs, some failures, and lots of grand successes – a happy marriage, for example, and a quiver of kids – but George Bailey’s fundamental trajectory is established in that crucial moment at the train station no matter how swervey it got later. It’s his marker, his public vow of other-centeredness, and it perdures to the narrative’s happy ending. It even informs George’s tragically misguided suicide attempt in the middle of the film: Desperate to avoid penury for his wife and family, he vainly hopes that they can collect on his life insurance policy once he’s gone.

Providence intervenes, as we all know, and George reclaims his marker with a renewed, luminous vision of self-sacrifice and love – a vision that had its genesis at the train station so long ago.

George Bailey’s story came to mind as I was reading up on Blessed Ralph Milner, one of the martyrs of the English Reformation whose feast was observed last Friday (July 7). A country rustic, Ralph grew up in Hampshire a devout Anglican and he expressed his adult faith through his marital vocation. Although illiterate, Ralph was a hard worker, and he provided for his wife and eight children through diligent manual labor.

Toward the end of his life (the chronicles indicate that he was “elderly”), Ralph grew uneasy with the Anglican rebellion against the ancient Faith, especially when he contrasted the behavior of Catholics he knew with that of his co-religionists. Consequently, he threw in his lot with the outlawed Church, surreptitiously received instruction, and set his Catholic marker. It didn’t take long for his resolve to be tested, for the records indicate that on the very day of his very first Holy Communion, Ralph was arrested for treason and tossed into the Winchester jail.

Once imprisoned, Milner got on well with his jailers, enjoyed considerable freedom, and was let out on parole on a regular basis. He was able to minister to the needs of other jailed Catholics as a result and even smuggled in priests to administer the sacraments. Later, Milner went so far as to accompany these banned priests on furtive sacramental missions throughout the area, well beyond the confines of the jail. It was on such a mission that Milner’s traitorous Catholic perfidies were discovered, and he was returned to Winchester jail to face trial and a death sentence. On July 7, 1591, Milner trudged to the gallows along with other Catholic rebels to be hanged, drawn, and quartered.

No record has come down to us as to the negotiations Ralph might’ve entered into with his wife and grown children prior to these events, but we can be sure they took place. Perhaps something along the lines of, “Are you kidding? What about us?” and “Sure, you can follow your papist conscience, who’ll care for me and the kids when they send you to the scaffold?” It’s the kind of agonizing challenge that all dad-martyrs have to face when they choose Catholic fidelity over convenience – like Milner’s contemporary, Sir Thomas More, for instance, and, more recently, Franz Jägerstätter in Nazi Germany.

Even so, Ralph Milner’s paternal agony was particularly acute. His judge had the condemned traitor’s eight children paraded before their father to plead with him to compromise. Indeed, it would’ve been an easy compromise to make since the judge merely asked the old man to make a token visit to a Protestant church in exchange for his freedom.

Nonetheless, recognizing the proffered bargain’s ramifications on his fellow Catholics, Ralph refused it as something “disagreeable to the maxims of the Gospel.” Instead, Milner blessed his brood and stated that “he could wish them no greater happiness than to die for the like cause.”

The annals don’t tell us anything about his state of mind at this point, but is it likely that Ralph didn’t go through some kind of serious interior wrestling before he could say such a thing to his own kids? Milner was holy, to be sure, but he was human, and what kind of dad could urge his own issue to join him on the gallows with at least some hesitation, some wavering, some doubt.

Still, his marker had been set when he joined the Church, and he stolidly held fast until the end.

In an age which seems to promote betrayal of life markers, to excuse the breaking of vows and the suspension of promises, the Church calls on us to claim our commitments as permanent – even when we struggle with them. This especially applies to Catholic men and their nuptial commitments these days: abandonment of family and adultery ought to be unthinkable, and divorce ought to be considered an amputation – something to guard against with vigilance before it is ever entertained.

That being said, the story of Ralph Milner is a stark reminder that our prior and overarching commitment is to God himself – an idea captured in our Lord’s insistence that we “hate” our families in comparison to our love of him (Lk 14.26). Jesus’ hyperbolic idiom is not to be taken literally – our paternal marker requires us to love our wives and children with our whole selves – but it’s clear that Jesus means business with regards to our preferring the things of God to our most fundamental human associations and responsibilities.

Our fatherly markers, in other words, must be set beyond our families, not to mention beyond our jobs and other immediate concerns. As Bl. Ralph demonstrated, and despite our foibles and equivocations, nothing less than aiming at God himself will do. Once that’s accomplished, we can fully expect the ensuing temporal consequences to clash with the priorities of the world – without a doubt.