Saturday, June 8, 2019

Saint William, Bishop and Confessor


At the head of the holy Confessors admitted by the Church on the monumental page of her Martyrology for today is inscribed the illustrious name of William: “At York, in England,” thus runs the text of the Golden Book of heaven’s nobility, “the memory of Saint William, Archbishop and Confessor, who, amongst other miracles wrought at his tomb, raised three dead persons to life, and was inscribed amongst the Saints by Honorius III.” The divine Spirit who adorns the Church with variety in the virtues of her sons, reproduces in them the life of the Divine Spouse, under multiplied aspects. Thus there is no situation in life that bears not with it some teaching drawn from the example given by our Lord and his saints, under similar circumstances. However vast be the field of trial for the elect here below; however multiplied and unexpected, sometimes, be the limits of endurance, or the circumstances; herein, as ever, does that word of Eternal Wisdom chime in: Nothing is new under the sun; neither is any man able to say: Behold this is new: for it hath already gone before, in the ages that were before us.

The election of William to the metropolitan see of York was signalized by the apparition of a miraculous cross, a presage of what his life was to be. Verily the heaviest cross one can have to bear is that which originates on the part of the servants of God—from our own brethren, or from our own superiors, in the spiritual order of things: now, this was the very cross that was not to be spared to William. For our instruction (specially for us who so easily believe that we have gone to the furthest limits of endurance, in point of suffering) God permitted that, after the example of his divine Master, William should drink the chalice to the dregs and should become even to saints a sign of contradiction and a rock of scandal.

Both to the more numerous portion of the Flock, as well as to the better minded among them, the promotion of the Archbishop elect of York, was indeed a cause of great joy; but thereby also, diversely interested views among several, had been crossed. In their simplicity, some of the sheep gave ear to certain perfidious insinuations and whisperings; they were led to suppose that it would be a good deed, if they strove to break the staff that guided them to wholesome pastures; and they allowed themselves to be so far worked upon as to make formal and grave accusations against their Shepherd. Then, at last, most virtuous persons, beguiled by the craftiness of the intriguers, were to be seen espousing their cause and putting at their service the very zeal wherewith the hearts of the former were really inflamed for the House of God. After hearing as above, from the lips of Holy Church in the Martyrology, her own judgment, glorious as it stands and without appeal, it is not without feelings of wonder and even of bewilderment, that we read passages such as the following, in letters written at the time.

“To our well beloved Father and Lord, Innocent, by the grace of God, Sovereign Pontiff, Bernard of Clairvaux. The archbishop of York hath approached you; that man regarding whom we have so often already, written to your Holiness. A sorry cause indeed is his; as we have learned from such as are worthy of credit, from the sole of his foot to the top of his head, there is not a sound place in him. what can this man stripped of all justice, have to seek at the hands of the Guardian of justice?” Then recommending the accusers to the Pontiff, the Abbot of Clairvaux fears not to add: “If any one be of God, let him join himself unto them! If the barren tree still occupy the ground, to whom must I attribute the fault, save to him unto whom the hatchet belongs?”

The Vicar of Christ, who can look at things from a higher level and can see more exactly than even saints can, having taken no step to prevent William’s consecration, Saint Bernard pens these words, confidentially, to the abbot of Rievaulx, in Yorkshire: “I have learned what has become of this archbishop, and my sorrow is extreme. We have labored all we could against this common pest, and we have not obtained the desired measure; but for all that, the fruit of our labor is none the less assured from Him, who never suffers any good deed to pass unrewarded. What men have refused to us, I am confident we shall obtain from the mercy of our Father who is in heaven, and that we shall yet see this cursed fig-tree rooted up.”

Such grave mistakes as these can sometimes be made by saints. Cruel mistakes indeed they are, but very sanctifying for those saints on whom the blow falls; and though veritable persecutions, yet are they not without one sweet consolation for such saints as these, inasmuch as there has been no offense to God on either side.

Innocent II being dead, Bernard, convinced that the honor of the Church was at stake, repeated his supplications more urgently than ever to Pope Celestine II and the Roman Court: “The whole world is aware of the devil’s triumph,” he exclaimed, and with such fiery zeal that we somewhat modify the strength of his expression; “The applause of the uncircumcised and the tears of the good, resound far and wide … If such were to be the finale of this ignominious cause, why not have left it in its darksome nook? Could not that infamous man, the horror of England and the abomination of France, have been made bishop, without Rome also witnessing the general infection to pervade as far as the very tombs of the Apostles … Well, be it so: this man has received sacrilegious consecration; but still more glorious will it be to precipitate Simon from midair, than to have prevented his mounting thus far. Otherwise, what will you do with the Faithful, whose sense of religion makes them suppose that they cannot with a safe conscience, receive the sacraments from this leprous hand? Are they then, to be forced by Rome, to bend the knee to Baal?”

Rome, however, was slow in letting herself be convinced; and neither Celestine, nor Lucius II who succeeded him, was willing to find in the great services and justifiable ascendency of the Abbot of Clairvaux, a sufficient reason to pronounce a condemnation, the justice of which was far from being proved to their eyes. It was only under the pontificate of Eugenius III, his former disciple, that Saint Bernard by new and reiterated instances at last obtained the deposition of William, and the substitution, to the see of York, of Henry Murdach, a Cistercian and abbot of Fountains, near Ripon.

“All the time that his humiliation lasted,” writes John, Prior of Hexham, “William never let a murmur of complaint escape him; but with a silent heart and with his soul at peace, knew hot to keep patience. He reclaimed not against his adversaries; nay, further still, he would turn aside his ear and his very thought from those who judged them unfavorably. None of those who shared his grace, showed themselves so continually given up as he to prayer and labor.”

Five years afterwards (8th July, 1153), Eugenius III died, as also the abbot of Clairvaux (on the 20th of August), and Henry Murdach (on 14 October). The canons of York once more elected William and he was reinstated in the plenitude of his metropolitan rights by Anastasius IV. But God had willed to affirm here below the justice alone of his cause: thirty days after his triumphant return to York, he died, having only just solemnized the festival of the Holy Trinity for whom he had suffered all.

We here give the few lines wherein the Liturgy records the trials and virtues of Saint William.

Beatus Gulielmus clarissimis ortus parentibus, scilicet patre Huberto Comite, et matre Emma Stephani regis sorore, summa virtutis laude adolescens floruit. Crescentibus autem meritis cum ætate, Eborascensis thesaurisarius effectus est: quo in munere ita se gessit, ut communis egentium pater ab omnibus haberetur. Neque enim ullum, pretiosiorem thesaurum existimabat, quam seipsum opibus spoliare, quo facilius inopia laborantibus subveniret.

Blessed William born of most noble parents (to wit, Count Hubert being his father, and Emma sister of King Stephen being his mother) was remarkable from earliest youth for singularly great virtue. Growing in merit as he advanced in ages, he was made Treasurer of York: in which office he so behaved, as to be held by all, the father of the needy in general. Nor indeed did he esteem anything a more precious treasure, than to despoil himself of his wealth, that he might more easily minister to the wants of those laboring under poverty.

Cum autem, defuncto Turstino Archiepiscopo, in ejusdem locum dissentientibus paucis e capitulo esset electus, electioni autem ut minus canonice factæ divus Bernardus apud apostolicam Sedem reclamasset, ab Eugenio tertio summo pontifice exauctoratus est. Quæ quidem res huic sancto viro non modo nullam molestiam attulit, sed potius optatissimam humilitatis exercendæ, Deoque liberius inserviendi occasionem præbuit.

Turstan the Archbishop being dead, he was elected to succeed him, though some few of the Chapter dissented. But Saint Bernard, on the ground of this election being faulty according the the sacred Canons, appealed against him to the Apostolic See, and hence he was deposed, by Pope Eugenius the Third. The which thing was in no ways taken as a grievance by this holy man but rather, as offering an excellent occasion of exercising humility and of serving God with greater freedom.

Sæculi igitur pompas cum fugeret, in solitudinem secessit, ubi nullis exterarum rerum curis distractus, propriæ saluti invigilaret. Defunctis autem adversariis archiepiscopus iterum summo omnium consensu eligitur, et ab Anastasio pontifice confirmatur.

Wherefore fleeing worldly pomps, he withdrew into solitude, where he could attend solely to his own salvation, undistracted by any care of exterior things. But, at last, his adversaries being dead, he was again with the full consent of all, elected archbishop, and was confirmed by Pope Anastasius.

Recepta autem sede, paulo post in morum incidit, et dierum plenus, et eleemosynis, vigiliis, jejuniis, bonisque operibus Deo charus, ex hac vita migravit sexto Idus Junii anno salutis humanæ millesimo centesimo quinquagesimo quarto.

Having entered upon his see he was shortly afterwards attacked with sickness; and full of days as well as dear to God by reason of his alms-deeds, vigils, fasts and good works, he passed out of this life, on the sixth of the Ides of June, in the year of man’s salvation, one thousand, one hundred and fifty-four.

O William, thou didst know how to possess thy soul! Under the assaults of contradiction, thou didst join the aureola of sanctity to the glorious character of a bishop. For well didst thou understand the twofold duty incumbent on thee, from the day thou wast called by the suffrages of an illustrious Church, to defend her here below, under most difficult circumstances; on the one hand, not to refuse the perilous honor of upholding to the last the rights of that noble bride who proffered thee her alliance; on the other, to show thy flock, by the example of thy own submission, that even the best of causes can never be dispensed from that absolute obedience owed by sheep, just as much as by lambs, to the supreme Shepherd. He who searcheth the heart and the reins knew how far the trial could go, without either altering the admirable simplicity of thy faith, or troubling, in consequence, the divine calm wherein lay thy strength. Yearning to raise thee to the highest degree of glory, nigh to that Altar, yonder in heaven, fain was He to assimilate thee fully, even here below, to the eternal Pontiff, erstwhile misunderstood, denied, and condemned by the very princes of His own people. Thy refuge was in that maxim, from the lips of this divine Head: Learn of me, because I am meek and humble of heart, and ye shall find rest to your souls; and thus, the yoke that would bear down such weak shoulders as ours, a burthen, beneath which the strongest of us well might quail, far from daunting thee, seemed fraught with such sweetness, that thy step became all the lighter for it, and from that hour, thou didst appear not only to walk, but to run like a giant in the way of heroism, wherein saints are formed.

Help us, O William, to follow thy steps at least afar off, in the paths of gentleness and energy. Teach us to count for little, all personal injuries. Our Lord indeed probed the delicacy of thy great soul, when He permitted that to befall thee, which to us would have proved a very core of bitterness, namely, that thy hottest adversaries really should be true saints, who in every measure they undertook against thee, were wishful only for the honor and glory of the divine Master—thine and theirs alike. The mysterious oil that for so long flowed from thy tomb, was at once a sign of the ineffable meekness which earned for thee that constant simplicity of thy soul’s glance, and a touching testimony rendered by heaven in favor of thy pontifical unction, the legitimacy of which was so long contested. God grant that this sweet oil may ooze out once again! Spread it lovingly on so many wounded souls, whom the injustice of men embitters and drives to desperation; let it freely flow in thine own Church of York, alien though she now be, to thine exquisite submission to Rome and to her ancient traditions. Oh! would that Albion might cast aside her winding-sheet, at that blessed tomb of thine, whereat the dead have oft returned to life. In one word, may the whole Church receive from thee, this day, increase of light and grace, to the honor and praise of the undivided and ever tranquil Trinity, to Whom was paid thy last solemn homage here below.


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