Tag Archives: martyrdom

Free College, Fatherhood, and Financing Martyrdom

14 Dec

“I know that, if I do what I think God wants me to do,
he will take care of my family.”
~ Bl. Franz Jägerstätter

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King St. Eric of Sweden: Template for Dads

18 May

It can’t be easy for kings to become saints. Most are also husbands and fathers, and so you have all the challenges that come with those callings, plus the enormous headaches and perpetual consternation associated with ruling a people. Raise taxes, lower taxes? Go to war, sue for peace? Statecraft, diplomacy, court intrigues – how do Gospel values square with all that? Just pack up the fam, head to the hills, and camp out near some monastery or other, that’s what I say.

Of course, I’m not in danger of inheriting any royal titles any time soon, so there’s that.

Anyway, despite the hurdles involved, there are plenty of royals who’ve run the race and won the prize of heaven, and today we commemorate a notable example: King Eric IX of Sweden. His story is no doubt instructive for kings (and other political leaders) who seek holiness, but I think it’s also edifying for us commoner dads who are equally earnest in aspiring to sanctity.

Born into wealth, Eric married a princess, yet it was his personal merits that earned him the crown of the realm around 1156. Although thrust into power and all the responsibilities accompanying it, the young king’s chief concern was his relationship with God, and he was known for his extensive mortifications and fasting in addition to regular times of prayer and contemplation. These practices buttressed his efforts to fortify the practice of the Faith among his subjects, which included building churches and restraining vice.

Eric was a solicitous king who is remembered for his care of the poor – sometimes through direct visits and almsgiving. Also, he promoted impartial justice for all and, toward that end, supervised a definitive collation of laws – the Code of Uppland – that strengthened the Swedish social order.

When that social order was threatened by pagan raiders from neighboring Finland, King Eric took up arms in defense of his people. Even so, Eric sought the good of his foes by inducing St. Henry, Bishop of Uppsala, to accompany him into battle and then stay behind after the victory to evangelize the Finnish populace – a missionary enterprise that met with success, but which also won Bishop Henry the crown of martyrdom.

King Eric similarly suffered martyrdom at the hands of those who rejected Christian faith and values. A group of irreligious rebels in league with a Danish prince hatched a scheme to murder Eric and take control of the Swedish throne. King Eric was attending Mass when he received word that the insurgents were gunning for him. “Let us at least finish the sacrifice,” was his reply according to Alban Butler. “The remainder of the festival I shall keep elsewhere.” Following the liturgy, Eric abandoned himself to God and, to minimize casualties among his loyal supporters, insisted on facing his enemies alone. As soon as they saw the monarch exit the church, the mob attacked, knocked him to the ground, and cut off his head. It was May 18, 1161.

The tomb of King Eric became a site of pilgrimage where many healings were reported, and he was deemed the patron saint of Sweden until the Reformation. He’s still a saintly template for those in authority, both royal and otherwise – especially dads. As Fr. Butler notes, “every father, master of a family, magistrate, or king, is accountable to God for those under his charge,” and St. Eric’s biography is like a paternal mini-catechism. Like the King, we fathers are obliged to maintain order at home, make adequate provision for our families, and defend them against harm.

Yet, even more fundamental is our duty to foster fidelity to Christ and growth in virtue among those we care for. That can’t be accomplished perfectly, but it can hardly be accomplished at all without our own personal example, and that example will necessarily, almost by definition, involve sacrifice – putting the needs of others before our own, for example, trusting in God’s providence even when we can’t see a way forward, loving those difficult to love, extending ourselves without heed of reciprocity.

In other words, fatherhood always entails martyrdom in one form or another, and here again St. Eric leads the way. Maybe we won’t get our heads chopped off like the Swedish sovereign, but our path to sanctity will nonetheless require death to self. Over and over, day after day, imperfectly, sometimes grudgingly, but consistently and perpetually. Good thing we have intercessors like King St. Eric who understand what we’re up against. Let’s lean on them; let’s lean on each other.

Of Sanctity, Old Yeller, and the Plague

23 Jun


Fatherhood must be at the core of the universe.
~ C.S. Lewis

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Cecilia: The Saint and the Song

21 Nov


Indeed, art is a distinctively human form of expression; beyond the search for the necessities of life which is common to all living creatures, art is a freely given superabundance of the human being’s inner riches (CCC 2503).

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The Pope’s Jest

20 Jun

One Thousand Words a Week


Life is serious all the time,
but living cannot be serious all the time.
~ G.K. Chesterton

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The Failure of St. Dominic

2 Mar

Although Dominic had hoped to journey to barbarous lands to preach and eventually to achieve martyrdom, this was denied him.
~ from The Lives of the Saints, ed. Father Joseph Vann (1954)

My daughter Joan, a high school junior, gave me a lesson in genetics yesterday. She had said something about her ‘jeans’ wearing out, and I, trying to be clever, made a crack about ‘genes’ never wearing out.

Actually, no, Joan informed me, genes do indeed wear out. She proceeded to bring me up to speed with regards to telomeres, chromotids, and DNA duplication. What could I do? I muttered defeat, and silently vowed to be more cautious when injecting puns into conversations with my kids.

But Joan wasn’t done. She then went on to enlighten me with regards to a bit of common wisdom that I myself have oft repeated. “You know when people say, ‘You start dying the day you’re born?'” she asked. “Well, they’re wrong.”

You see, there’s DNA Strandsthis enzyme – telomerase – that forestalls the inevitable decline of chromosome replication. Human telomerase continues to circulate and remain active after birth, so babies’ DNA duplication runs at full steam for several months. Consequently, none of us “start dying” until we’ve gotten a pretty good head start on the business of living. It’s almost like a period of orientation, unencumbered by mortality, to allow babies to simply get used to existing.

While all that might be true for physical human life, it is not the case with the new life we receive in baptism, for baptism is about death first. We disguise it as a cleansing ritual, and it is further camouflaged by white garments, candles and flame, and the wailing of a cute baby who doesn’t like to get wet. But Paul tells us in no uncertain terms that Christians are “buried together with him by baptism into death” (Rom. 6.4a). When the water is poured over an infant’s head, and the baptizer intones the Trinitarian formula, that child is with the Lord in the tomb. And tomb means dead.

Of course, the Lord’s burial was followed by a Resurrection, and the baptized get to participate in that as well – something Paul himself goes on to acknowledge:

As Christ is risen from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we also may walk in newness of life (Rom. 6.4b).

And it’s totally understandable that we prefer to focus on baptism’s transmission of new spiritual life rather than the sacramental death that accompanies it. Nevertheless, there’s no getting around the fact that the new life was won through a death, and that’s an unsettling fact we might prefer to downplay – especially when the baptized is still in diapers.

Yet my new godson is named after St. Dominic, and that poses a problem when it comes to downplaying the death side of the baptism equation.

When we think of St. Dominic, we think of white habits, and a religious order dedicated to preaching and education and academic pursuits. Dominicans are the ‘Dogs of God,’ after all, tenacious in their pursuit of truth and defense of the Faith.

But Dominic himself, it turns out, was a bit of a reckless nut in his heyday. I recently read up on my new godson’s namesake, and I was surprised to learn that the saintly founder had been a fiery young priest who deliberately put himself in harm’s way in service to the Lord.

388px-Pedro_Berruguete_-_St_Dominic_and_the_Albigenses_-_WGA02083The young Fr. Dominic de Guzmán had been selected to accompany a bishop on a delicate diplomatic mission from Spain to southern France, and there they encountered the Albigenses – a branch of the dualist Catharite heresy. Following the conclusion of their mission, the two clerics returned to the Albigensian stronghold of Languedoc to engage the heretics in further disputation and to proclaim the fullness of the Faith to the confused multitudes.

This being the Middle Ages, the predominant approach to settling disagreements was through armed conflict, and combating Albigensianism was no exception. Backed by the Pope, Catholic Lords waged war on religious radicals of all stripes, and the Albigensian Crusade, while successful in diminishing the rebellion, wreaked havoc on cities, countryside, and the population.

But Dominic knew that fighting and force wouldn’t achieve true victory, saying that the “enemies of the faith cannot be overcome like that.” Instead, he recommended prayer as a weapon “instead of a sword; be clothed with humility instead of fine raiment.” And he meant this quite literally, choosing to live among the Albigenses, preaching the truths of the Catholic Faith whenever he had a chance, and moving about openly despite the many threats made against him. When asked what he’d do if he were cornered by his enemies, Dominic bravely answered this way:

I would tell them to kill me slowly and painfully, a little at a time, so that I might have a more glorious crown in Heaven.

For the young St. Dominic, martyrdom wasn’t something to shy away from; it was something to be chased after! What better way could he demonstrate his tremendous love for Jesus? What could top dying for Him who had Himself died for the world?

Alas, it was not to be. Dominic eventually organized a group of like-minded followers, and, in 1216, the Pope recognized the saint’s efforts by approving a new Order of Preachers – now known as the Dominicans. Needless to say, the saint had charge of the operation, and, as it grew, he had to spend more and more time traveling about, establishing foundations, and guiding his spiritual sons in their apostolates of teaching, prest-dominic-prayingaching, and prayer.

So, in the end, Dominic became the consummate leader, and he even served briefly as a kind of chief of staff in the Pope’s own court. And thus, the brash young priest, intent on achieving martyrdom, became just another administrator. He failed in his youthful quest. Sad, isn’t it?

Well, yes, sad, if that were the end of the story – if Dominic’s story was simply about a frustrated pious death wish. But that’s not what it’s about.

Instead, it’s the story of one who sought out Jesus with his whole being; a story of conversion and sanctification and conforming to Christ – truly the greatest adventure story there could be, martyrdom or no martyrdom. And here’s a little secret: That’s also the story of all the baptized – including my new godson. “Having become a member of the Church,” the Catechism teaches us, “the person baptized belongs no longer to himself, but to him who died and rose for us.” Little baby Dom, as of this morning, has already died to self and risen with Christ, and who knows where that might lead? Martyrdom, perhaps. Something much more mundane, most likely. Who knows? In fact, who knows for any of us?

Only Christ knows, but in the meantime, we have to keep marching forward in faith, trusting the Lord to work out all the details along the way – just like St. Dominic did long ago. The saints are signs that the march can come to a successful conclusion, and we look to them as models for how to carry it out.

Yet, the saints don’t just rest on their laurels – as if sanctity were a ticket to a comfy retirement in the hereafter. No, St. Dominic is now in a position to do something even more useful than arguing with Cathars and preaching the Gospel: He can join me in surrounding little Dom with prayer – indeed, I’m counting on it, based on what the saint himself told his confreres on his deathbed:

Do not weep, for I shall be more useful to you after my death and I shall help you then more effectively than during my life.

Perhaps the young St. Dominic was indeed disappointed that he was not chosen for a martyr’s crown, but his union to Christ was completed nonetheless. Martyrdom, in other words, was never the true goal, and Dominic always knew that. The goal was – and is – Christ Himself.

St. Dominic, pray for us.


A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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