April 24, 2014

⛪ Saint Fidelis of Sigmaringen - Religious, Priest and Martyr

St Fidelis of Sigmaringen,
Pray for us !
Saint of the Day : April 24

Wordplay on the Name 'Fidelis'

'Vir nomine et re Fidelis' - ‘Fidelis (i.e. faithful) in name and in truth’: these were the words that Pope Benedict XIV used to describe the newly canonized Capuchin Martyr, Saint Fidelis of Sigmaringen. The name Fidelis means faithful one or faith-filled one in Latin and is derived from the Latin word 'fides' meaning ‘faith’, ‘loyalty’ or ‘truth’. 

Therefore the Pope goes on to expand on this play on words, by saying Fidelis "was faithful in truth as well as in name. His zeal for defending the Catholic faith was unsurpassed and he preached it tirelessly." 

Fidelis's Love for the Catholic Faith

In a moving sermon that he preached a few days before shedding his blood for the faith, Saint Fidelis of Sigmaringen bore witness to his belief in Christ and in the Church, using words which might well serve as his last will and testament; 

"O Catholic faith, how solid, how strong you are! How deeply rooted, how firmly founded on a solid rock! Heaven and earth will pass away, but you can never pass away. From the beginning the world opposed you, but you mightily triumphed over everything. This is the victory that overcomes the world, our faith. It has subjected powerful kings to the rule of Christ; it has bound nations to his service. What made the holy apostles and martyrs endure fierce agony and bitter torments, except faith, and especially faith in the resurrection? What is it that today makes true followers of Christ cast luxuries aside, leave pleasures behind, and endure difficulties and pain? It is living faith that expresses itself through love. It is this that makes us put aside the goods of the present in the hope of future goods. It is because of faith that we exchange the present for the future." 

Called to Be Faithful unto Death so as to Receive the Crown of Life

‘Fidelis’ was the religious name that Mark Roy received when he entered the Order of Capuchin Friars Minor ten years earlier and the Guardian of the Local Fraternity at the time quoted the name's scriptural basis to the new novice - namely a passage in the tenth verse of the second chapter of the Book of Revelations which reads: “Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.”

A Brilliant but Honest Lawyer!

Saint Fidelis was born in the southern German town of Sigmaringen on the 1st of October 1578 and baptized ‘Mark’. His father John Roy, a former Mayor of Sigmaringen, and his mother Genevieve Rosenberger were both pious and devout Catholics but, due to his father’s premature death, their young son’s education was entrusted to Benedictine monks. At the age of sixteen, Mark had already begun his studies in philosophy and jurisprudence at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland, where he was eventually awarded a Doctorate in Canon Law and Civil Law in 1611. 

For a brilliant law student like Mark Roy, excellent career prospects and a successful legal career seemed assured and, indeed, he himself hoped to use his influence as a defence lawyer to ease the plight of the poor and afflicted. But before embarking on his legal career, Mark sought to enrich his own life experience and broaden his own knowledge base as he set out to accompany three young postgraduate sons of a noble Swabian house, who were touring the top universities of Italy, France and Spain.

This tour lasted about six years and after returning home, Mark opened a lawyer's legal practice at Ensisheim, where soon built up a reputation locally as a clean official, devoted to justice, who could neither be tainted by corruption nor swayed by bribes. Nicknamed ‘the Defence Lawyer of the Poor’, he made every effort to uphold the rights the downtrodden but mercilessly hounded those who would do them harm. In cases of genuine hardship, Mark was quite ready to waive his legal fees and offer his services pro bono. Because of this, he was immensely popular with those deprived of justice but intensely disliked by powerful and corrupt officials. Such people were ruthless and did not hesitate to try and set Mark up so as to do damage to his good name.   

Follows his Older Brother into the Order of Capuchin Friars Minor

Unable stomach such nastiness any longer, Mark Roy turned his back on the ‘wickedness’ of the world around him and closed his legal practice in early 1612. He made up his mind to follow the example of his elder brother George and enter the Order of Capuchin Friars Minor. Since he already had such a clean reputation and a high degree of learning, he was ordained a priest before being received into the Capuchin Novitiate on the 4th of October 1612. On entering the Order, thirty five year old Mark Roy was given the religious name ‘Brother Fidelis of Sigmaringen.

During his novitiate, he strove to imitate the humble example of Saint Francis and was filled with burning love when he celebrated the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass or read the Holy Scriptures. Despite the status he once enjoyed in the world, as a Capuchin novice, Brother Fidelis was willing to carry out every sort of menial task assigned to him, from washing the dishes to cleaning the corridors and chopping up firewood. Just before making professing his vows, he drew up an attestation in which he divided his property in two, bequeathing one half to help the poor and using the other half to subsidise poor candidates for the priesthood. 

A Zealous Preacher of the Counter Reformation

After completing his theological studies, Brother Fidelis travelled throughout southern Germany and Switzerland, working tirelessly, day and night, for the conversion of Protestants. As he travelled from place to place, he took with him only his cross, his bible, his breviary and the Rule and Constitutions of the Order. 

His active evangelising efforts were backed up by fervent prayer and severe bodily mortification. His impassioned preaching moved many to embrace the practice of their Catholic faith once more and but soon made him a popular hate figure in Protestant fundamentalist circles. Extremists sought to impede his progress using every means at their disposal. Nevertheless, thanks mainly to Brother Fidelis's efforts, the bastions of Protestantism began to give way, one by one. and inhabitants of those regions who had defected to Protestantism once more embraced the Catholic faith, while lukewarm Catholics were moved to confess theirs sins and lead a life of heartfelt repentance. 

It was not just Brother Fidelis’s prayers, mortifications and preaching that gave impetus to his missionary activity. His writings also played a major role and he himself published many books and pamphlets, highlighting the differences between Catholicism and the teachings of other churches. In 1622, at the urging of a fledgling ‘Propaganda Fide’, the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, which he was instrumental in getting off the ground, Brother Fidelis, as leader of an eight-man Capuchin missionary team, set out to evangelise the Swiss canton of Grischun, an area also known as Grisons in French, GraubΓΌnden in German and Grigioni in Italian. 

Though Grischun was a hotbed of Calvinist extremism, Brother Fidelis happily made his way there, knowing somehow that his day of martyrdom was at hand. He had already been subjected to the insults of many of the region’s Protestant extremists and, more sinisterly, his life was also frequently threatened. Of course, in the interests of fairness, it needs to be said that militancy and extremism cut both ways and that Protestants  too were victims of the religious conflicts that accompanied the Reformation and Counter Reformation. Brother Fidelis, as a man of his times, was not opposed to the deployment of military force to block the expansion of Protestant influence in Europe and advance the cause of Catholicism. In fact, he himself, arrived in Grischun under an escort of Austrian Imperial troops who were charged with safeguarding the missionaries’ persons and ensuring that they were free to engage in evangelising activities. On the day of his martyrdom, however, he seems to have dispensed with the services of the troops who were sent to guard him. 

In the midst of such dangers and hostility, Brother Fidelis and his confreres’ labours met with remarkable success and many Protestant preachers became increasingly alarmed. Finally some of them organised a plot to kill him. He was invited to visit Sewis at Easter and preach in the village church. Totally unaware of the conspiracy, Brother Fidelis accepted the invitation in good faith and on the appointed day, the 24th of April 1522, he preached a rousing sermon about the fact that there is but "one Lord, one faith, one baptism."

While he was still preaching, a shot was fired in his direction. Protestant extremists had hoped that this would be enough to kill him but, fortunately, the bullet missed him entirely. In the confusion which followed, Brother Fidelis managed to slip out by a side door, hoping to avoid bloodshed and the desecration of the church, but a Protestant mob that was lying in wait for him rushed towards him and struck him down with cudgels before stabbing him with their long knives.

As he lay dying, he stretched out his arms in the form of a cross and, with a feeble voice, prayed these words: "Pardon my enemies, O Lord: blinded by passion they know not what they do. Lord Jesus, have mercy on me. Mary, Mother of God, succor me!" 

Even his enemies were impressed by the composure and bravery with which he met his death. It is said that one minister among them who saw these things, exclaimed "A religion that empowers one to assume such composure in the face of a death like this is indeed the true religion!" and converted to Catholicism on the spot. 

Brother Fidelis of Sigmaringen’s perforated corpse was buriedburied the next day by some devout Catholics but, when it was exhumed six months later, it was found to be incorrupt. His relics were subsequently divided and some of his remains lie under the high altar of the Cathedral of Cuira or Chur, while other relics are venerated in the Feldkirch Capuchin Church in Austria. 

He was beatified by Pope Benedict XIII on the 24th of March 1729 and canonised by Pope Benedict XIV on the 29th of June 1746. Saint Fidelis of Sigmaringen is the Patron Saint of the Congregation for Propaganda Fide (since renamed the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples) and the First Martyr of the Order of Capuchin Friars Minor.

“O Lord, transform me completely into You. I mean to beg You in a special way to render me wholly conformed to Your most holy Humanity in all Your virtues, tribulations, pains and torments and above all in Your abjection, humility and annihilation.” - Saint Fidelis of Sigmaringen

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