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Catholic Heroes . . . St. Engelbert

November 4, 2014 saints No Comments

By CAROLE BRESLIN

History is often broken into three periods: Antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the Modern Era. The Middle Ages consists of the time between the fifth century with the fall of the Roman Empire and the 15th century, close to the time of the Protestant Reformation. With the fall of the Roman Empire, the lands were subjected to raids from other lands.
The Visigoths invaded and settled Spain. The Franks did the same in France. While the Vandals destroyed much of Spain and Gaul, the Slavs moved into central Europe, and the Lombards turned to Italy.
To protect the people as well as the lands, the feudal system developed in which the nobles would fight the raiders while the peasants would work on the land, giving a portion of the proceeds to their lords. The peasants owed an allegiance to the lords for protecting them within the walls of their settlements.
During this time, the leaders of the Church as well as the lords were sometimes the same people. The kings of the lands had much power over the Church, frequently appointing their family and friends to various positions in the Church at all levels of the hierarchy.
When such appointments were made and controlled by the civil authorities, the men did not always live or act as holy men. On the other hand, some men who were appointed did not always do what their patrons wanted and suffered greatly for following the will of God. For example, King Henry II of England appointed his good friend Thomas à Becket as archbishop of Canterbury, who later died a martyr for his faithfulness.
St. Engelbert, whose feast day we celebrate on November 7, received such appointments to positions in the Church in this way. Born to Count Engelbert I of Berg and Margarete of Guelders, daughter of the count of Guelderland, in about 1185, he attended the cathedral school in Cologne. The school was about 20 miles southwest of his birthplace, Schloss Burg.
At the age of 13, he received the position of provost at St. George’s Church. He subsequently received the same position at the cathedral in Cologne as well as at St. Mary’s at Aachen, St. George’s, and St. Severinus, holding these positions until 1216.
During that time his life held many challenges for him. When he supported his cousin, Adolf of Altena, archbishop of Cologne, he earned the disapproval of Pope Innocent III. The Pope supported Otto IV of Brunswick who was having a conflict with Philip of Swabia. Since Adolf sided with Philip and Engelbert stood by Adolf, Pope Innocent III excommunicated Engelbert in 1206.
However, in 1208 Engelbert repented of his former disobedience by opposing the Pope. Part of his self-imposed penance was to participate in the Albigensian Crusade. In further reparation, he gave his allegiance to the future Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II. After the Battle of Bouvines in July 1214, the Anglo-French war ended. Otto was deposed and replaced by Frederick II.
St. Engelbert continued to live a blameless life after his return to Holy Mother Church. On February 29, 1216 he was elected bishop of Cologne, and was consecrated on September 24, 1217. As head of the diocese, he invited both the Franciscan Friars Minor and the Dominicans to establish themselves in the city.
He also worked diligently to correct the clerical abuses and the appointing of relatives to places of importance in the Church. He held synods to improve discipline among both the secular and the regular clergy.
Some regarded St. Engelbert as more of a monarch than a bishop. He developed alliances with Brabant and Namur in order to lead a movement against the Dukes of Limburg and their supporters in the County of Cleves. The dukes had confiscated the lands that belonged to the Church of Cologne, but Engelbert triumphed in the end.
When Engelbert’s brother, Count Adolf IV, died in 1218 without a son, a man named Waleran tried to claim the count’s estate. Legally, the lands belonged to Engelbert, but he had to fight Waleran to settle the claim. Engelbert won this conflict as well, forcing Waleran to pay the fine of one year’s revenue to him.
Furthermore, Engelbert gave generously to the poor and sought to resolve conflicts with firmness tempered with gentleness. His patience and perseverance in difficult times won popularity among the people while enkindling animosity among the landowners.
When the Hohenstaufen emperor Frederick II went to Sicily in 1220, he appointed Engelbert to serve as both imperial administrator and regent during his absence. As regent he protected Frederick’s son, Henry, who still had his minority.
Engelbert crowned the emperor’s son king of the Romans at Aachen in 1222.
Needless to say, St. Engelbert’s determination to see justice done and restore order as a servant to King Henry won Henry’s respect, as well as the anger of the powerful — especially among his own relatives.
When St. Engelbert’s cousin, Count Frederick of Isenberg, confiscated the property of the nuns who had been entrusted to his care, Engelbert rebuked him. When the count further oppressed the vassals, St. Engelbert called him to order and restitution.
Count Frederick became so incensed at the correction and punishment that he began plotting the death of Engelbert. The saint had been warned of the plot on his life, so he took care to protect himself. However, he had alienated so many of the nobles that it is not surprising that they waited to put an end to his work.
On November 7, 1225, St. Engelbert was returning from a judicial hearing in Soest. On his way back to Cologne, he was attacked — presumably by Frederick — near Gevelsberg. The attackers had so little respect for Engelbert that they returned his body to Cologne on a dung cart.
When the authorities received his body, they counted 47 stab wounds. He was buried in the Cologne Cathedral and declared a martyr, but he was never formally canonized.
Dear St. Engelbert, you were no stranger to the conflicts between the secular and the Church authorities. Pray for us that we may be sure to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. May we fight, as you did, for justice, yet practice mercy according to God’s will. Amen.

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(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)

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