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Catholic Heroes . . . St. Peter Gonzalez

April 12, 2016 saints No Comments

By CAROLE BRESLIN

For millennia, tributaries in southern Spain have drained into the Guadalquivir River, which flows into the Gulf of Cadiz in the Atlantic Ocean. Along this river, famous cities have sprung up, such as Seville and Cordoba.
Cordoba, the warmest city in Europe during the summers, is home to one of the most famous examples of Moorish architecture in southern Spain. Paradoxically, it is the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption. Like Cordoba, the “Mosque-Cathedral” as it is known, has a colorful history.
The Cathedral of Cordoba was originally built by the Visigoths in the early seventh century. However, in 711 the Moors captured Cordoba, a Christian village a mere 100 miles north of the Straits of Gibraltar, and they shared the building with the Christians.
At first Christianity was tolerated, but soon, with a change in leadership the treasured Christian texts were burned and destroyed by the Muslims. In 734, Emir Abd al-Rahman I razed the building to the ground, forcing the Christians to flee.
In place of the cathedral, he constructed a mosque in which the Muslims would worship Allah; it was called the Grand Mosque of Cordoba. This “exile” lasted until June 29, 1236 when King St. Ferdinand III of Castile captured Cordoba after a siege lasting several months.
During this siege, a saintly reserved priest, the confessor of the king, prevented the looting and pillaging of the city. His name was Peter Gonzalez, and he also had a colorful history.
Similar to St. Francis of Assisi and St. Ignatius of Loyola who would come after him, St. Peter Gonzalez was born of a wealthy and noble family, later renouncing his worldly ways and becoming a devout follower of Christ.
Peter Gonzalez was born in 1190 in Fromista, Palencia, in northwest Spain about 100 miles from the Bay of Biscay. (It is one of the stops on the “Way of St. James” pilgrimage). His uncle, the bishop of Astorga, supervised his education. At a very young age the boy was ordained a priest, not so much to administer the sacraments as to prepare him for higher office.
When he was appointed to be canon at the Cathedral of Palencia, a special dispensation had to be obtained from Rome for the honor because he was so young. On the day of his installation he rode through the city with much pomp and pageantry, so proud of his position and heritage.
Preened like a peacock, he became inebriated with the celebration — wasn’t it grand? At the height of his self-centered reflection, his horse reared, stumbled, and fell, throwing Peter in a dung heap near the road.
What a thrill this gave the townspeople! How they mocked the youth who thought so highly of himself and now had been brought so low by a beast! As they continued to laugh at him, Peter picked himself up, slinking away in total humiliation. How dramatically his demeanor changed in just a few minutes.
As he reflected on the events of the day, Peter realized that the townspeople thought he was unfit to be installed as the canon of the cathedral in Palencia. He decided that he must go into seclusion and dedicate himself to prayer and meditation.
Soon his heart turned to God, and away from himself. He left his worldly pursuits behind. Peter decided he would spend the rest of his life in penance and reparation for his previous pride and earthly ambitions. How paltry they seemed to him now.
He joined the Dominicans and, as much as his family and friends sought to lure him back to his old lifestyle, he adamantly refused. Nor did he seek positions of prestige in the Church, even if his family obtained them. Instead he gently rebuked them, saying, “If you love me follow me, if you cannot follow me, forget me!”
His reputation for holiness and oratory quickly spread, soon reaching the court of Castile. Soon he was summoned by King St. Ferdinand III of Castile (ruled from 1217-1252) to be his confessor and to act chaplain of the court.
In this new position which he accepted reluctantly, he worked hard to change the life at court — especially those closest to the king. When King Ferdinand left for the Crusades, he followed him. When the king rode with his army to Cordoba in order to drive out the Moors, Peter was there, urging the king and his men to fast, pray, and increase their devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
The most significant confrontation with the Moors occurred in Cordoba. King Ferdinand and his men surrounded the city, prohibiting any entry or exit. After several months the Castilians took control of Cordoba, imprisoning many of the Moors.
Fr. Peter Gonzalez labored tirelessly to not only serve the king’s men but also to ensure that the prisoners were treated fairly. His presence also limited the pillaging and the looting of the city. That looting included the grand mosque, which took nearly 200 years to complete. (The mosque has been restored as a cathedral and is still used today, being a World Heritage site).
After the conquest of Cordoba, when the king returned to his court in Castile, Peter easily could have accepted honors and promotions within the court since he was such a close confidant of the king. However, having once lived a life of worldly dissipation, he was well aware of the inherent dangers of such an easy life.
Peter soon left the regal palace with its comforts and pleasures to live in the hills, preaching to the shepherds and administering the sacraments. He also went down to the docks on the coast of Spain where he preached to the sailors.
St. Peter was greatly loved by the sailors who claimed that when they were hungry, he prayed by the bank of the river and the fish would leap out of the water. Sailors still invoke his help in stormy weather.
St. Peter Gonzalez died on April 14, 1246 in Santiago de Compostela, Tui. He is buried in the cathedral which overlooks the Minho River with Valenca, Portugal, on the other side. His feast day is April 14.
Dear St. Peter, in these days of conflict help us to remember that all people should be treated with dignity. Let us not seek revenge on our enemies, but rather seek their conversion as you did. 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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