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Catholic Heroes . . . St. Fidelis Of Sigmaringen

May 4, 2021 saints No Comments

By DEB PIROCH

There aren’t too many saints that started off in life as lawyers, and ended up as martyrs. St. Thomas More comes to mind. But the saint today, St. Fidelis of Sigmaringen, Germany (1577-1622)? After getting his doctorate in law at Freiburg, he found he was seeking to help the poorest clients, refused to detract from the characters of the opposition, used no invective, and indeed, soon became so disillusioned with law because of all the evils associated with it, that he left to embrace life as a Capuchin. But one mustn’t get ahead of his story.
Born in 1577 to noble parents Johannes and Genovefa, his given name was either Markus Rey or Markus Roy, and his father was the burgomaster of his home city, Sigmaringen. He was the fifth of six children, and one brother would also enter the Capuchin order. After studying law and philosophy, he traveled, serving as a tutor and mentor to three young men in Europe. Over these six years, he attended Mass frequently and spent hours before the Blessed Sacrament whenever possible. He also visited the sick and gave to the poor. Prior to this position, when yet a student, he was already sacrificing, wearing a hair shirt underneath his own and forgoing wine.
And then, returning to embark on law, he discovered his call to the religious life. Asked to become a priest first and to test his vocation with the Capuchins, he was ordained in Fribourg, Switzerland (not to be confused with the Freiburg, Germany, above) on the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, founder, October 4, 1614. On entering the novitiate, he was given the name of “Fidelis,” as in “faithful.”
After a year of formation and another four studying theology, he was appointed guardian of a community at Rheinfelden, then Freiburg, then Feldkirch (present-day Austria). His assignment at Feldkirch, incidentally, included ministering to the spiritual needs of soldiers, and not for the first time. As an epidemic swept through, Fidelis endeavored to give relief to the sick and suffering.
By now Europe, and certainly Germany and Switzerland, was in the powerful grip of the Reformation. Fidelis was appointed in 1621 to undertake a mission to the Grison area of Switzerland, the eastern canton which abuts Austria. Around this time, the Vatican also made one of its departments into a full-fledged entity of its own, the Propagation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The institution which had begun in 1572 was renamed and expanded in 1622. And Fidelis would eventually become its first martyr.
When reading the history of the time, and hearing of the dissenting Protestants Calvin and Zwingli, we are told they were “reformers,” when in fact they were not. Erasmus was for true reform….and never did he leave the Church. Zwingli was guilty of abuses himself, having been a parish priest who lived unchastely. What did he go on to attack? First, the Mass itself, including transubstantiation (as did Calvin). He was guilty first of fornication, later of marrying without permission. He did away with Confession and all the sacraments, except Baptism and the Eucharist (which he also did away with, in essence, by eliminating the Mass). What is especially saddening is that when he was found wounded on the battlefield where he would perish, he was asked by the enemy Catholics if he wished Last Rites. He refused, and was promptly killed.
Calvin likewise was no reformer. He also rejected many of the sacraments, the Mass, celibacy, and, moreover, embraced the concept of predestination, that one is saved or not by faith alone. He also believed Christ died not for all mankind, but only those whom He would save. How pitiful.
So, when Fidelis set out to preach to the heretics, he brought on his journey a Bible, crucifix, breviary, and his Capuchin rule. No one needed to tell him that he had tremendous strength from God in the Mass, prayer, discipline, and his daily faithful witness to the true priesthood. He also determined to subsist by divine Providence — that is relying solely on God for his sustenance. And yet, that is not all: For some time, he had prayed, prayed that he should never fall into mortal sin, and that he might be a martyr for God.
Fidelis was successful. With the conviction of his faith, and the guidance of the Holy Ghost, he preached from the street to the pulpit, to Protestant enclaves. Just as the work was dangerous, so, too was it making inroads. Bravely facing hostility, he converted back many to Catholicism after hearing his words. The bishop of Coire, Switzerland, sent a glowing report back to the Congregation, over Epiphany, 1622.
But this was the last year Fidelis would spend on Earth.
On April 24, he had been to Confession, said Mass, and was suddenly granted a vision. Transported to ecstasy for some time, he afterward foretold his death, and began signing or referring to himself as: “Brother Fidelis, who will shortly be the food of worms”! He seemed in good spirits. But tensions had long ran high. Once he had even been fired at — and missed — by an unhappy member in the congregation.
Off next to another town, Fidelis was meet by a group of angry Calvinists accompanied by a minister. These men demanded he give up his faith. He responded, “I was sent to rebuke you, not to embrace your heresy. The Catholic religion is the faith of the ages, I fear not death.”
They struck him down. After hitting his head with the butt of a sword, they stabbed his body multiple times. As he was dying, he called out to God, crying: “Pardon my enemies, O Lord: blinded by passion they know not what they do. Lord Jesus, have pity on me. Mary, Mother of Jesus, assist me.” The cruel men afterward cut off his leg, in retribution for all his travels into Protestant territory. He was 44. The Protestant minister who witnessed the murder was converted by the priest’s witness.
Fidelis was buried the following day, the feast of his namesake, St. Mark. His head was taken to his last parish, in Feldkirch, and the rest of his remains interred in the cathedral crypt at Chur, Switzerland.
Only six months later, his body was removed from where it had been interred. It remained incorrupt. His leg and arm were removed and placed in reliquaries to stay, and the remainder of the saint went to Weltkirchen, home of his Capuchin order. In less than a century the Vatican was able to choose among three hundred plus miracles for his 1729 beatification, then twenty years later, his canonization. This was quite rapid, given that many canonizations take centuries.
Like St. Thomas More, St. Fidelis is a patron saint of lawyers. Both men are shown in art carrying a palm leaf, the symbol of martyrdom. St. Fidelis also carries a sword with the butt or hilt of the sword prominently shown, which was used to kill him. And both men held fast to God and charity — in speaking truth — for a lifetime.
“For I am even now ready to be sacrificed: and the time of my dissolution is at hand. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith. As to the rest, there is laid up for me a crown of justice” (2 Tim. 4:7-8).

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