Saint William, Bishop of York, Confessor

June 8

Today is the feast day of Saint William.  Ora pro nobis.

Tradition represents Saint William (WILLIAM FITZHERBERT, also called WILLIAM OF THWAYT) as nephew of King Stephen, whose sister Emma was believed to have married Herbert of Winchester, treasurer to Henry I. William became a priest, and about 1130 he was canon and treasurer of York. (4) He was the son of Count Herbert (treasurer to Henry I).

Champions of Catholic Orthodoxy

At the head of the holy Confessors commemorated by the Church in Her Martyrology for today is inscribed the illustrious name of William. “At York, in England,” it says, “the memory of St. William, Archbishop and Confessor, who, amongst other miracles wrought at his tomb, raised three dead persons to life; and who was inscribed amongst the Saints by Pope Honorius III.” The Divine Spirit, Who adorns the Church with variety in the virtues of Her sons (Ps. 44: 10; Apoc. 19: 8), reproduces in them the life of the Divine Spouse under many forms. Thus there is no situation in life that cannot find some teaching drawn from the example given by Our Lord and His Saints under similar circumstances. However vast be the field of trial for the elect here below; however multiplied and unexpected be the limits of endurance, or the circumstances; herein, as ever, does that word of Eternal Wisdom hold good: “Nothing under the sun is new, neither is any man able to say: Behold this is new: for it hath already gone before, in the ages that were before us” (Eccles. 1: 10).

The election of William Fitzherbert to the metropolitan See of York was signalized by the apparition of a miraculous cross, a presage of what his life was to be. The heaviest cross one can have to bear is that which originates from the servants of God, from our own brethren, or from our own superiors, in the spiritual order: this cross was not to be spared St. William. For our instruction (especially for us who so easily believe that we have gone to the farthest limits of endurance in suffering) God permitted that, after the example of his Divine Master, St. William should drink the chalice to the dregs, and should become even to the Saints a sign of contradiction and a rock of scandal (Luke 2: 34; Rom. 9: 33).

Both to the more numerous portion of the flock, as well as to the better-minded among them, the promotion of the Archbishop elect of York was indeed a cause of great joy; but others (some of them Cistercians) considered it contrary to their interests. They were foolish enough to listen to certain perfidious insinuations and whisperings, and were led to suppose that it would be a good deed to prevent his consecration. Finally they allowed themselves to be so far worked upon as to make formal and grave accusations against their shepherd, and even the virtuous, deceived by the craftiness of the intriguers, espoused their cause. After hearing from the lips of Holy Church in the Martyrology Her own judgment, glorious as it stands and without appeal, it is not without feelings of wonder and even of bewilderment, that we read passages such as the following, in letters written at the time:

To our well beloved Father and Lord, Innocent, by the grace of God Sovereign Pontiff, Bernard of Clairvaux.

The archbishop of York hath approached you; that man regarding whom we have so often already written to Your Holiness. A sorry cause indeed is his, as we have learned from such as are worthy of credit; from the sole of his foot to the top of his head there is no sound place in him. What can this man, stripped of all justice, have to seek at the hands of the guardian of justice? (Bern. Epist. 346)

Then recommending the accusers to the Pope, the Abbot of Clairvaux fears not to add:

If anyone be of God, let him join himself unto them! If the barren tree still occupy the ground, to whom must I attribute the fault, save to him unto whom the hatchet belongs? (Ibid. 347)

The Vicar of Christ, who can look at things from a higher level and can see more exactly even than the Saints, took no step to prevent St. William’s consecration. St. Bernard wrote, confidentially, to the Abbot of Rievaulx, in Yorkshire:

I have learned what has become of this archbishop, and my sorrow is extreme. We have labored all we could against this common pest, and we have not obtained the desired measure: but for all that, the fruit of our labor is none the less assured from Him, Who never suffers any good deed to pass unrewarded. What men have refused to us, I am confident we shall obtain from the mercy of our Father Who is in Heaven, and that we shall yet see this cursed fig tree rooted up. (Ibid. 353, 360)

Such grave mistakes as these can sometimes be made by Saints. Cruel mistakes indeed they are, but very sanctifying for those Saints on whom the blow falls; and, though veritable persecutions, yet they are not without consolation for such Saints as these, inasmuch as there has been no offense to God on either side.

Pope Innocent II being dead, St. Bernard, convinced that the honor of the Church was at stake, repeated his supplications more urgently than ever to Pope Celestine II and the Roman court. His zeal was so fiery that we must somewhat modify the strength of his expression:

The whole world is aware of the devil’s triumph. The applause of the uncircumcised and the tears of the good resound far and wide… If such were to be the end of this ignominious cause, why not have left it in obscurity? Could not that infamous man, the horror of England and the abomination of France, have been made bishop without Rome also witnessing the general infection spread as far as the very tombs of the apostles? …Well, be it so; this man has received sacrilegious consecration; but still more glorious will it be to precipitate Simon from mid-air, than to have prevented his mounting thus far. Otherwise, what will you do with the faithful, whose sense of religion makes them suppose that they cannot, with a safe conscience, receive the Sacraments from this leprous hand? Are they, then, to be forced by Rome to bend the knee to Baal? (Epist. 236, 239)

Rome, however, was slow in letting herself be convinced, and neither Pope Celestine II nor Pope Lucius II, who succeeded him, was willing to find in the great services of the powerful Abbot of Claivaux a sufficient reason to pronounce a condemnation, the justice of which was far from being proved to their eyes. It was only under the Pontificate of Eugene III, his former disciple, that St. Bernard, by new and reiterated instances, at last obtained the deposition of St. William, and the substitution, in the See of York, of Henry Murdac, a Cistercian, and Abbot of Fountains near Ripon.

“All the time that his humiliation lasted,” writes John, Prior of Hexham, “William never let a murmur of complaint escape him; but with a silent heart and with his soul at peace, knew how to keep patience. He protested not against his adversaries; nay, further still, he would turn aside his ear and his very thought from those who judged them unfavorably. None of those who shared his disgrace showed themselves so continually given up as he to prayer and labor.”

Five years afterward, Pope Eugene III died, as also St. Bernard and Henry Murdac. The canons of York once more elected St. William, and he was reinstated in the plenitude of his metropolitan rights by Pope Anastasius IV. But God had willed to do no more than affirm the justice of his cause: thirty days after his triumphal return to York, he died, having only just solemnized the festival of the Holy Trinity, for Whom he had suffered.

We here give the few lines wherein the liturgy records the trials and virtues of St. William:

Blessed William, born of noble parents—Count Hubert being his father and Emma, the sister of King Stephen, his mother—was remarkable from earliest youth for singularly great virtue. Growing in merit as he advanced in age, he was made treasurer of York: in which office he so behaved as to be held by all as the father of the needy. Nor indeed did he esteem anything a more precious treasure than to despoil himself of his wealth, that he might more easily minister to the wants of those laboring under poverty.

Archbishop Thurstan being dead, he was elected to succeed him, though some of the chapter dissented. But St. Bernard, on the ground of this election being faulty according to the sacred canons, appealed against him to the Apostolic See. Hence he was deposed by Pope Eugene III, which was in no way taken as a grievance by the holy man, but rather as offering an excellent occasion of exercising humility and of serving God with greater devotion.

Wherefore, fleeing worldly pomps, he withdrew into solitude, where he could attend solely to his own salvation, undistracted by any care of exterior things. But at last, his adversaries being dead, he was again, with the full consent of all, elected Archbishop, and was confirmed by Pope Anastasius. Having entered upon his See, he was shortly afterwards attacked with sickness; and full of days, as well as dear to God by reason of his almsdeeds, vigils, fasts, and good works, he passed out of this life, on the sixth of the Ides of June (June 8), in the year of our salvation 1154.

O St. William, thou didst know how to possess thy soul! Under the assaults of contradiction thou didst join the aureole of sanctity to the glorious character of a Bishop. For well didst thou understand the twofold duty incumbent on thee from the day thou wast called by the suffrages of an illustrious Church to defend Her here below, under the most difficult circumstances; on the one hand, not to refuse the perilous honor of upholding to the last the rights of that noble Bride who proffered thee Her alliance: on the other, to show to thy flock, by the example of thine own submission, that even the best of causes can never be dispensed from that absolute obedience owed by sheep, just as much as by lambs, to the supreme Shepherd. He Who searcheth the heart and the reins (Jer. 17: 10) knew how far the trial could go, without either altering the admirable simplicity of thy faith, or troubling, in consequence, the divine calm wherein lay thy strength. Yearning to raise thee to the highest degree of glory in Heaven, He was pleased to assimilate thee fully, even here below, to the eternal Pontiff Jesus, Himself misunderstood, denied and condemned by the very princes of His own people. Thy refuge was in that maxim, from the lips of this divine Head: “Learn from Me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you shall find rest for your souls” (Matt. 11: 29). Thus the yoke that would bear down such weak shoulders as ours, a burden beneath which the strongest of us might very well lose heart, far from daunting thee, seemed fraught with such sweetness, that thy step became all the lighter for it, and from that hour thou didst appear not only to walk, but to run like a giant in the way (Ps. 18: 6) of heroism wherein saints are formed.

Help us, St. William, to follow thy steps at least afar off, in the paths of gentleness and zeal. Teach us to count as little all personal injuries. Our Lord indeed probed the delicacy of thy great soul, when He permitted that to befall thee, which to us would have proved a very core of bitterness—namely, that thy hottest adversaries should really be true saints, who, in every measure they undertook against thee, wished only for the honor and glory of their divine Master. The mysterious oil, that for so long flowed from thy tomb, was at once a sign of the ineffable meekness which earned for thee that constant simplicity of thy soul’s glance, and a touching testimony rendered by Heaven in favor of thy pontifical unction, the legitimacy of which was so long contested. May God grant that this sweet oil may ooze out once again! Spread it lovingly on so many wounded souls, whom the injustice of men embitters and drives to desperation; let it freely flow in thy own see of York, alien though she now is to thy exquisite submission to Rome and to Her ancient traditions. Would that Britain might cast aside her winding-sheet at that blessed tomb of thine (see image at left), whereat the dead have often returned to life! May the whole Church receive from thee, this day, an increase of light and grace, to the honor and praise of the undivided and ever tranquil Trinity, to Whom was paid thy last solemn homage here below. Amen. (1)

On Trinity Sunday, William was celebrating Mass when he was taken ill. His archdeacon Osbert was suspected of putting poison in his chalice, but this was never proved. He died on 8 June. Miracles took place at his tomb, and in 1227 he was canonised by Pope Honorius III. His remains lie in a sarcophus under the altar in the western crypt of York Minster. A mosaic pavement, created by the students from York College of Art in 1980, represent the waters of the Ouse, recalling the miracle that accompanied his installation. The great 15th century north choir transept window in York Minster commemorates his life and the miracles attributed to him in 110 panels. (2)

Image: (3)


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