Jesus Christ founded the Church, but it has always been administered by human beings. To say that humans are flawed is to state the obvious, and popes, bishops, priests, deacons, nuns, as well as the Catholic laity, are no exception. The Church shows us the way to heaven. Through the Mass and the sacraments it brings God’s grace into the world, and following Christ’s example, the Church sets the standard for personal holiness and selfless charity to our neighbor.
Nonetheless, since the night St. Peter denied Christ three times, the Church has been plagued by representatives — male and female — who have given scandal, have been unfaithful, were arrogant, or just had lousy people skills.
Every Catholic can recall at least one bad experience with a priest, a nun or a pastoral administrator, and if the experience is bad enough, some Catholics will walk away. In fact, a recent survey found that one-third of Americans who were baptized Catholic do not practice the faith at all.
For Catholics who are angry or hurting, who have put distance between themselves and the practice of their faith, it may be some consolation to know that even saints have suffered at the hands of the representatives of the Church. What follows are the stories of three mistreated saints and how they remained faithful.
St. Elizabeth of Hungary
In 1227, Elizabeth of Hungary’s husband died and her in-laws drove her out of the house. She moved to the city of Marburg in central Germany where she built a hospital and dedicated herself to nursing the sick and the dying.
Elizabeth took as her spiritual director Father Conrad of Marburg, a zealous, ascetical Franciscan priest whom her late husband had believed to be a truly holy man. It was a poor choice. Elizabeth was spontaneous and generous; Conrad was rigorous and severe. He felt it his duty to bring Elizabeth to a life of strict self-denial. He was known to slap Elizabeth across the face for the most insignificant fault, and beat her with a thick wooden staff for infractions he considered serious.
Elizabeth knew she and Conrad were not suited to each other. To a friend she once compared herself to tall grass and Conrad to a raging stream. “The stream overflows its banks and crushes the grass,” she said. “But the water recedes and the grass springs back up again.” The abuse she suffered from Conrad humiliated Elizabeth, but she would not permit it to separate her from the love of Christ.
Late in 1231, when she was only 24 years old, Elizabeth died. Conrad, who had never understood her in life, appreciated her at last: He took the lead in gathering material for Elizabeth’s canonization.
St. John of the Cross
In the mid-16th century, St. Teresa of Ávila began her reform of the Carmelite order. Many of the order’s convents and priories had grown lax: The old austerity had given way to opulent furnishings and expensive food and wine; gossiping with visitors in the parlor took precedence over the daily routine of prayer. Teresa won the approval of the superior of all the Carmelites in Spain, as well as of King Philip II, to bring the order back to its original principles. But not all the Carmelite friars wanted to be reformed, and they took out their frustration on Teresa’s chaplain, confessor and protégé, John of the Cross.
In 1577 a band of renegade Carmelites kidnapped John and imprisoned him in their priory in Toledo. For nearly nine months he was locked inside a tiny cell where a 3-inch-wide slit in the outer wall passed for a window. His friar-jailers gave him so little food he almost starved to death; because he was refused water for washing or a fresh habit, John became infested with lice; he was refused candles or lamps to dispel the gloom of the cell, or a fire to warm him in winter. Worse, his brother Carmelites flogged him so brutally that he bore the scars for the rest of his life.
Terrified that he would be locked up forever, John took refuge in meditation, composing mentally some of his finest mystical poems. These long interior conversations with God kept his faith alive. But in addition to being a great contemplative, John was also a practical man who plotted his escape. By mid-August 1578 he had managed to dismantle the lock on the cell door and make a rope by tying together strips torn from his blankets. Late one night he crept out of his cell, hurried to the parapet and used his makeshift rope to climb down the street. Weak and disoriented, John called upon the Blessed Virgin for help, and she must have heard him because after staggering through the city he found himself at the door of one of Teresa’s convents. The nuns kept John hidden and nursed him back to health.
St. Joan of Arc
Certainly the most extreme example of a saint who suffered at the hands of churchmen is St. Joan of Arc. This young woman fell into the hands of a corrupt Church tribunal of French clerics who pushed aside all notions of justice in order to prove their loyalty to their English overlords.
Joan was a French peasant who received visions of saints who promised that if she took command of the armies of France, God would help the French drive out the English invaders. Inspired by Joan’s absolute confidence in God, the French enjoyed victory after victory. But when Joan was captured by the English, the ungrateful French king made no attempt to ransom her. Bishop Pierre Cauchon of Beauvais, a Frenchman under the thumb of the English, falsely accused Joan of witchcraft, idolatry and heresy, and assembled a tribunal to try her.
In prison Joan was forbidden to attend Mass, but Cauchon did send her a confessor. Father Nicolas Loiseleur passed himself off as a fellow countryman, the better to win Joan’s confidence. Not only did he repeat to the lawyers for the prosecution what Joan told him in confession, he concealed notaries and other witnesses in an adjoining room where a spy hole let them hear everything the poor, frightened prisoner said.
The scandalous conduct of Father Loiseleur was only one facet of the mockery of justice that passed as Joan’s trial. She had no lawyer arguing her defense; she was not permitted to call any witnesses to testify on her behalf; nor were any of the churchmen in the court permitted to explain the difficult questions of law and theology put to her during the trial. Joan had never been to school, she could not read or write, but she understood that this court was a travesty, so she asked repeatedly to be taken to Rome for an impartial trial before the pope. Her request was denied.
In the end, Joan’s judges described her visions as diabolical, and the theology faculty of the University of Paris weighed in with the opinion that everything Joan had said about her mission was poisonous to Christian souls. Bishop Cauchon’s court handed down the decision the English wanted to hear: Joan was a heretic, a sorceress, a schismatic and an apostate. For the sake of political expediency, Joan’s judges had condemned a saint.
On May 30, 1431, Joan was taken to a marketplace in Rouen and bound to a stake. She begged for a cross, and while Father Isambart de la Pierre ran to a nearby church to fetch a processional crucifix, an English soldier took a stick, snapped it into pieces, and made a cross for Joan. She took it from his hand, kissed it, then slipped it under her gown. As the flames rose around her, Joan cried, “Jesus! Jesus!” while Father Isambart held the cross as high as he could so she could see it in her final agony.
Twenty-five years after Joan’s death her mother and her brothers petitioned Rome to revisit the case. In 1456 Joan’s case was heard once again, this time in Paris’ Cathedral of Notre Dame. An enormous crowd of Joan’s supporters filled the church as witness after witness testified that Joan was orthodox and as true a daughter of the Faith as the Church had ever known.
Joan’s vindication was pronounced at Rouen, where she had been wrongly executed.
Church of sinners
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states candidly that the Church is “at once holy and always in need of purification.” Sts. Elizabeth, John and Joan knew from personal experience just how bad churchmen could be. Yet when their persecutors betrayed everything Christ and his Church stands for, Elizabeth, John and Joan did not give up, but clung more firmly to their faith and the Church Jesus Christ founded.
Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of “Saints Behaving Badly” (Doubleday, $15.95) and Our Sunday Visitor’s Catholic Cardlinks series.