Saint John of Cologne and Companions
The story of saint John of Cologne O.P. (+1572) proves that you can become a saint by doing the right thing at the right time.
John of Cologne was a 17th century Dominican in what is now the Netherlands, near the city of Gorinchem. He was a parish priest. In 1572 John is caught up in the Dutch Wars of Independence from Spain, which, confusingly, at the same time were also civil wars over religion. A band of Calvinist rebels had captured one city near Rotterdam, and introduced the strictest form of Calvinism possible. From there they undertook their raids in aid of the rebellion led by the protestant prince William of Orange (not to be confused by the later English King).
The rebels captured the town of Gorkum (present day: Gorinchem) and imprisoned all of the Franciscans, and some secular priests. They would be released if they would swear allegiance to the new Calvinist faith. Now John heard of this, and -in disguise- went out to visit the prisoners in order to give them Holy Communion. However, he was betrayed, and was added to the prisoners.
Soon after that, the group was shipped off to the centre of a Calvinist stronghold: Den Briel (Brielle). Upon arriving, they were forced to process around the gallows near the harbour.
“Sing”; the people shouted mockingly: “Sing something about Mary”. And one young friar finds the courage to sing. And the others join in. And suddenly the people are moved by the dignity of these men. Tears well up, and a deep silence comes over the crowd when the men stop. Quickly the pirates move the men to another pair of gallows in the town’s centre and force them to sing again, and they sing the Te Deum.
A mock trial follows, a late intervention by the Prince of Orange to save the men goes horribly wrong. The men are hanged in an old stable, part of a ruined monastic complex.
How must our brother John have felt in all this? We don’t know. No words of his were preserved. But I think his life is a sermon for us. He went out to bring Christ to others in need. He joined them in their suffering. Staying dignified, impressing their executioners, praying to God, finding courage through their deepest fears.
By this testimony, I think, the Martyrs of Gorkum, including friar John, have given us a testimony of what it means to be blessed in times of great adversity. Between how people treat us, and how we respond, there is a choice. John chose to respond as he had probably preached many times before. To witness that evil has not the last word. That through Christ’s redemptive work, we are truly blessed.