July 9th – The Most Difficult Decision
November is a month dedicated to the saints; the month begins with All Saints Day on November 1st. I love the saints and their stories, witness, and courage. I keep a note about lesser-known saints so that I don’t miss their feast days during Mass. Every year I have a difficult decision on July 9th. There are two groups of martyrs that have their feast day on July 9th. The Martyrs of Gorkum and St. Augustine Zhao Rong and Companions. Each of these groups contain an incredible saint.
The Martyrs of Gorkum are 19 Dutch priests who were hanged by the Calvinists in 1572 for their belief in the Real Presence in the Eucharist. The oppression of priests began in 1572 and was part of a larger societal struggle in the Netherlands. The 19 priests were slowly gathered in prison.
One of the priests was a diocesan priest named Fr. Andrew Wouters. I will quote heavily from a website entitled Now That I’m Catholic. “Father Andrew Wouters wasn’t the most faithful of priests, and everyone knew it. He was known to drink too much, had several affairs with women in town, and he fathered at least a few children despite his vow of celibacy.
“He was suspended from his priestly duties and living in Gorkum during the Wars of Religion in the Netherlands… Some sources say he was captured by these raiders, but some say he voluntarily joined his fellow priests that were going to be tortured and most likely killed.
“Maybe he saw martyrdom as his final shot at redeeming his legacy, maybe he felt regret for the wasting of his vocation, or maybe he had some other motivation, we may never know but what we do know is that God gave Father Andrew the graces he needed to endure the agony that lay ahead of him.”
Fr. Wouters was given multiple chances to recant his belief in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. Time after time he reaffirmed this belief. On July 9, 1572 as the noose was being slipped over his head, he was given one last chance to recant. His final words were, “Fornicator I always was; heretic I never was.”
The other group of martyrs to celebrate on July 9th are Chinese martyrs. One of them is a layman named St. Mark Ji Tianxiang. St. Mark was an opium addict. He wasn’t a recovering opium addict, but one who was still fighting the addiction at the time of his death.
He was prescribed opium when he had a stomach illness and became addicted to the drug. His addiction was considered scandalous to the faithful. There wasn’t biochemical understanding of dependency in those days, so it was assumed that he had a weak will to convert. His confessor didn’t think that he had actually resolved to sin no more, so he withheld absolution. This meant St. Mark went years without absolution and the Eucharist.
For 30 years he was unable to receive the Sacraments, yet he was faithful to coming to Mass. He prayed that he would die a martyr which seemed like his only path to heaven. The Lord heard his prayer and in 1900 he was rounded up with many of his family members. St. Mark Ji was flooded with the grace of final perseverance and never denied the Lord.
As they traveled to prison, his grandson asked him where they were going. He replied, “We are going home.” Indeed they were going to heaven. As the executions prepared to kill the ten family members, St. Mark Ji asked to be killed last so that none of his family members would die alone. He stood beside all of them as they were beheaded and sang the litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary up to his death.
I love these two martyrs because they exemplify the struggle of Christian life. We all struggle with sin; maybe not drug addiction or carousing, but our sins are real. Despite our weakness and shortcomings, the Lord’s grace works in our heart and soul so that we can witness to Him in the most challenging circumstances. May the Lord continue to pour His grace into our hearts so that we may witness to Him, especially in challenging circumstances. St. Andrew Wouters and St. Mark Ji Tianxiang, pray for us!
Sincerely in Christ,
Fr. Sean Wilson
Painting by Edmund Blair Leighton; “The Charity of St. Elizabeth of Hungary”