St Ferdinand III, King of Castile and Confessor
During the Season consecrated to the mystery of our Emmanuel’s Birth, we saw standing near his Crib, the Blessed Emperor Charlemagne. Crowned with the imperial diadem, and with a sword in his fearless hand, he seemed to be watching over the Babe, whose first worshippers were shepherds. And now, near the glorious Sepulchre, which was first visited by Magdalene and her companions, we perceive a King, Ferdinand the Victorious, — wearing a crown, and keeping guard with his valiant sword, — the terror of the Saracen.
Catholic Spain is personified in her Ferdinand. His mother Berengera was sister to Blanche the mother of St. Louis of France. In order to form “the Catholic Kingdom,” there was needed one of our Lord’s Apostles, Saint James the Great; there was needed a formidable trial, the Saracen invasion, which deluged the Peninsula; there was needed a chivalrous resistance, which lasted eight hundred years, and by which Spain regained her glory and her freedom. St. Ferdinand is the worthy representative of the brave heroes who drove out the Moors from their fatherland and made her what she is: but he had the virtues of a Saint, as well as the courage of a Soldier.
His life was one of exploits, and each was a victory. Cordova, the city of the Caliphs, was conquered by this warrior Saint. At once, its Alhambra ceased to be a palace of Mahometan effeminacy and crime. Its splendid Mosque was consecrated to the Divine Service, and afterwards became the Cathedral of the City. The followers of Mahomet had robbed the Church of Saint James at Compostella of its bells, and had them brought in triumph to Cordova; Ferdinand ordered them to be carried thither again, on the backs of the Moors.
After a siege of sixteen months, Seville also fell into Ferdinand’s hands. Its fortifications consisted of a double wall, with a hundred and sixty-six towers. The Christian army was weak in numbers; the Saracens fought with incredible courage, and had the advantages of position and tact on their part: but the Crescent was to be eclipsed by the Cross. Ferdinand gave the Saracens a month to evacuate the city and territory. Three hundred thousand withdrew to Xeres, and a hundred thousand passed over into Africa. The brave Moorish General, when taking his last look at the City, wept, and said to his Officers: “None but a Saint could, with such a small force, have made himself master of so strong and well-manned a place.”
We will not enumerate the other victories gained by our Saint. The Moors foresaw that the result would be their total expulsion from the Peninsula. But this was not all that Ferdinand aimed at: he even intended to invade Africa, and thus crush the Mussulman power for ever. The noble project was prevented by his death, which took place in the fifty-third year of his age.
He always looked upon himself as the humble instrument of God’s designs, and zealously laboured to accomplish them. Though most austere towards himself, he was a father in his compassion for his people, and was one day heard to say: ” I am more afraid of the curse of one poor woman, than of all the Saracen armies together.” He richly endowed the Churches which he built in Spain. His devotion to the Holy Mother of God was most tender, and he used to call her his Lady: in return, Mary procured him victory in all his battles, and kept away all pestilence and famine from the country during his entire reign, which, as the cotemporary chroniclers observe, was an evident miracle, considering the circumstances of the age and period. The whole life of our Saint was a series of happiness and success; whereas, the life of that other admirable King, Saint Louis of France, was one of almost uninterrupted misfortune; as though God would give to the world, in these two Saints, a model of courage in adversity, and an example of humility in prosperity. They form unitedly a complete picture of what human life is, regenerated as it has now been by our Jesus, in whom we adore both the humiliations of the Cross and the glories of the Resurrection. What happy times were those, when God chose Kings whereby to teach mankind such sublime lessons!
One feels curious to know how such a man, such a King, as Ferdinand, would take Death when it came upon him. When it came, he was in his fifty-fourth year. The time approached for his receiving the Holy Viaticum. As soon as the Priest entered the room with the Blessed Sacrament, the holy King got out of bed, prostrated himself in adoration, and, humbly putting a cord round his neck, received the Sacred Host. This done, and feeling that he was on the verge of Eternity, he ordered his attendants to remove from him every sign of royalty, and called his sons round his bed. Addressing himself to the eldest, who was Alphonsus the Good, he intrusted him with the care of his brothers, and reminded him of the duties he owed to his subjects and soldiers; he then added these words: “My son, thou seest what armies, and possessions, and subjects, thou hast, more than any other Christian king; make a proper use of these advantages; and, having the power, be and do good. Thou art now master of the country which the Moors took, in times past, from king Rodriguez. If thou keep the kingdom in the state wherein I now leave it to thee, thou wilt be, as I have been, a good King, which thou will not be, if thou allowest any portion of it to be lost.”
As his end drew nigh, the dying King was favoured with an apparition from heaven. He thanked God for granting him that consolation, and then asked for the blessed Candle; but before taking it in his hand, he raised up his eyes to heaven, and said: “Thou, O Lord, hast given me the kingdom, which I should not otherwise have had; thou hast given me more honour and power than I deserved; receive my thanks! I give thee back this kingdom, which I have increased as far as I was able; I also commend my soul into thy hands! He then asked pardon of the by-standers, begging them to overlook any offence that he might have committed against them. The whole court was present, and, with tears, asked the Saint to forgive them.
The holy King then took the blessed Candle into his hands, and raising it up towards heaven, said: “Lord Jesus Christ! my Redeemer! naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I return to the earth. Lord, receive my soul! and, through the merits of thy most holy Passion, deign to admit it among those of thy servants!” Having said this, he gave back the candle, and asked the bishops and priests, who were present, to recite the Litanies; which being ended, he bade them sing the Te Deum. When the Hymn was finished, he bowed down his head, closed his eyes, and calmly expired.
Thus died those men, whose glorious works were the result of their Faith, and who looked on themselves as only sent into this world that they might serve Christ and labour to propagate His kingdom.
It was they that gave Europe its highest glory: they made the Gospel its first law, and based its Constitution on the Canons of the Church. It is now governed by a very different standard; it is paying dearly for the change, and is being drifted rapidly to dissolution and ruin.
The following are the Lessons used at Rome in the Office of Saint Ferdinand.
Ferdinand the Third, king of Castile and Leon,— to whom, for now four centuries, the title of Saint has been given both by clergy and laity,exhibited so much prudence in his youthful years, that his mother Berengaria, queen of Castile, who had educated him in a very holy manner, resigned her kingdom in his favour. Scarcely had Ferdinand assumed the care of governing, than he shone conspicuous in all the virtues becoming a king: magnanimity, clemency, justice, and, above all, zeal for Catholic faith and worship, which he ardently defended and propagated. He mainly showed this zeal by forbidding heretics to settle in his states. He also gave proofs of it by building, endowing, and dedicating to Christian worship, Churches in Cordoba, Jaen, Seville, and other cities rescued from the Moorish yoke. He restored, with holy and royal munificence, the Cathedrals of Toledo, Burgos, and other cities.
At the same time, he levied powerful armies in the kingdom of Castile and Leon, which he inherited from his father Alphonsus; and, each year, gave battle to the Saracens, the enemies of the Christian religion. The great means, whereby this most holy king secured victory in every engagement, were the prayers he offered up to God: he used also to chastise his body with disciplines and a rough hair shirt, with the intention of rendering God propitious. By so doing, he gained extraordinary victories over the mighty armies of the Moors, and, after taking possession of Jaen, Cordoba, and Murcia, and making a tributary of the kingdom of Granada, he restored many cities to the Christian Religion and to Spain. He led his victorious standard before Seville, the capital of Baeza, being, as it is related, urged thereto by St. Isidore, who had formerly been bishop of that city, and who appeared to him in a vision. Historians also relate that he was miraculously aided during that siege, and in the following manner. The Mahometans had stretched an iron chain across the Guadalquiver, in order to block up the passage. Suddenly there arose a violent wind, and one of the royal ships was, by the king’s order, sent against the chain, which was thus broken, and with so much violence, that it was carried far beyond, and bore down a bridge of boats. The Moors lost all their hope, and the city surrendered.
Ferdinand attributed all these victories to the patronage of the Blessed Virgin Mary, whose image he always had in his camp, and honoured it with much devotion. Having taken Seville, his first thoughts were directed to religion. He immediately caused the Mosque of the Saracens to be purified and dedicated as a Christian Church, having, with a princely and pious munificence, provided it with an archiepiscopal See, richly endowed, as also with a well-appointed college of Canons and dignitaries. He moreover built several other Churches and Monasteries in the same city. Whilst engaged in these holy works, he was making preparations to pass over to Africa, there to crush the Mahometan empire; but he was called to the kingdom of heaven. When his last hour came, he fastened a cord round his neck, prostrated on the ground, and, shedding abundant tears, adored the Blessed Sacrament which was brought to him as Viaticum. Having received it in admirable dispositions of reverence, humility and faith, he slept in the Lord. His body, which has remained incorrupt for six centuries, is buried, in a tomb of extraordinary richness, in the Cathedral Church of Seville.
By delivering thy people from the yoke of the Infidel, thou, O Ferdinand, didst imitate our Risen Jesus, who rescued us from death and restored us to the life we had lost. Thy conquests were not like those of this world’s conquerors, who have no other aim than the satisfying their own and their peoples’ pride. Thy ambition was to deliver thy people from an oppression, which had weighed heavily on them for long ages. Thy object was to save them from the danger of apostacy, which they incurred by being under the Moorish yoke. champion of Christ! it was for his dear sake thou didst lay siege to the Saracen cities. His Banner was thine; and thy first anxiety was to spread his kingdom. He, in return, blessed thee in all thy battles, and made thee ever Victorious.
Thy mission, Ferdinand, was to form for our God a nation, which has been honoured by holy Church, above all others, with the glorious name of the “Catholic Kingdom.” Happy Spain, which, by her perseverance and courage, broke the Mussulman yoke, that still weighs down the other countries which it made its prey! Happy Spain, which repelled the invasion of Protestantism, and, by this, preserved the Faith, which both saves souls and constitutes a nation’s strongest power! Pray for thy country, O saintly King! False doctrines and treacherous influences are now rife within her, and many of her children have been led astray. Never permit her to injure, by cowardly compromise, that holy Faith, which has hitherto been her grandest glory and safeguard. Frustrate the secret plots which are working to undermine her Catholicity. Keep up within her her old hatred of heresy, and maintain her in the rank she holds among Catholic nations. Unity in faith and worship may still save her from the abyss into which so many other countries have fallen. O holy King! save once more the land that God intrusted to thy keeping, and which thou restoredst to him with such humble gratitude, when thou wast about to change thine earthly for a heavenly Crown. Thou art still her beloved Protector; hasten, then, to her aid!
This text is taken from The Liturgical Year, authored by Dom Prosper Gueranger (1841-1875)