(I repeat this post every July 9th. All of us can be saints, even if our sins be as scarlet, if we have faith, love and courage.)
When July 9 rolls around each year I am always reminded of my personal belief that before our end, perhaps especially for those of us sunk deep in sin, God gives us an opportunity to atone and turn aside from the downward path.
In Sixteenth Century Holland one of the longest wars in history began between Spain and Dutch rebels. The war was waged on both sides with sickening atrocities. Among the most violent were the Sea Beggars, Dutch patriots or pirates depending upon one’s point of view. In June of 1572 the Sea Beggars took the Dutch town of Gorkum, and captured nine Franciscan priests, Nicholas Pieck, Hieronymus of Weert, Theodorus van der Eem, Nicasius Janssen, Willehad of Denmark, Godefried of Mervel, Antonius of Weert, Antonius of Hoornaer, and Franciscus de Roye, of Brussels. Two Franciscan lay brothers were also captured: Petrus of Assche and Cornelius of Wyk.
The Sea Beggars also captured the parish priest of Gorkum, Leonardus Vechel of Boi-le-Duc, and his assistant, Nicolaas Janssen. Also imprisoned were Father Godefried van Duynsen and Joannes Lenartz of Oisterwijk, director of the convent of Augustinian nuns in Gorkum. Later imprisoned was a Domincan priest Joannes van Hoornaer who bravely came to Gorkum to minister to his imprisoned colleagues and joined them in their captivity, Jacobus Lacops of Oudenaar, a priest of Monster, Holland, Adrianus Janssen of Brielle, and last, and no doubt he would say least, the subject of this post, Andreas Wouters of Heynoord.
To be blunt, Andreas Wouters had been a lousy priest. A drunkard and notorious womanizer, he had fathered several children. Suspended from his duties he was living in disgrace when the Sea Beggars captured Gorkum. This was his cue to run as far away as possible, based on his past history. Instead, perhaps understanding that God was giving him maybe his last chance to redeem himself, he volunteered to join the captive priests and brothers.
The 19 were tortured and subject to every type of humiliation and mockery, especially Wouters who was constantly reminded by his captors of what a disgrace he was. William the Silent, leader of the Dutch rebels, sent a letter to the commander of the Sea Beggars, William de la Marck, ordering that the priests and brothers were not to be molested in any way. Ignoring his instructions, de la Marck ordered them to be slain if they did not renounce their belief in the Real Presence and Papal Supremacy. All stoutly refused.
On July 9, de la Marck had the 19 hanged in a turfshed. As the noose was being fastened around his neck, his captors kept mocking Father Wouters. His last words before he entered eternity were: Fornicator I always was; heretic I never was.
The Martyrs of Gorkum were canonized by Pope Pius IX on June 29, 1865, the feast day of the two greatest martyrs of the Church, Saints Peter and Paul.