Monday, May 27, 2013

St. Nicholas Pieck and Companions (d. 1572)

Reformation Europe was a boiling sea of social upheaval, and good Christians of every stripe found the shifting political scene a daunting arena in which to live out their faith. Zeal for creed was often mixed up with lust for power, and excesses of the most brutal kind were routinely rationalized on both sacred and secular grounds.

In sixteenth-century Holland, where the entanglement of faith and statecraft was particularly complex, a group of Franciscans under the leadership of St. Nicholas Pieck bravely met the challenge of sectarianism gone mad and paid the ultimate price for their fidelity to the Faith.

 Dutch Ships Ramming Spanish Galleys, by Hendrik Cornelisz Vroom (c. 1562–1640)
The affable and selfless Father Pieck was the guardian of a small friary in the coastal fishing village of Gorkum. He was from a prominent Dutch family and had received the finest education available, including studies at the famed Louvain University. At this time, the Netherlands was a possession of the Spanish King Philip II, and the Protestant revolt against all established authority was sweeping the continent. Fr. Pieck was a passionate Catholic in every respect, and when he got wind of the approaching storm of revolution, he spared no effort in exhorting both his confreres and the townspeople to adhere closely to their Catholic faith, no matter what the cost. 

In 1572, a Dutch rebellion materialized with a distinctly Calvinist flavor – in part to further distance the homeland from Catholic Spain. With the support of Holland’s Prince William of Orange, mercenary seamen called the Watergeuzen, or “Sea Beggars,” went about ravaging the coast and establishing beachheads for the new rebellion. The Protestant pirates arrived in Gorkum on June 26, 1572, and quickly took over the town. The brigands decided to underscore the newly imposed Calvinist ascendancy by rounding up the local Catholic clergy and subjecting them to intimidation and abuse.

Nineteen priests and religious comprised the band of captives – Fr. Pieck, eight other Franciscan priests, and two Franciscan brothers were joined by an Augustinian, a Dominican, two Norbertines, and four secular priests. The Sea Beggars roughly treated their captives and threw them in a filthy dungeon. The marauders singled out Fr. Nicholas for the cruelest treatment, choking him with his own cincture and then, after he survived the attack, applying a burning torch to the priest’s face, ears, and tongue. Eventually, the rebel Admiral Lumaye ordered the group moved to Brielle, a nearby Calvinist stronghold, where he compelled the priests and brothers to parade through the town reciting litanies for the amusement of the populace.

Once sated with the infliction of these indignities, the Sea Beggars invited local Calvinist ministers to come and debate the Catholic clergy on the hot issues of the day – namely, the Real Presence of Our Lord in the Eucharist and the unique authority vested in the Pope as successor of St. Peter. The Calvinist rebels no doubt expected the ministers to easily defeat the priests on every count, but to a man – including the less educated lay brothers – each of the prisoners ably defended the Church’s ancient teaching with deft argument and sound theological reasoning.

By this time, word of the kidnapping had spread abroad. The influential family of Fr. Pieck attempted to secure the guardian’s release, but the holy priest refused to leave his confinement unless all were released with him. At the same time, the local magistrates, the people of Gorkum, and even the Calvinist Prince William himself, weighed in on the side of the hostages.

Martyrs de Gorkum, by Cesare Fracassini (1838-1868)
Nevertheless, Admiral Lumaye stubbornly insisted the prisoners make some public gesture denying the Catholic Faith in exchange for their freedom. All 19 were swift to reject the offer, and were resolute in confirming their belief in the Real Presence and the authority of the Pope. Summing up his own position and that of the entire group, Fr. Pieck declaimed boldly, “I would rather endure death for the honor of God than swerve even a hair’s breadth from the Catholic Faith.”

The clerics’ refusal to yield inflamed Lumaye and his followers, and under cover of night on July 9, 1572, the Calvinist rebels led their hostages to an abandoned monastery outside of Brielle. There, in a turf shed, and assisted by an apostate priest, the Sea Beggars strung up the 19 confessors one by one and left them to hang until dead. The murderers disposed of the bodies in a makeshift common grave, and it was not until 1616 that the remains were recovered and properly enshrined in a Belgian Franciscan church.

Pope Pius XI canonized the Martyrs of Gorkum in 1867, and their glorious sacrifice is memorialized every year on July 9. 

A version of this story appeared in Franciscan Way, Franciscan University of Steubenville.

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