St. John Chrysostom once said that the floor of Hell is paved with the skulls of bishops. The history of the Catholic Church is the story of saints holding themselves and others to a higher standard that makes their religious superiors and the secular authorities uncomfortable. When the secular authorities come into play, the saints end up as martyrs. But when religious superiors and bishops are involved, the saints have often sought recourse from Rome, receiving not only exhoneration but complete support and validation from Rome.
For example, in 1997, Mother Mary Angelica, PCPA, a conservative nun who owned the world’s largest Catholic television network and was already known for her “scraps” with the US bishops, challenged a document by Cardinal Roger Mahony. The document emphasized the idea that the Eucharist was a “communal meal,” relegating the doctrine of the Real Presence to a footnote. Mother Angelica criticized the document on the air. Mahony threatened to charge her in both civil and canonical courts for damaging his reputation and challenging his authority as a bishop. A few months later, Mother Angelica, who had been crippled for over forty years by a spinal injury and required braces to walk, was miraculously healed. Mahony kept up his crusade against her for quite some time, eventually taking it to Rome. After meeting with the Holy Father and with the head of the Congregation for Religious, Mahony dropped the subject. A few years later, John Paul II sent Angelica the gift of a monstrance that had, in turn, been given to him by the members of one of the parishes in Poland when he was Cardinal. While Mother Angelica is still alive, she has clearly been given a great deal of support and endorsement from Rome, including Pope John Paul II, Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict (who did his first English language television interview on EWTN a couple years before being elevated to the papacy), Cardinal Arinze, and Cardinal Schönborn (who, while not “from Rome,” was the editor of the _Catechism_).
In 1918, a young Capuchin priest named Pio, already known for great physical suffering and for experiencing physical and spiritual assaults from the Devil, offered himself to God as a sacrificial victim for the end of World War I. He experienced a ttransverbation, a mystical stabbing in the heart. The transverberations eventually led to full-fledged stigmata. His fame grew, and people came from around the world to see him because of the mystical phenomena that surrounded him. He would spend most of his day saying masses and hearing confessions of pilgrims. These confessions, in turn, added to his fame because of his strict asceticism and his ability to read their souls. Throughout the 1920s and beyond, he was falsely accused of many things: falsifying his stigmata, misappropriation of funds, and of sexual misconduct with both women and teenaged boys. For several years, he was suspended of all priestly faculties except private masses. In 1933, saying, “I have not been badly disposed toward Padre Pio, but I have been badly informed,” Pope Pius XI restored his ability to say public Masses, and eventually his entire public ministry. He enjoyed the favor of every subsequent Pope, enduring many false accusations until Paul VI dismissed all those accusations. He was canonized in 2002 by Pope John Paul II, who knew St. Pio personally and had long admired him.
In 19th century Italy, the Church found Herself, as She often does, in a precarious situation between disparate political movements. On the one hand, the aristocrats considered anyone who helped the poor or worked with children to be a socialist. On the other hand, the socialists hated Christianity and wanted to turn the youth and the poor into revolutionaries, so they opposed any Christians who did work in those apostolates. Thus, John Bosco, who took poor boys off the street and gave them an education, was considered “dangerous” by both the Socialists and the Aristocracy. In turn, his bishop saw him as causing trouble, and repeatedly called on him to tone it down. His brother priests considered him a madman and a troublemaker. Numerous attempts were made on his life and freedom, yet his ministry endured. Finally, when his bishop forced his hand in obedience, he appealed his case to Bl. Pope Pius IX. Pius had already heard of John Bosco and been an admirer. He approved John Bosco’s request to start a new religious order and took the priest under his wing. He was canonized in 1934, a mere 46 years after his death.
In the 1560s, Fr. Juan de Santo Matia joined Mother Teresa de Jesus in her attempt to reform the Carmelite Order to a more strict observance of the Rule, as they felt the Order had become too wealthy and worldly. This scandalized the other Carmelites, who felt that Teresa and John were requiring more of their fellow Carmelites than they should. In 1577, John was arrested for violating his superior’s orders to stop associating with the reformers. For nine months, he was imprisoned and tortured. Throughout the rest of his career, St. John of the Cross endured constant pressure from the “moderates,” who did everything they could to bring charges against him so they could expel him from the Order and the priesthood. They never succeeded, and he was canonized in 1726.
In the 1530s, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England voted to go long with King Henry VIII and Parliament in breaking with Rome. Thomas More, however, refused to accept the Act of Supremacy. He was criticized for being disobedient to his King and His bishops. His response? “I am the King’s good servant, but God’s servant first.” He was beheaded, then canonized in 1930.
A hundred years earlier, in 1429, a teenaged girl who reported having locutions from St. Michael, St. Catherine of Alexandria, St. Margaret and St. Genevieve, led the French forces to successfully repel a British invasion. Captured by the British, she was given a speedy and unjust trial for heresy, overseen by a British-supporting bishop, while the Grand Inquisitor was out of the country. Joan of Arc was exhonerated 24 years after her execution and canonized nearly 500 years later. Among her other patronages, she is patroness of Catholics who are persecuted by the Church.
In the early 1200s, Giovanni Francesco di Bernardone was a rebellious young rich kid who drank and partied with his friends. A brief stint as a soldier ended with Francis as a POW. After returning home and resuming his party life, he suffered a long illness. Ultimately, a spiritual vision changed Francis’s life. A request from Jesus to rebuild the Church led Francis to think he was supposed to rebuild dilapidated church buildings. He collected money to support these projects and gave money to the poor. Instead of spending his father’s money on profligacy, he began spending it on the poor and the Church. His father took him before the bishop, who ordered him to give back everything he ever took from his father. Francis obeyed the bishop, stripped off his clothes, handed them to his father, and turned himself over to the Church. After he collected a group of followers around him, he went to Rome for permission to form an Order. St. Francis of Assisi died in 1226 and was canonized in 1228.
A young man named Yochanan appeared along the Jordan river, calling himself a prophet. He dressed, lived and spoke like a madman, but he drew thousands of people who came to hear him preach and to be baptized. One of his favorite topics of preaching was the corruption of the Jewish leaders. He called the Pharisees a “brood of vipers.” He publicly denounced King Herod Antipas for living in an illicit and adulterous marriage. Herod arrested him for defamation of character and had him beheaded. St. John the Baptist was never formally canonized, but tradition holds that, as he was “sanctified in his mother’s womb,” he was free from personal sin.
A relative of his named Yehoshua came out of Nazareth around the same time and went through Galilee, preaching along the same themes. While He did not overtly condemn the political authorities, as John did, He did condemn the religious leaders for their hypocrisy. They found His preaching to be scandalous, especially since He claimed to be God. They arrested Him, and had Him tried by several courts. The Romans, whose major concern in criminal law was to prevent riots, would give a death sentence to anyone who “made too many waves” in society. Agreeing that this Jesus of Nazareth, called Christ by some, was causing strife and division by his strict preaching, the Romans executed Him. A few days later, He rose from the dead.