June 12, 2020
My middle name, William, was given to me by my parents to honor my Godfather, William Everly. Never have I taken the time to delve into the life of St. William. That changed on June 8 when my Saint of the Day email featured – you guessed it – Saint William. It was only a very brief biographical sketch so I went digging more deeply to get the rest of the story.
Turns out he was an Archbishop of York (not Pennsylvania) in 12th century England and his life has quite the story to tell. Born into a powerful family – his father was treasurer to King Henry I – William seemed destined for great things. His uncle was next in line to the English throne. But a series of things seemed to go wrong for the poor man.
In 1140 at a rather young age, he was elected by the cathedral canons as archbishop of York. Back then bishops were elected then papal approval was required. For whatever reason the local Cistercian monks and others took a strong disliking to William. He was accused of simony (buying his appointment) and unchastity. The archbishop of Canterbury refused to consecrate him a bishop. The charges were investigated by Rome and he was cleared. Could anything else go wrong? Yes.
Henry, Bishop of Winchester, consecrated William a bishop. However, the new Pope, Eugene III, suspended the exonerated, recently ordained William. Now the Pope’s motives may not have been the purest, since Eugene had been the Cistercian abbot in York before becoming pope. William retired to a monastery (I’m guessing not a Cistercian monastery) in Sicily where he led the austere life of a monk, excelling in fasting and prayer. After Pope Eugene went on to God, a new Pope, Anastasius IV, assumed the Throne of Peter and restored William as archbishop of York. It was not until 1154—14 years after he was first nominated—that William could exercise his office as archbishop of York.
When he entered the city that May after years of monastic exile, he received an enthusiastic welcome. Could anything else go wrong? Yes. Within two months he was dead. It is believed he was poisoned. Perhaps what was described as “an enthusiastic welcome” was fake news. His first assistant, the archdeacon of York, was the prime suspect, though no formal ruling was ever made. Apparently he was poisoned with the wine in the chalice he used to celebrate Mass that day. Following his death and as evidence of his sanctity, many miracles began to be attributed to his intercession. He was canonized 73 years later by Pope Honorius III.
So why did he qualify for sainthood? It was the fact that he harbored no resentment toward the people who accused him, banned him, blocked his life’s course, the long list of those who wished him harm. Despite all the hurt they caused him, William showed no resentment toward his enemies.
I don’t know what his episcopal motto was but it could well have been “To forgive is divine” or “Turn the other cheek” or “Harbor no ill will” or simply “Love your enemies”. Any of these would have been appropriate. His is a virtuous life that reminds us that what makes the difference is not what happens to us in life but how we handle what happens, how we respond to situations beyond our control, whether we can love our enemies and forsake resentments. That’s the stuff of true holiness. When you don’t get what you deserve in life or when you get what you don’t deserve, simply say, “Saint William of York, pray for me”.
Most Reverend Ronald W. Gainer