April 21 is the feast of Saint Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109), Bishop, Confessor, and Doctor of the Church. Intrepid in the battles for the Faith, he defended the Church against the English King William Rufus.
He once said that “Christ does not want a slave for a spouse. He loves nothing in this world so much as the freedom of His Church.”
How Saint Anselm Became Archbishop
An account of the consecration of St. Anselm is published in Réné François Rohrbacher’s Universal History of the Church. A translated summary follows:
The English bishops decided to consecrate Anselm as Archbishop of Canterbury, but he flatly refused to accept because he knew of the royal interference into this office.
The prelates showed him the consequences of his refusal for England. The saint replied he was aware of these effects, but he was old and barely able to get around. How could he bear the burden of an entire Church in England? On the other hand, He said it was not according to his nature to take care of temporal affairs.
“Stick to the ways of God; we will take charge of temporal affairs,” replied the prelates.
Anselm said he had many responsibilities that were impossible to abandon. They then took him to the sovereign (William II), who was seriously ill. The king was troubled because he had kept the Canterbury see vacant and confiscated its revenues.
The distressed king said to him, “Anselm, what are you doing? Why are you sending me to Hell? Remember the friendship that my parents had for you and do not let me perish. I know that I am condemned to die if I keep this archbishopric.” The king’s entreaties moved all those present. They insisted that Saint Anselm accept the office, accusing him of killing the king.
The Saint turned to the two monks who accompanied him and said, “My brothers, why don’t you help me?”
One replied, “If this is God’s will, who are we to resist Him?”
“Alas!” said Anselm. “You surrendered much too quickly.”
Seeing him so obstinate, they accused him of being a coward. Anselm, however, firmly refused the honor, whereupon a strange scene took place. He was dragged by force at the King’s bedside, and a pastoral staff was thrust into his closed hand. The bishops tried to pry it open until they made him scream. Finally, they lifted up his hand with the staff in it, saying, “Long live the bishop!” They took him to a neighboring church, chanted the “Te Deum,” and, under his protests, made him bishop.
The Importance of the Office
How strange and magnificent this scene is!
To understand this set of events, we need to bear in mind that Canterbury is the oldest diocese and, therefore, the primatial see of all England. Archbishops and primates back then held much more sway on the country’s bishops than today.
In those times, communication with Rome was difficult and took a long time. There was no fully organized system of apostolic nuncios. Thus, bishops felt a greater need to find support from a fellow bishop who served as a cornerstone. That bishop in England was the Archbishop of Canterbury.
He was a very important figure because he was in a position to combat the germs that would later give rise to the Revolution against Christendom. The root of this revolt was found in the ruler’s desire for excessive temporal power. Heads of state, particularly kings, wanted to turn the Church and its prerogatives into instruments of their material domination. They tried to silence the bishops because many prelates denounced the kings and his powerful allies for their misdeeds. Rulers also wanted to take possession of the goods with which the Church helped many poor people and maintained the splendor of divine worship.
At the same time, bishops often were feudal lords, which brought an element of impartiality when dealing with these matters of temporal power. However, led by a bad spirit, certain kings would take over other feudal lands to use as a means to combat the lords of Church lands. All these factors contributed to the practice of monarchs seeking to appoint bishops for important positions to become their instruments.
It is naïve to think that these concerns do not continue today. How successful these maneuvers are is debatable. However, we do not see archbishops resisting presidents when they need to be reprimanded for their misdeeds. Thus, there is some basis for this suspicion.
The Reason for Saint Anselm’s Resistance
Saint Anselm was an elderly man who had rendered many services to the Church. The king and bishops ardently wanted him to become the Archbishop of Canterbury. The bishops wanted him in the office because he was a natural leader in defending them against the king. The king wanted him to accept the office because he had had difficulties with the Church. He was sick and feared that he would die and go to Hell if he did not prevent a catastrophic appointment of a bad archbishop for Canterbury. Indeed, fear of Hell takes many people to Heaven. Few things close the door of Hell for the vast majority of men than the fear of it.
How he became bishop led to a very curious scene. The bishops ask Saint Anselm to accept the post. He refuses with an argument worthy of a saint. He does not excuse himself out of false humility. He merely states the truth that he is a tired old man who can barely get around. He is exhausted by his previous services to the Church. He naturally fears he cannot do such a heavy job satisfactorily. He, therefore, seeks to avoid this burden.
He likely knew well the king and his supporters. He perceived that when the king recovered from his illness, he would probably create more problems for the Church (once bitten, twice shy). Likewise, the king’s successors, who were part of his court, had the same mentality. Saint Anselm knew he would have to fight those in temporal power and naturally feared for his weakness. He figured that a young man would better conduct this struggle. However, his virtue was such that everyone confided that God would grant him the grace to fulfill this mission. Everyone wanted him to become archbishop.
This desire gives rise to the violent scene related by his biographers. Perhaps some kind person obtained Anselm’s consent smiling at his obstinacy—the chronicle is silent about this point. However, the hypothesis cannot be dismissed. We perceived that amid smiles and pressure to accept, Anselm surrendered. He no longer felt physically coerced but morally persuaded that he should not resist such a general and unanimous desire. Saint Anselm would not have accepted the consecration if he was convinced that it was not the will of God. Being a saint, he would rather have died a martyr than allow himself to be consecrated against the will of God. It would have been the first martyrdom of a priest who preferred to be killed than become a bishop!
Since he is in Heaven, we can be sure that he wanted to accept this mission of becoming the Archbishop of Canterbury. Operating freely and wisely, Divine Grace often employs very strange means. They can never be immoral or illegitimate, but they can be surprising and disconcerting.
The Need for Insistence
Who knows if grace wanted this insistence to reach such a point as a way to show this man’s detachment and grant him more freedom to fight against the king?
The words of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Gospel come to mind: “The Kingdom of Heaven suffers violence.” We need “to do violence” to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
Sometimes we even need to do “holy violence” to God. Our Lord Himself relates the admirable parable of a man already lying in bed when someone knocks on the door asking for bread. He says he has no bread and slams shut the door in the face of the beggar. He returns to his bed only to hear the beggar knocking again. He does not want to answer. However, he becomes so annoyed that he finally gets up and gives him the bread saying that “I am giving you this because of your badgering, now go away.” Our Lord explains that this is a model for those who pray.
When we have no merits, we must be very persistent. By being insistent, we, so to speak, “annoy” Our Lord and obtain what we want.
The case of Saint Anselm is something similar. We face the higher, unfathomable ways of God that are not always entirely explainable. However, these are beautiful episodes in Church history.
The Role of Mysteries
If everything were explainable and extremely clear, it could not be the history of the Church of God. It would lack one truly divine note, which is a note of holy mystery. The more clearly divine something is, the more mysterious it should be. The presence of mystery is a mark of divine superiority that imposes respect.
Digressing a bit, I am reminded of what Saint Thomas Aquinas says about obscure and mysterious passages in Scripture. He writes that one could object: A passage is made to be understood. If it is made to be understood, God knows how to express Himself clearly and correctly. If a passage is not expressed clearly as it should, then it was not made by God, or God expressed something incomprehensible.
How to resolve this seemingly impossible conundrum? Saint Thomas flies over it, saying that for the formation of the human mind, divine things must have certain mysteries. Sometimes God speaks to man, showing Himself mysterious to manifest His greatness and speak of His divinity. Therefore He does not express some things clearly to show how unfathomable He is. This manner of expression represents a manner of acing that is full of wisdom.
The episode with St. Anselm is a mystery in the Church’s life. God shows His divine greatness through these mysterious events that later are explained.
The Mystery of the Present Crisis Inside the Church
With the crisis inside the Church today, we live in the presence of a mystery. It is the greatest mystery in twenty centuries of the life of Holy Mother Church. Let us believe in the divinity of the Church and love the Holy Catholic Church more than ever! Let us do this not “despite the mystery,” but because of it.
Only a holy and divine Church can have the fortitude and greatness to bear such a deep and dark mystery. She would have to be a Divine Church not to die from this mystery. Indeed, we know She will cross this era of mystery and show Herself on the other side glorious and resplendent as if risen!
From this small and mysterious episode in the life of Saint Anselm, we must fly to the much higher regions of the great mysteries of the Catholic Church. Thus, let us kneel before Our Lady and make an act of love for the enormous mystery which we face and live. We can be certain that great mysteries later have great explanations.
Indeed never did a man face a mystery as terrible as Saint Joseph in relation to the conception of Our Lord, but then, what an explanation, what a clarification! It was the explanation of explanations!
The preceding article is taken from an informal lecture Professor Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira gave on April 20, 1967. It has been translated and adapted for publication without his revision. –Ed.