Wartime Saints – Soldiers for Cause of Christ
“Those who are sworn to serve their country in the Armed Forces are servants of the security and freedom of nations,” says the Catechism of the Catholic Church. “If they carry out their duty honorably, they truly contribute to the common good of the nation and the maintenance of peace.” (CCC 2310) A number of the early saints of the Church are called “Military Saints” or “Soldier Saints” because they were members of the Roman Army, many of whom converted to Christianity during the intense persecutions of the Church during the first three centuries. Other saints throughout Church history also participated in the military or armed rebel units in just conflict during their lifetimes.
Here are just a few of them
CONFRONTER OF DIOCLETIAN
St. Sebastian is one of the early soldier-saints. Hailing from modern-day southern France, Sebastian was a Christian who joined the Roman Army in AD 283 in order to provide comfort and assistance to persecuted Christians.
He was an excellent soldier, and in time he was appointed to serve in the Praetorian Guard as a bodyguard to the emperor Diocletian, who sought to purge the army of Christians and later initiated the most brutal phase of persecutions against the Church.
Not only did Sebastian minister to the imprisoned, he also converted visitors and some government officials to the Christian faith. When this was revealed, Diocletian sentenced him to death. Soldiers tied him to a tree, shot him full of arrows, and left him for dead. A Christian woman discovered him and nursed him back to health.
Having regained vitality, in 288 Sebastian stalked Diocletian and confronted him in public, upbraiding him about his persecutions. Shocked that Sebastian was alive, Diocletian had him beaten to death and cast into the sewers.
A patron saint of soldiers, St. Sebastian is depicted in art tied to a tree and riddled with arrows.
ST. FERDINAND III, KING OF CASTILE
CONQUEROR OF THE MOORS
The armies of Islam conquered much of the Iberian Peninsula in the eighth century, and Christian armies fought to take back territory almost immediately. By the time Ferdinand III was crowned king of Castile in the 13th century, significant gains had been made, but the Moors still held al-Andalus, a considerable swath of what is now southern Spain.
Between 1234 and 1248, Ferdinand and his armies conquered much of al-Andalus, reclaiming the regions of Cordova, Murcia, Jaen, and finally Seville. When the badly outnumbered Christians captured a well-fortified Seville after a 16-month battle, the Moor general said, “None but a saint could, with such a small force, have made himself master of so strong and well-manned a place.” The Moors would not be driven from Granada, their last stronghold in Spain, until 1492.
A Third Order Franciscan devoted to the Virgin Mary, Ferdinand prayed and fasted in preparation for war. He was a just ruler who often pardoned those who had opposed him. Before his death in 1252, he received the sacraments and reportedly received a heavenly vision.
St. Ferdinand was canonized by Pope Clement X in 1671.
ST. JOAN OF ARC
MYSTIC AND LEADER OF FRENCH VICTORY
What most people know about St. Joan of Arc is that she had visions, she led France into battle, and she was burned at the stake. And all that would be true.
The young mystic received visions from St. Margaret of Antioch, St. Catherine of Alexandria, and Michael the Archangel telling her to help the true king of France reclaim his throne from England, which in the early 15th century controlled most of modern-day France through an alliance with Burgundy during the Hundred Years’ War.
Before his death in 1422, Charles VI disinherited his own son and named Henry V of England heir to the French throne. In 1429, at age 17, Joan visited the rightful king, Charles VII, convinced him of her visions, passed an inquiry into her fidelity, and was given armor, sword, and horse to lead the Armagnac army in defending the besieged city of Orleans. Joan never killed anyone but carried a banner that read “Jesus, Mary.” The Armagnacs triumphed at Orleans.
Over the next 15 months, Joan led the army to victory after victory, clearing the way to Reims so that Charles VII could be crowned there at Notre Dame Cathedral. She was wounded at Paris and later captured by the Burgundians in May 1430 near Compeign, sold to the English, and put on a church trial conducted by the corrupt Bishop Pierre Cauchon, who was loyal to England. Found guilty of heresy, she was executed in 1431.
Twenty-three years later, Joan was retried and acquitted. She was canonized in 1920 by Pope Benedict XV. She is a patroness of soldiers and of France.
ST. IGNATIUS OF LOYOLA
FOUNDER OF “GOD’S MARINES”
St. Ignatius of Loyola was all about war, glory, and heroism in his youth. He fought bravely for years before a cannonball shattered his leg while he fought for Spain against France during the siege of Pamplona in 1521. He recuperated at a hospital in Loyola, where he was given a life of Christ and other spiritual works as reading material.
That inspired him to do severe penance, practice asceticism, and give up his military pursuits — the last being a foregone conclusion since his injuries left him with a pronounced limp. Visiting the Benedictine monastery at Montserrat, he left his sword at the altar and became a mendicant, devoting himself to prayer and begging for food. For months he lived in a cave and wrote the foundation of what would become his Spiritual Exercises.
Eventually he attended the university in Paris, where he gathered six companions. Together they would take vows and form a community that would one day become the Society of Jesus. The order won papal approval in 1540. Because they pledge to take orders from the pope, the Jesuits are sometimes called “God’s soldiers” or “God’s marines.”
St. Ignatius was canonized in 1622 by Pope Gregory XVI.
ST. JOSE SANCHEZ DEL RIO
CRISTERO WAR TEEN EXECUTED FOR CHRIST
The Cristero War took place in Mexico between 1926 and 1929. The Mexican government under President Plutarco Elías Calles enacted broad anti-Catholic, anti-clerical policies, and after a period of peaceful resistance and diplomatic efforts by Catholics to end the repression, the situation turned violent.
José Sánchez del Rio was a teen when he joined the Cristero rebels. “Do not let me lose the opportunity to gain heaven so easily and so soon,” he told his mother as he begged to go.
José was made flagbearer for his unit. In February 1928, a rebel general’s horse was killed in battle, so José immediately gave the general his own horse so he could ride to safety. José was soon captured.
As he awaited execution, José prayed, sang hymns, and wrote to his mother. He was tortured — soldiers ripped off the soles of his feet and made him walk to the town cemetery, screaming in pain — and was urged to renounce his faith. But José continued to shout “Viva Cristo Rey!” (“Long Live Christ the King!”) as they stabbed him and shot him to death. He was not yet 15 years old.
Pope Francis canonized St. José Sánchez del Rio in 2016.
GERALD KORSON is a Legatus magazine staff writer