St. William, Confessor
Cistercian Abbot and Archbishop of Bourges (+ 1209 AD)
FORMATION FOR SANCTITY FROM INFANCY
St. William Berruyer came from an illustrious and wealthy French family and was a descendant of the counts of Nevers. His pious parents had him receive his formation and education under the tutelage of Peter the Hermit, Archdeacon of Soissons (this saintly man was William’s uncle). Thus, from his infancy, William learned to disdain the vanities of the world and tremble at its danger. As a young boy, he did not care to waste time fooling around or being idle. His only delight came from praying and studying.
William was made a canon – first of Soissons and then of Paris. [The canons were very generally the most intelligent priests who prayed the Divine Office together, usually at the Cathedral. They generally held the most important posts in the diocese. The bishop often called on them to help him govern the Diocese and administer its goods.] Although these posts were considered great honors, William saw his role there as “too worldly.” He made the resolution to abandon all commerce with the world, even in ecclesiastic affairs, and retired to live in the solitude of Grandmont Abbey. [The Grandmontines were founded by St. Stephen of Thiers in the 11th century under the aegis of Pope St. Gregory VII. Their monastery was in Limousin, France. They lived a hermetic life with some degree of community, and can be considered cenobites. They were a kind of cross between the Benedictines and Carthusians, but followed the Rule of St. Stephen.] St. William chose this monastery on account of its great reputation for discipline and sanctity. He lived a life of regularity, prayer, and filled with many austerities. Unfortunately, a conflict arose between the priests and lay brothers of this monastery. William discerned it best to remain above the conflict and seek a life of penance with the Cistercian Order.
THE CISTERCIAN ORDER
The 12th century is known to Christendom as the Age of the Cistercians. They were founded at Citeaux (France) in 1098 by a group of monks under the leadership of St. Robert of Molesme. Under St. Alberic and St. Stephen Harding the community grew and began to found new monasteries. They were soon joined by the great St. Bernard of Clairvaux and foundations began to spread rapidly all over Europe. In 1111 A.D. they had founded their second monastery, yet by 1152 they had 333 monasteries and in the early 1200s that number had climbed over 500! The Cistercians were models of austerity, piety and had a tremendously strong work ethic. They converted swamps and wastelands into the best of agricultural land. Their order was so popular and the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) pointed to them as a model of religious life and encouraged all monastic institutions to learn from them. Their influence was so profound and their reputation so exemplary, that one of their own was quickly placed on the papal throne: Eugene III (1145-1153). No other religious order has ever had one of its members sit in St. Peter’s chair within fifty years of its founding.
Given St. William’s intense drive for the greatest challenge in discipline, austerity, silence and prayer, it makes perfect sense that he joined the burgeoning Cistercians. He donned the white habit at Pontigny (3rd oldest Cistercian monastery) and became a shining example of monastic perfection. His great mortification laid the foundation for an admirable purity of heart and an extraordinary gift of prayer. God graced him with great heights in contemplative prayer. William was always found joyful and peaceful, quite charming in fact, and this was true even when he was engaged in the most painful mortifications and trials. He was such a good monk that the others were inspired just by looking at him! Several years later he was elected abbot of that abbey. He helped found several daughter monasteries and went on to be abbot at two other Cistercian monasteries. Yet St. William always considered himself the least among all his brethren.
A HEROIC ARCHBISHOP
When the Archbishop of Bourges died, the clergy there requested that the Archbishop Eudo of Paris come to help them elect a new Shepherd. He was St. William’s brother. The local clergy wanted to elect a Cistercian on account of their prevailing reputation for holiness. Eudo asked them to select the three most eminent candidates, all of whom had to be worthy and fit. He was not shocked to see his brother amongst the three, but he was dismayed. Eudo did not want to make a decision regarding this matter, thinking that no matter how he picked he might be unduly influenced by human factors and not God’s glory alone. Divine inspiration helped him resolve this matter. Eudo wrote the three names on parchment and placed them upon the altar. Then together with the clergy, he led the people of Bourges in prayer. A name was drawn from the altar – it was William! The secret ballots of the clergy where then counted, and the majority fell upon William. God’s will seemed clear. Nevertheless, William would not accept this “honor” thinking himself far beneath it. It was not until he received a double command – from the General Abbot of the Cistercians and Pope Innocent III himself – that William, in tears, left the solitude of the monastery and was consecrated archbishop of Bourges.
Upon taking office, St. William prayed to God: “Previously I only had to do penance to save my own wretched soul; now I must do penance for all the sheep whom Thou hast placed under my staff; mercifully grant me Thy grace!” Although he had reached high levels of austerity at the monastery, now he intensified them even further. [This is course a great contrast to how the majority of bishops lived the ecclesiastic office (then and even more so today). Would that all our bishops be willing to perform austere PENANCE for themselves and their flocks!] St. William always wore a rough hair shirt under his religious habit. He never added or diminished anything to his attire – neither in the stifling humid heat of summer nor the bitter cold of winter. He never ate meat, though he provided it for the guests at his table. His care and solicitude for his flock was most remarkable. Here was a man who only wished the solitude and stability of a life enclosed in monastic walls, and yet for the sake of his flock he never ceased traveling all over his diocese (an effort not practiced by the other bishops). Everywhere he went he preached the truth, instructed men in religion, administered the sacraments, cared for the poor and sick, and was even reputed to have worked a few miracles. His powerful witness helped convert many Albigensian heretics living within his lands.
St. William was most mild to penitent sinners but inflexible towards the impenitent. At that time, many bishops had recourse to the secular authority when an impertinent sinner threatened the common good of the Church, yet William never pursued this course. Instead he relied heavily on winning souls over with kindness and charity. Certain great men of the nobility abused his leniency – even to the point of usurping the goods of the Church. William strenuously and charitably defended the rights of the Church, and even had to do so before Phillip II Augustus, the king of France, whose aid had been enlisted by the usurpers. Yet St. William was so adamant in before the king, that his humility and the truth he defended forced Philip II to capitulate and rule in the Church’s favor. [Phillip II was the grandfather of King St. Louis IX.]
A HOLY DEATH
St. William was preparing himself for another journey among his flock, with a specific aim of converting Albigensian heretics, when he was seized by a terrible illness. Nevertheless he insisted that he still preach his planned “farewell” sermon to his people. He preached with such zeal that a great fever struck him, his illness intensified, and he had to be carried to bed. His clergy cancelled the planned journey. The illness intensified and St. William realized he would never again leave that sickbed. He received extreme unction. Then he made every effort to rise from bed and keel to receive viaticum. St. William had always had a fervent devotion to Jesus in the Most Blessed Sacrament. As the Sacred Host touched his lips, he melted in tears. He fell prostrate on the ground and then prayed for hours on the floor, face down, in the cruciform position. That night he desired to pray the monastic nocturns with his clergy according to his regular discipline (it was customary to begin these prayers at midnight). After having made the Sign of the Cross on his lips and breast, he was not able to chant more than the first two words of the Office. He made a gesture indicating that he wanted his request fulfilled at this moment - to be laid in ashes upon the hair cloth he always wore. Soon after midnight, on 10 Jan 1209, he died while lying upon those ashes. His body was buried in the cathedral. God honored him with so many miracles that in 1218, just nine years after his death, Pope Honorius III canonized him. [A nephew of St. William, Philip Berruyer, also served as Archbishop of Bourges from 1236-1260 and died in the odor of sanctity.]
St. William's relics were kept in veneration until 1562 A.D., when they were burnt and scatted to the winds by heretical Huguenots (French Calvinists), who were plundering the Cathedral of Bourges. The only relics which survived were those which had been sent to other locales long before the vandals’ looting. A bone of St. William was preserved in Chaalis and a rib at the church of the College of Navarre in Paris. St. William is regarded as one of the patron saints of France. As a bishop, he is best remembered for his austerities, his concern for the poor, his defense of the rights of the Church against the French crown, and his success in converting many members of the Albigensian heresy.
The more we read about the saints, the more we find that they really became saints by praying, obeying, and by doing penance.