St. Peter Gonzales, Confessor
[Commonly called St. Telm, or Elm, patron of mariners.] THE BEST historians place the birth of St. Peter Gonzales, (in Latin, Gonsalvus,) in the year 1190, at Astorga, in the kingdom of Leon, in Spain, where he was descended of an illustrious family. His wonderful progress in his studies, showed him to be endowed with an extraordinary quickness of parts, and he embraced an ecclesiastical state, though at that time a stranger to the spirit of disengagement and humility which ought essentially to accompany it. His uncle, the bishop of Astorga, charmed with his capacity, preferred him to a canonry, and shortly after to the deanery of his chapter. The young dean, free indeed from vice, but full of the spirit of the world, took possession of his dignity with great pomp, but in the midst of his pride, happened, by a false step of his prancing horse, to fall into a sink. This was the moment in which God was pleased to strike his heart. This humiliation made the young gentleman enter into himself, and with remorse to condemn his own vanity, and fondness of applause, which deserved a much worse disgrace.—Opening his heart to these sentiments of grace, without taking advice from flesh and blood, he retired to Palencia, to learn the will of God in solitude, fasting, and prayer. To fight against pride and self-love, he laboured strenuously to put off the old man by mortification and humility, and became quickly a new man in Christ, recollected, penitent, meek, and humble.
The better to secure his victory over the world and himself, he entered the austere Order of St. Dominick. The world pursued him into his retreat. Its wise men left no stone unturned to make him return to his dignity: but he was guided by better lights, and baffled all their suggestions. Having made his vows, and strengthened his soul in the spirit of humility and penance, by the exercises of holy retirement and obedience, he was ordered by his superiors to employ his talents in the ministry of the divine word, to which he consecrated the remainder of his life, to the great advantage of innumerable souls. After he had passed the best part of the night in holy meditations, or in singing the praises of God, he spent the whole day in instructing the faithful: his words, always animated with a burning charity, and supported by example, produced in his hearers the perfect sentiments with which he endeavoured to inspire them. The greatest libertines melted into tears at his sermons, and cast themselves at his feet in a spirit of compunction and penance. The number of conversions which God wrought by his ministry in the kingdom of Leon and Castille, especially in the diocess of Palencia, made King Ferdinand III., though always taken up in his wars with the Saracens, desirous to see him; and so much was he taken with the man of God, that he would have him always near his person, both in the court and in the field. He would have him always be present at his discourses, whether made to the generals, courtiers, or soldiers; and the holy man, by his prayers and exhortations, reformed the corrupt manners both of the troops and court. His example gave the greatest weight to his words; for he lived in the court as he would have done in a cloister, with the same austerities, the same recollection, the same practices of humility, and other virtues. Yet some slaves of pleasure hardened themselves against his zeal, and occasioned him many sufferings. A courtesan was told by some of the nobility, that, if she heard Gonzales preach, she would change her life. She impudently answered: “If I had the liberty to speak to him in private, he could no more resist my charms than so many others.” The lords, out of a malicious curiosity, promised her a great sum if she could draw him into sin. She went to the saint, and, that she might speak to him alone, said, she wanted to consult him on a secret affair of importance.—When others were gone out, she fell on her knees, and, shedding forced tears, pretended she desired to change her life, and began to make a sham confession to him of her sins, but had nothing else in view than to ensnare the servant of God, and at last, throwing off all disguise, said all the devil prompted her in order to seduce him. But her artifices only served to make his triumph the more glorious. Stepping into another room, where there was a fire, and wrapping himself in his cloak, he threw himself upon the burning coals, and then called upon her to come, and see where he waited for her. She, amazed to see him not burn, cast herself on the ground, confessing her crimes aloud, and suddenly became a true penitent, as they did also who had employed her. The saint accompanied Ferdinand, king of Leon and Castille, in all his expeditions against the Moors, particularly in the siege and taking of Cordova, in 1236, which, from the year 718, had ever been the chief seat of the Moorish dominions in Spain. Gonzales had a great share in the conquests and temporal advantages of this prince, by his prudent counsels and prayers, and by the good order which he prevailed with the officers and soldiers to observe. The conquest of Cordova opened a new field to the zeal of Gonzales. He moderated the ardour of the conquerors, saved the honour of the virgins and the lives of many enemies, and purified the mosques, converting them into churches: in all which he was seconded by King Ferdinand III. surnamed the Saint. The great mosque of Cordova, the most famous of all Spain, became the cathedral church: and whereas the Moors, when they conquered Compostella, two hundred and sixty years before, had carried away the bells and ornaments on the backs of Christians, and placed them in this mosque, King Ferdinand compelled the infidels to carry them back themselves in the same manner to Compostella. 1
Gonzales burned with so ardent a desire to preach the great truths of our holy religion to the poor and the peasants, that no entreaties or solicitations could retain him any longer at court. Galicia, and the rest of the coast, were the chief theatres of his pious labours, the latter years of his life. Neither mountains, nor places of the most difficult access in Asturia, and other parts, nor the ignorance and brutality of the people, could daunt his courage. Under these fatigues, prayer was his refreshment. He appeared every where as a new apostle. But the success of his ministry was the most surprising in the diocess of Compostella and Tuy, in which also he wrought many miracles. At Bayona in Galicia, the number of his auditors having obliged him to preach in a great plain, in the open fields, and a violent storm arising with wind, thunder, and lightning, his whole audience began to be very uneasy, and thought to prevent the worst by flying. The holy preacher prevailed upon them to stay, and by prayer appeased the tempest. All places round about them were deluged; but not a drop fell on the auditory. The saint had a particular zeal to instruct the poor in the country, and the sailors, whom he sought on their vessels, and among whom he finished his mortal course. He foretold his death on Palm-Sunday, and desiring to die in the arms of his brethren at Compostella, set out from Tuy thither, but, growing worse on the road, returned to the former place on foot; so unwilling was he to remit anything in his penitential life. Luke, the famous bishop of Tuy, his great admirer and friend, attended him to his last breath; buried him honourably in his cathedral, and in his last will gave directions for his own body to be laid near the remains of this servant of God. They are now exposed to public veneration, in the same church, in a magnificent silver shrine, and have been honoured with many miracles. Some place his death on the 15th, and others on the 14th of April, in 1246. Pope Innocent IV. beatified him eight years after in 1254, and granted an office to his Order in Spain, which was extended to the city of Tuy, though he has not been solemnly canonized. Pope Benedict XIV. approved his office for the whole Order of St. Dominick. The Spanish and Portuguese mariners invoke his intercession in storms, and by it have often received sensible marks of the divine succour. They call him corruptly St. Telm, or Elmo, which Papebroke and Baillet derive originally from St. Erasmus, who was implored, anciently, as a patron by sailors, in the Mediterranean. 2
If we look into the lives of all holy preachers and pastors, especially that of our Divine model, the Prince of pastors and Saint of saints, we shall find the essential spirit of this state is that of interior recollection and devotion, by which the soul is constantly united to God. This is only learned by an apprenticeship of retirement, and is founded in rooted habits of humility, compunction and prayer. Great learning is indeed necessary for the discharge of the pastoral duties; but this, and all exterior talents, must be directed and made spiritual by the interior spirit and intention, or they will be pernicious to the pastor, if not also to those whom he ought to direct. For fear of the dangers and abuse of human qualifications, some have chosen in some measure to despise them, hoping thus more securely to find God in solitude, penance, and contemplation. This cannot be allowed to those who are destined to share in pastoral functions. But for such to place any confidence in human industry or abilities would be still a far more fatal disorder. It is from true interior charity, zeal, compunction, devotion, and humility, that they must derive all their power, and be made instrumental in promoting the divine honour, and the sanctification of souls.—The pastor must be interiorly filled with the spirit of God and his pure love, that this holy disposition may animate all he says or does exteriorly. To entertain this interior spirit, self-denial, humility, perfect obedience, a contempt of the world, assiduous prayer, and constant recollection, must be his perpetual study. Those clergymen who pass their lives in dissipation, and whose thoughts and hearts are always wandering abroad, are undoubtedly strangers to the essential spirit of their state.
Rev. Alban Butler (1711–73). Volume IV: April.
The Lives of the Saints. 1866. April 15.