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From Martyrdom to Triumph: 8 Saints Who Defied Death

When Christ entered the world, He told His apostles, “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:10).

The gift of persecution is a grace that Christians at all points in history receive. Today roughly thirteen Christians are killed every day for the faith. However, despite the many hostilities shown to Christians, history reveals that God always provides for His children. For example, here are eight different accounts of saints (including one blessed) who survived attempts on their lives.

1. St. Francis de Sales

St. Francis de Sales, a priest who lived during the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, brought thousands of Calvinists back to the faith. As a result of this zeal and effectiveness in his ministry, enemies of Francis often sent men to kill him. Once, four noblemen cornered Francis and declared that he must throw down his rosary or die. Francis feigned dropping his rosary but instead managed to arm himself with a nearby sword. Fearing Francis would beat them at a skirmish, the noblemen left him unscathed. Another time, hired assassins tried tracking Francis on one of his trips. Tired of changing his route to avoid them, Francis decided to face them head-on. Telling his friends to disarm, Francis allowed the assassins to draw near. When the ruffians came to attack him, they were stunned to find a smiling Francis who reeled them into a conversation. By the end of the night, the assassins had given up all malicious intent and desired to dedicate themselves to Christ.

Browse our extensive St. Francis de Sales book collection to learn more! 

2. St. Benedict of Nursia

St. Benedict of Nursia

St. Benedict is the founder of the Benedictine order. During its conception, Benedict nearly lost his life from poisoning on multiple occasions. When Benedict was appointed to a new monastery, his monks, who were against Benedict's reforms, poured poison into his chalice. However, after the chalice was blessed by the pious saint, it shattered to pieces. Another time Benedict almost died from poison was when he was offered a piece of poisoned bread. Before Benedict could consume the bread, a raven sent by God came and snatched it away from him. Later that day, the person who had offered Benedict the bread was crushed by a nearby balcony.

Learn more about St. Benedict's life through books for adults and children, and discover how this great saint might impact your own life and education today! 

3. St. Pope Leo III

Pope Leo III is best remembered for crowning Charlemagne as the Holy Roman Emperor. However, the story behind the two leaders’ relationship is often overlooked in history books. Conspirators and relatives of the former lax prelate, Pope Adrian I, sought to depose Pope Leo from his office. Consequently, during the procession of the Greater Litanies, Pope Leo was dashed to the ground by thugs who tried to mutilate his eyes and tongue. During this attempt of mutilation, God prevented them from being pulled out, much to the horror of his captors. They dragged him to a nearby church, and again before the altar he was tortured horribly, but to no avail. The ruffian could not inflict lasting harm on Pope Leo. Furthermore, the miracle continued at an overtaken monastery when some holy monks managed to lower Pope Leo through a window to his friends, unnoticed by the guards. From there, it was Charlemagne’s soldiers who smuggled Leo to Germany. Charlemagne himself would go with Pope Leo to defeat these evildoers and take back Rome. In return, St. Leo would crown Charlemagne as the Holy Roman Emperor.

4. St. Catherine of Siena

St. Catherine of Siena is renowned for being a female stigmatist and telling Pope Gregory XI to leave France and return to Rome. The story continues when Pope Gregory asked Catherine to be a diplomat in the high-tension city of Florence. The collapse of banking houses and the exclusion of workers from guilds created hostilities throughout the city. By the end of June 1378, the workers began the Ciompi Revolt. Catherine witnessed guild members with painted faces gather as they torched churches, attacked government buildings, released inmates from local prisons, and demolished some of her friends' houses. Targeted as a foreign diplomat, Catherine was sought out by the crowds from her lodging, surrounded, threatened, but miraculously not killed. A man who had the intent of killing Catherine drew near to her, but, for an unknown reason, ran away. Catherine would later attribute his change of heart to God desiring her to make more atonement for her sins.

Read this mystic saint's The Dialogue of St. Catherine of Siena, and learn more about her life and the way that, through God's guidance, it helped shape history!

5. St. Charles Borromeo

St. Charles Borromeo, a leader of the Counter-Reformation, was intent on cleansing the clergy of its corruption. One specific order of priests, the Humiliati, was notorious for its pagan art, indulgence profit, and wool business. When Charles tried to reform the order, a Humiliati member dressed as a layman, Girolamo Donato Farina, decided to take action. Farina took his long gun and crept into the chapel where Charles was singing with his household. As the phrase, “I will not let your heart be troubled, nor let it be afraid” was sung by our saintly cardinal, Farina fired his bullet. Witnesses spoke of how, instead of hitting Charles in the heart, the bullet made a ricochet sound and bounced off his garments. Swelling would appear where he was hit and would last the rest of his life. Charles, although stunned by the attempt on his life and concerned over the escaped assassin, made his group refocus and finish its prayers. He would later publicly forgive Farina and try to prevent his capture, knowing that it would ultimately end in his death.

Learn more about St. Charles Borromeo's important role in the Catholic Reformation!

6. St. Pope Paul VI

Few people have heard of the recent 1970 assassination attempt on Pope Paul VI. During the first papal visit to the Philippines, Pope Paul was greeted at the airport by a plethora of devout Catholic Philippines and an off-looking priest. Benjamin Mendoza y Amor, dressed in a cassock and holding a crucifix, drew near to the Holy Father. Taking a dagger with the inscription “bullets, superstitions, flags, kingdoms, garbage, armies, and sh*t” on both sides, Benjamin yelled,  “Death to superstition!” and stabbed Pope Paul twice in the neck. After the authorities subdued Benjamin, a nearby archbishop recounted the following as Pope Paul’s reaction:

“If you ask me what the Pope’s most beautiful smile was, it came during the attempt on his life in Manila...I will never forget his sweet smile...And when he met my eyes it was as if he was somehow chastising me for the violence with which I pulled the assailant away to the police. It was as if he was enjoying a moment of inspired joy.”

The Holy Father decided to keep his injury under wraps, continued his tour in the Philippines, and would later claim that he “forgave and forgot” his assassin. Only after Pope Paul’s death was the extent of his pain and blood loss from the incident released to the public.

7. Bl. Jerzy Popiewuska

Jerzy Popiewuska is a well-known priest and political activist who risked his life to bring down communism in 1970’s and 80’s Poland. During the Soviets' hold on Poland, Jerzy ran underground bookstores, hid wanted political criminals in his home, and said illegal group Masses with anti-communist strikers. Eventually, the government sent men after Jerzy. First, they bugged his car and apartment. Then, they sent known spies to watch him from the streets, to whom Jerzy would simply offer coffee. The first attempt on his life, however, was at 2 in the morning when his doorbell started ringing. Jerzy, who was exhausted from wrapping Christmas presents for the children of his parish, did not get up right away. His sleep deprivation was the only thing that prevented him from being blown to smithereens. As Jerzy went towards the door, a bomb was thrown through his window right where he would have been standing. Another time, when Jerzy and his friend were driving home, the secret police tried to throw boulders at the car’s front windows. However, Jerzy saw them coming and managed to maneuver away. Despite Father Jerzy’s luck and carefulness, he would be kidnapped and killed at age 37 for his faith. Communistic control in Poland would vanish in 1989, four years after his death.

 8. St. Pope John Paul II

Pope John Paul II, the beloved late patriarch of Rome, would experience two attempts on his life during his papacy. The first assassination attempt was in 1981 on the feast day of Our Lady of Fatima. Mehmet Ağca, a member of the Grey Wolves, pretended to write a postcard as the crowd gathered around Pope John Paul. Suddenly, he drew a semi-automatic rifle in the middle of the crowd and fired at the pope. Mehmet then threw his weapon under the truck and fled the scene, but was tackled by a nearby nun, Vatican security, and several spectators who saw the crime. Ağca would later state that his accomplice, who was supposed to throw a bomb into the crowd, fled during the chaos. Pope John Paul sustained various wounds from the four bullets and underwent extensive surgery. To the pope, our Lady of Fatima had deflected the bullets from his heart. Later, he would meet with Mehmet and publicly forgive him. However, a year after this first assassination attempt, another man tried to carry out his execution. Juan Krohn, an ex-FSSPX priest, donned a fake cassock and broke through the security line, yelling, “Down with the Pope, down with the Second Vatican Council!” and stabbed Pope John Paul during Mass. After Juan had been detained, Pope John Paul insisted that the Mass should continue despite his hidden wounds.

Read one of St. John Paul II's most famous books, "a comprehensive and insightful examination of Catholic tradition" concerning family and moral theology!

Lillian Beauregard

Lillian Beauregard is an intern at Tumblar House. She currently attends the University of Mary, where she is pursuing a degree in history and works for the JP2 Project, a Catholic study abroad agency. When she is not writing blog articles or reading, Lillian can be found conducting genealogical research, swing dancing, playing badminton, strumming her guitar, writing poetry, and researching modern intellectual history.
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