We all have Turning Points
When we look back on our lives, whether we have lived long ones or short ones, it is fair to say that it usually is easy to identify moments that stand out because they were true turning points. We had been headed in on direction and then we made a choice and started heading in another direction. And we simply cannot imagine what our lives would have been like if we had not made that choice and stayed with it.
An obvious example is agreeing to a vocation. For a relatively small number of men, compared to the entire population, God calls them to become priests. They are asked to become His representatives and ministers of His sacraments. If they say "Yes" to that call, than their lives take on a whole new direction which by definition is radically different from their lives as laypeople. Suddenly, they have agreed to serve a much larger group of people and to receive an indelible character that will mark them as priests for all eternity. As priests, they have a power from God that at their command during the liturgy, Jesus becomes truly present under the appearances of bread and wine. In a very real sense, Jesus humbly obeys their command at the consecration. Not even angels have that authority.
What about laypeople? Well, of course, we make important turning point decisions, as well. They might be about education, jobs, and relationships. Like a priest, we might also be called to a vocation, and we might answer God's call to be married. Through this wonderful sacrament, we have the opportunity to become saints, to help our spouses become saints, and to raise children who become saints. God, in His wisdom, has created the domestic church as a means for sanctification for everyone in the family. Unlike priests, we minister to people we see on a daily basis and can get to know them far better than the priest could ever hope to because he is responsible for a much larger flock. Our sanctification is tied up with the sanctification of everyone else in the family.
As important as the call to be married is, there is a higher calling that each of us has. We are called in baptism to be united with Christ and to remain with Him forever. When we fail to remain united with Him through choosing something that is not God's will, we are called to confess our sins, and be reconciled to God through His mercy.
If you were baptized as a child, your first major turning point was when the priest brought you into the family of God and removed the stain of original sin. Even if you were baptized later in life, it can be said that no matter when it happened, from baptism on, the rest of your life is simply your daily choices to cooperate with God's grace and live out your baptism by remaining in union with Him. Anything that tries to keep you from being true to that most important turning point must be put behind you. Much of that is trifles, but what if it is something more than trifles? Well, there is one blessed who had to make that important choice. And, through his choice, he became one of the English Catholic martyrs.
A Husband, Father, and Farmer
Bl. Ralph Milner (d. 1591) was a farmer who was born in Slackstead, Hampshire, England before the middle of the sixteenth century. He grew up, was married, had eight children and supported his family as a farmer.
When Ralph lived, Catholicism was a persecuted faith in England. Except for during the brief reign of his daughter Queen Mary I, King Henry VIII had turned England into a Protestant nation and the Anglican Church was the state religion. Accordingly, Ralph was baptized and raised as an Anglican.
Ralph never learned to read and write. Instead, he learned from what he heard and what he saw. As a keen observer of people, Ralph, liked when he saw integrity, that is someone who tried to live what he believed in all parts of his life. When he was older man, Ralph became impressed by what he saw in the Catholics he knew. They had something that he did not see in all of the Anglicans he knew, and he wanted that something.
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Welcome to the Church and Welcome to Jail
After some inquiry, Ralph received instruction about the Catholic faith in secret. He knew it was a risk because it was essentially illegal to be a Catholic. Yet, in this turning point in his life, Ralph willingly accepted the risk and pressed on as he embraced the fullness of faith. It would not be long before he would learn what it meant to be a Catholic in the waning years of the sixteenth century in England.
The day that Ralph received his first Holy Communion, he was arrested and thrown into prison for the crime of changing his religion. The Winchester jail became the home for this new convert. However, Ralph was an affable sort and lived the life of honesty that he admired in others. The jailer respected Ralph and allowed him to take his own parole and even gave him the keys to prison. Ralph would go out and work and then return to the jail.
Ralph took advantage of this gift of freedom to bring in a priest to administer the sacraments to the Catholics who were in jail. In addition, Ralph served as an escort to Fr. Thomas Stanney, and later to his successor at Winchester, Bl. Fr. Roger Dickensen. The priest and the recent convert would go to nearby villages in order that the priest could give the sacraments and they could both encourage the Catholics to remain faithful.
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Arrested Again and Asked to Recant
However, the day came when Fr. Dickensen and Ralph were arrested. This time the crime was attending mass, assisting a Catholic cleric, and providing aid to Catholics. Ralph was put back in the Winchester jail, but there would be no parole or any access to the keys of the jail.
Instead, Ralph was brought before a judge who probably based on the older age of Ralph wanted to make it easy for Ralph to recant the Catholic Faith. The judge told Ralph he could avoid losing his life if he would simply attend an Anglican service. He would not even need to make a public declaration. It sounded simple enough, and, after all, before he had become Catholic, Ralph had attended plenty of Anglican services.
Yet, Ralph refused to do that simple act. He knew what it meant. It would mean that becoming a Catholic was not really a turning point, but rather simply a mistake of heading down a blind alley before turning back on the original path. In his heart, Ralph knew that one could not be both Anglican and Catholic. The line between the two was very clear. One was not the other, and to go back to where he came from would be a betrayal of God who had brought him into the Catholic Church.
Staying True to His Turning Point
Surprised that the older man would not follow his suggestion to save his life, the judge had one last trick up his sleeve. The judge had Ralph's children brought before him. Although they were all his flesh and blood, none had joined him in the Catholic Church. However, as much as he loved his children, he knew that he could not turn back on his turning point. Instead, Ralph gave his blessing to his children and wished that each of them would be willing to die for embracing the truth.
Although we do not know what Ralph thought at the time, we can imagine it was not easy to see his family paraded before him to beseech him to do the reasonable thing and recant the Catholic Church. Nonetheless, according to what he said, we know what his final resolution was. He replied to the judge, "Would your lordship then advise me, for the perishable trifles of this world, or for a wife and children, to lose my God? No, my lord, I cannot approve or embrace a counsel so disagreeable to the maxims of the Gospel."
The judge then ordered that both Fr. Dickensen and Ralph be executed. They were both hanged on July 7, 1591. And, Bl. Ralph is honored as one of the English Catholic martyrs.
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Feast Day (Memorial): July 7th and October 25 (Memorial) as one of the 40 Martyrs of England and Wales
Learn More About Lay People who have been Martyrs
If Bl. Ralph Milner inspires you, you might enjoy reading about more lay people who gave up their lives rather than deny their faith. In Lay Saints: Martyrs, you will encounter seventy-three men and women who are recognized as martyrs by the Church. Be inspired and challenged by their stories in this 331 page book written by Joan Carroll Cruz and published by TAN.