Fidelis of Sigmaringen: A Patron Saint of Lawyers

If asked to identify the patron saint of lawyers, most people would probably name Thomas More, the “Man For All Seasons” of Robert Bolt’s well-known play. But throughout the ages, perhaps because of the great number of lawyer-saints, a number of different saints have received this designation. One of the earliest was the curiously-named Fidelis (“Faithful”) of Sigmaringen.

Born Mark Roy (or Rey) in 1578 in the town of Sigmaringen, Prussia (in what is now Germany), Fidelis earned a doctorate in both civil and canon law from the Swiss University of Freiburg. Before beginning his law practice, he took a multiyear tour of European universities. When he came back to Germany, Fidelis concentrated his legal practice on assisting the poor. Often, he did not charge for his services, leading him to become known as the lawyer for the poor, long before Louis Brandeis. Fidelis was highly religious, and like his contemporary, Thomas More, went about his legal practice wearing a hairshirt under his legal robes.

After a short time conducting a successful private practice, he became disillusioned with the corruption of the local government, and the hostility of his colleagues. He left legal practice, was ordained a priest, and entered the Capuchin Order in 1612, where he was known as “Brother Fidelis of Sigmaringen.” By taking that name, he was invoking the Book of Revelation: “Remain faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.” (Rev. 2:10)

As a priest, Fidelis continued his service to the poor. Pope Benedict XIV summed up his service to the poor in this way: “With wealth collected from the powerful and from princes, he comforted widows and orphans in their loneliness. He was always helping prisoners in their spiritual and bodily needs. He showed constant zeal in visiting and comforting the sick whom he would win back to God and prepare for their last struggle.”

Using the skills he learned as a lawyer, Fidelis became known as a powerful preacher, and composed a book of spiritual exercises that was widely translated. At the urging of the newly formed Congregation of the Propagation of the Faith, he went through southern Germany and Switzerland preaching to the members of various Protestant sects, urging their conversion to Catholicism. Preaching that there is only “one Lord, one faith, one baptism,” his efforts met with great success, to the consternation of Protestant leaders. Ultimately, in 1622, he traveled to Switzerland on a mission to convince the followers of Ulrich Zwingli to return to the Catholic faith. There he met violent martyrdom at the hands of Calvinist opponents, becoming the first, or proto-martyr, of the Capuchin Order,¬†only ten years after he entered that Order. Fidelis is said to have requested that his enemies be pardoned as he was being beaten with spiked clubs, before finally being dispatched by being run through with a sword.

Fidelis was canonized in 1746, and his feast day in the Catholic Church is April 24, the day on which he was martyred in 1622. At his canonization, Pope Benedict XIV aptly observed that Fidelis “was faithful in truth as well as in name. His zeal for defending the Catholic faith was unsurpassed and he preached it tirelessly.”

 

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