A Humble Daughter of the Church
A Model for Contemporary Catholics
By Sister Joan Gormley

Queen Isabel of Castile is ranked among the greatest and most influential figures in history. Even her critics agree on that. She supported Columbus in his voyages of discovery and evangelization, and together with her husband, Ferdinand, began the unification of modern Spain and completed the reconquest of the peninsula from Muslim domination.

This article, commemorating the fifth centenary of Isabel’s death (Nov. 26, 1504), will consider the queen as a Servant of God whose cause for beatification has been introduced. Having lived her Catholic faith with heroic fidelity at a time when that faith was under assault, Isabel is a model for contemporary Catholics in the depth of her faith, her sense of personal vocation to live her faith and her zeal to spread it to the ends of the earth.

Isabel begins her final testament by solemnly professing her faith. She declares herself a faithful Catholic, “believing and confessing firmly all that the Holy Catholic Church of Rome holds, believes and confesses, and preaches.” She mentions her faith in the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds, specifically the articles on the humanity and divinity of Christ and the seven sacraments.

In a personal addition to the formal profession, she declares that she is ready and willing to die for the Catholic faith and would consider martyrdom a great favor. In a time when the Church was weakened by corruption and heresy, Isabel’s faith never wavered. She professed it in its entirety from her childhood to the day of her death.

One of Isabel’s first teachers, Father Martin de Cordoba, wrote a handbook for her entitled Garden of Noble Maidens. In it, he instructed the princess that her noble birth was a vocation from God that required from her the greatest possible response of love. “Since God, who in her mother’s womb gave and predestined this one to be queen of such a noble kingdom as Spain,” he wrote, “she is more obligated to love him than any other woman.”

Isabel took this advice seriously. As queen, she led a devout Christian life and regularly sought the advice of a carefully chosen spiritual director. Her day included the Divine Office and Mass as well as reading and contemplation. Her obligations as wife and mother and her duties as queen were fused in such a way that she kept in view the good of her kingdom and of the Church. At a time when in other kingdoms offices and favors were for sale in Church and court, Isabel’s favor could not be bought. If a man was made a royal herald, it was because he had the best voice for the task. If a bishop was appointed to reform the monasteries, it was because he was living a holy life in accord with his vocation.

Contemporary chroniclers note the queen’s fortitude amid the great sufferings of her later life, especially the death of her oldest daughter, Isabel, and that of her son Juan, the heir to the throne. Another terrible blow was the “madness” of her daughter, Juana, the next in line to the throne. These sorrows, as well as the sufferings of her last illness, she accepted as coming from God.

In the codicil to her testament, Isabel declares that her principal intention in the discovery of the islands and lands in the “West Indies” was “the evangelization and conversion of the natives of those places to the Catholic Faith.” When many Europeans were debating whether indigenous peoples were full human beings, Isabel insisted that the natives of those lands were her subjects and should be treated justly. Certain of their humanity, she was eager to send missionaries to evangelize them. In a real sense, she anticipated the emphasis of the Second Vatican Council on the dignity of every human person. The extent of her contribution to carrying the Gospel to the ends of the earth must be measured in terms of the vibrant Christian faith and culture that sprang up in the lands evangelized by Spain.

Isabel’s last will and testament sums up her dispositions at the end of her life. She is aware of the judgment that awaits her as one who has wielded power: “If no one can be justified in his sight, how much less can those of us of great kingdoms and high estate.” But in humble faith, she recognizes her dependence on God’s mercy and begs that Christ’s passion stand between her soul and judgment. In short, this Catholic queen died as she had lived, a humble daughter of the Church.

Sister Joan Gormley is a professor of Scripture and homiletics at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md.

close window