Isabel the Catholic – ready to shed her blood for the Church of Rome
His Eminence Luis Cardinal Aponte Martinez

Servant of God Queen Isabel. When many people hear this name, they often think of only one thing: the woman who sponsored Columbus’ discovery of the New World. But the Church does not declare a person to be a Servant of God just for sponsoring an historic voyage. So the question remains: why did the Church declare Queen Isabel the Catholic to be a Servant of God? And why is it so important that the world know more about this particular Servant of God?

Imagine that you have before your eyes a map of the world. Looking at the map from heaven’s perspective, we can imagine that the places strong in the Catholic faith would shine out with special brilliance. Ireland, for example, would be one such place. History shows that this island owes its Faith and Catholic culture to St. Patrick, who is rightly known as the Apostle of Ireland. This great country of Spain is another good example. The Catholic Faith here is traced back to St. James, the son of Zebedee, who is called the Apostle of Spain. But now move your eyes west across the map, across the Atlantic, to the Americas. How can we account for the fact that Spanish America, not just a small island or a large peninsula, but a whole continent and a large part of another, has been -- and is still -- predominantly Catholic? Does history show that there was also an Apostle of the New World?

After Columbus’ first voyage to America, he reported to Queen Isabel that, as far as he could see, there was not much promise of material wealth in the lands he had visited. No mountains of gold or other precious metals were to be seen. How did Queen Isabel the Catholic respond to this news? Permit me to quote her exact words: “Although there would be nothing but stones, I would continue there while there may be souls to save.” By these words, we see what was in the Queen’s heart. Much more than any possible monetary gain, it was her zeal to spread the Catholic Faith that led Queen Isabel to sponsor Columbus’ expeditions. This truth, which is often left out of history books, deserves to be made known: most of Spanish America is Catholic because of Queen Isabel.

Our Lord and Savior said, we can know the tree by its fruits. So what exactly were the fruits of Queen Isabel’s faith? Thanks to Queen Isabel, “the miracle has occurred that, today, over 300 million people adore Christ and invoke the Virgin Mary using the vibrant language of Castile....” Furthermore, as the author Nemesio Rodriguez Lois points out, America “will soon be home to more than half of the Catholics of the whole world. This is the reason for which recent Popes have baptized these lands with the significant name of ‘The Continent of Hope.’” Truly, the great hope that this continent holds can be traced back to the extraordinary virtues of Queen Isabel: her Hope of bringing Christ to new peoples; her Charity in making laws to protect these peoples from exploitation and enslavement; and her great Faith, whose legacy still lives in South and Central America, Mexico, the western United States, the Canary Islands and the Philippines, among other places. The Archbishop of Valladolid, His Excellency Jose Delicado Baeza, has pointed out the debt that the history of evangelization owes to Queen Isabel: “much more than one third of the faithful of the Catholic Church are in some way, directly or indirectly, owed to that evangelizing spirit of the Queen. Such missionary fruits can be attributed to few evangelizers in history.”

There is a path to sainthood which the Church has held in the highest esteem from the first centuries – the way of martyrdom. The Church has always taught that any person who sheds his blood intentionally for the Faith goes to heaven without passing through purgatory. Now God did not grant Queen Isabel this gift of martyrdom, but her sincere desire to die for the faith does shine forth in her last will and testament. This devout Christian monarch dictated her will only three days before her death. In it the Queen said:

“[B]eing ill in body with the sickness that God has chosen to give me, being free and of sound mind, believing and confessing firmly all that the Holy Catholic Church of Rome has, believes, confesses and preaches . . . in that faith and for that faith I am ready so as to die for Her, and I would receive it as a very singular and excellent gift from the hand of Our Lord, and likewise I declare [my desire] ... to live and to die in this Holy Catholic Faith.”

Ready to shed her blood for the Church of Rome, the Servant of God Queen Isabel did in fact die in the Holy Catholic Faith. She passed from this life on Nov. 26, 1504. In her last days, she was told that many people were going on pilgrimages and marching in processions all over Spain for her recovery; upon hearing this, she asked them not to pray for the health of her body, but for the salvation of her soul.

But Queen Isabel did not only die in the Catholic Faith, she lived her Faith fully throughout her life. In our modern age, it has become easy to be skeptical of our leaders. In our minds, the quote of Lord Acton tends to resonate as universally true: “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Indeed, we almost doubt that a truly virtuous person could lead a nation without eventually compromising his principles. So let us take a few moments now to look at the example of Queen Isabel’s life, and how a Servant of God can govern without compromising allegiance to God and His Church.

The Queen has often been likened to St. Teresa of Jesus. Venerable Juan de Palafox, who made extensive studies of the writings of Isabel and St. Teresa, claimed “that if St. Teresa had been a queen she would have been another Queen Isabel and if Queen Isabel had been a nun she would have been another St. Teresa of Jesus.” Isabel was born of Catholic parents on April 22, 1451. In her veins ran the blood of many great saints such as St. Ferdinand of Castile, St. Isabel of Portugal, and St. Louis of France. Considering this extraordinary Catholic heritage, it is no wonder that Our Lord entrusted the Queen with many crosses during her life, which she accepted as a true follower of Jesus.

Queen Isabel’s father died when she was very young and her half-brother took over the rule of the kingdom. She was consequently raised by her widowed mother. Isabel was promised in marriage to no less than six suitors, the first promise being made when she was only 7 years old. At one point, her half-brother promised Isabel in marriage to Pedro Giron, a scoundrel reputed to have many vices, who had no trace of royal blood. Isabel knew about this man from a few years earlier. This was the man who had made certain insulting and indecent proposals to Isabel’s mother in the very presence of Isabel. Moreover, he was 43 years old and Isabel, only 15. When Isabel found out that she was promised to such a man, she immediately turned to God for succor. The honor and purity of Isabel shine forth in the fact that she had long resisted the influences of the exceptionally corrupt court of the King, and in this instance, she locked herself in her room and fasted for three days. Then, during the following three days and nights, she knelt almost continually before a Crucifix, passionately repeating over and over again with tears in her eyes: “Dear God, compassionate Savior, do not let me be given to this man! Either let him die, or let me die!” Seeing her behavior, the King, her half-brother, replied to Isabel with disdain: “You need to be taught who is King of Castile.”

Pedro Giron, on the other hand, was very pleased at hearing the news, and he set out with all possible haste. On the first evening of his departure he journeyed with pomp and laughter. He kept gloating to those around him about how the princess would soon be his. But that very night he became violently ill. He started slowly suffocating and the doctors could do nothing to help. A frenzy seized him when he realized the hopelessness of his condition. He cast aside all pretense of being Catholic. He refused the sacraments and would not even repeat any Christian prayers. On the third day after his departure, still hoping to arrive in time, he died, blaspheming God for His cruelty in refusing to add only forty more days to his forty-three years, so that he might “enjoy” his royal bride. Isabel received the news of his death with tears of joy and gratitude, for she considered it a direct answer to her prayers. She hastened to the chapel and fell on her knees to offer thanks to God.

As Our Lord would have it, Ferdinand of Aragon was the one she finally chose to marry. Isabel’s filial love for Mother Church is evident in the words she wrote at this time: “Our marriage was arranged in the eyes of Holy Mother Church and my conscience is very much at ease in this matter.” Her half-brother, King Enrique, was not at ease, however. He strongly opposed her marriage to Ferdinand.

The next five years were ones of intense struggle for the newly wed couple who, it seemed, had enemies everywhere plotting against them, including Isabel’s half-brother, King Enrique. But God was preparing Isabel with many heroic tests for the historic mission for which He had chosen her. In her soul a great desire for justice was growing, as she witnessed so many citizens suffer from the horrors for violence and exploitation. Through all her hardships, she always maintained herself faithful to the King, her half-brother, and was endowed with a spirit of harmony, peace and collaboration. This same spirit also guided her in her submission to the Church of Rome.

In 1474, five years after Isabel’s marriage, King Enrique died. Isabel was then proclaimed Queen of Castile. One thing that is very clear in the life of Queen Isabel is her resolve not to begin any important undertaking without first having the clear approval of the Holy Father. The Papal Nuncio was present at her enthronement in Segovia along with the Papal Legate, clear signs of the Holy Father’s support of to her taking the throne. When Isabel was sworn in as Queen of Castile, she vowed, with her hand on the Bible, to be obedient to the commandments of Holy Church, to honor her prelates and ministers, and to defend the Church with all her strength.

In anyone’s eyes, Queen Isabel would be considered great just by the fact that, with great prudence, justice and fortitude, she joined together 27 separate kingdoms into one strongly united Spain. It is a striking example of how a truly Christian leader can elevate a people from a state of extreme prostration to become a world power. Before Isabel’s reign, it was often not safe to walk or travel in cities or through the countryside. Many people were victimized by rampant violence, and there was terrible corruption among civil leaders. In a short time, all this changed with Queen Isabel. But her reign did not get off to any easy beginning. Just two weeks after Isabel’s proclamation as Queen of Castile, Alfonso V of Portugal -- one of her earlier suitors for marriage and over 20 years her senior -- invaded Castile and plunged the newly crowned Queen into a war of succession. This was another period of great trials and crosses for Isabel, from which she emerged triumphant four years later.

Even before this war of succession came to a close, Isabel’s reorganization of the Kingdom was already well underway. A true daughter of the Church, Isabel began first with religious reforms, and two years later undertook political reforms. She knew that if she could strengthen the Spanish clergy, religious orders and monasteries, she would thereby obtain the spiritual betterment of her people. Once a reform in Faith and morals was in place, the political reform would be much more successful.

Her reforms of Church and State worked marvelously, resulting in many good fruits: unity in the kingdom; the strengthening of the crown to better serve the people; the establishment of a stable peace and the restoration of justice; exemplary clergy and religious orders; a unified front against the enemies of the Faith; and the promotion and defense of morality. These are the elements which form the basis of good government. How many of today’s world leaders could learn from her example of how to govern without compromising one’s Faith or violating one’s conscience?

Isabel the Catholic clearly stated her motives for carrying out these two reforms: the greatest service of God and the exaltation of the Holy Catholic Faith. The Queen took much care to treat all of the great spiritual and ecclesial themes that the Council of Trent confronted only later. For example, the use of indulgences, the mandatory residence of a Bishop in his diocese, and the illicit accumulation of benefits for the clergy. In fact, one can argue that she anticipated the Council of Trent by almost a century. Thus, the Catholic Church in Spain was well prepared for the great enterprises for which she was destined, especially the Evangelization of America and all of Spain’s territories. And because the Faith in Spain itself was so strong, the country enjoyed a unity free from the splintering effects of protestantism, and thereby Spain avoided the internal religious wars that afflicted much of Europe in the subsequent centuries. And let us not forget the great Spanish saints who rose out of Isabel’s reforms: St. Teresa of Jesus, St. John of the Cross, St. Ignatius of Loyola, and St. Francis Borgia, to name only a few.

Like these saints, Queen Isabel’s devotion to the Blessed Sacrament was outstanding. She created and promoted many Eucharistic Associations which still, even today, foster devotion and reverence to the Most Blessed Sacrament. For example, one such association still exists in the Basilica of San Damaso in Rome. She also wrote personally to all the bishops of her realm asking that they encourage devotion to, and take much care in their handling of, the Most Blessed Sacrament. She wrote them not so much as their queen, but as a concerned daughter of the Church.

The Queen’s devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary was not only fervent but, in a way, visionary. She co-founded the Order of the Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Conception in 1489 with St. Beatriz of Silva. Around the same time, she also wrote to the Holy Father and respectfully asked him to take appropriate steps against those who denied the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary. She did both of these things 365 years before the dogma of the Immaculate Conception was even declared.

Queen Isabel once received two monks from the Holy Sepulcher of Jerusalem and after they had departed, the Queen sent them the enormous sum of 1000 ducats every year which she ordered to be used in Jerusalem for the things necessary for Divine worship there, and for the upkeep and improvement of the Holy Sepulcher itself. She also gave them a veil, to put on top of the Holy Sepulcher, which she had made with her very own hands out of devotion. From these few examples, we can gain some appreciation for the strong devotion which Isabel had for the Catholic Faith.

Now, at the same time the Queen was carrying out reforms of Church and State, and while continuing to fight the war of succession with the King of Portugal, she nevertheless found time to begin the successful evangelization of the Canary Islands, which was a first step towards bringing the Faith to Africa. Later on, Melilla and some other cities on the mainland of Africa were conquered and evangelized, and those cities already held by Christians, like Ceuta, were continually reinforced and used as bases for the evangelization of other parts of Africa. There were two important reasons for this effort: first, the salvation of the African people; and, secondly, the use of these fortified cities on the frontier as a protection for Spain and all of Christian Europe against any new onslaughts from the Moors in North Africa.

With the attainment of internal and external peace for her Kingdom, and with the political and ecclesiastical reforms well under way, Queen Isabel then began the recuperation of the kingdom of Granada. As with all her other important endeavors, she first asked the Holy Father’s approval. In fact, each of her important enterprises had its own corresponding Papal Bull, approving and guiding the endeavor. These Papal Bulls were always solicited by Isabel, either personally or through her ambassadors.

The campaign to reconquer Granada began in 1482. By this time, Spain had once again become completely unified and strongly Catholic, except for the Spanish territory of Andalucia, which the Moors continued to occupy. Isabel carried deep within her heart the need for the reconquest of Spain -- a conviction which she inherited from the Christian Kings who had staged an almost 800 year war to free Spain from the Moors who had previously invaded the already deeply Catholic country in the year 711. This desire of Isabel to regain what was once lost to Christianity, is clearly stated in her marriage agreement with Ferdinand. The Queen writes: "Once we have united the said kingdoms and territories of Castile and Leon . . . then we are obligated to make war upon the Moors, enemies of our Holy Catholic Faith, as the other Catholic Kings, our predecessors, have done." She clearly believed that God had commended the defense of the Holy Church to the kings and queens of the earth.

In a letter to Pope Sixtus IV, Isabel explained the religious motive behind the campaign to reconquer Granada. "It is certain and well known that we have not been moved nor are we moved to this war for the accumulation of more kingdoms, nor greed to acquire more rents than what we already have, nor a desire to accumulate treasures. All this we could do, if we indeed wanted to, with much less danger, work and expenses than this war is creating for us. But the desire that we have for the service of God and zeal for the Holy Catholic Faith makes us do this . . . Our only hope is that the Holy Catholic Faith grows and that Christianity may be delivered from such a continuous danger, which is at her very doors, if these infidels in Granada are not taken care of.” The defense and expansion of the Faith was Queen Isabel’s supreme criteria. She always waited for the Vicar of Christ to declare that her military plans were just before carrying them out.

Her conviction to only fight wars which were both just and unavoidable is demonstrated by the fact that, whenever possible, Isabel avoided fighting against other Christian rulers. And she never took sides with Christian rulers who were opposing the Holy Father. In 1476, the King of France and other Christian princes invited Ferdinand and Isabel to a council, but they refused to join them because the council was clearly not in communion with the Holy Father. Isabel and Ferdinand also sent ambassadors to different kings and princes in Europe to dissuade them from attending this anti-papal council as well. Isabel even arranged for another ambassador to go to Rome, in order to explain the whole situation to the Pope.

It is clear, then, that Isabel was very careful to wait for the approval of the Holy Father before beginning any great endeavors, especially a military campaign. But once she knew that her plans were in accord with the mind of the Holy Father, she acted boldly for Christ and His Church. In all, she carried out two successful campaigns against the Moors, one in Granada and one in Africa. These victories helped saved Spain and Europe from the very real Moorish threat to conquer Christendom. In addition, her sponsorship of the evangelization of America resulted in the overthrow of savage Indian tribes that practiced human sacrifice – and even cannibalism – on a wide scale.

The Catholic Queen also directed her forces to take part heroically in the defense of Europe at the close of the 15th century against the Turks, who were menacing central Europe, Rhodes, Italy and even Rome -- the very heart of Christendom. Spain’s contribution to this cause is all the more remarkable, considering the fact that Isabel was also carrying out campaigns in Granada and the Canary Islands at the same time. Nevertheless, out of love for the Church and Christian Europe, she diligently prepared the Spanish Armada (Navy), which was ordered to go in the defense of Rhodes. Later, the Armada also played a decisive role in stopping the Turkish invasion of both Italy and Rome.

Not only did Queen Isabel act decisively to defend Rome, she also used the resources at her disposal to augment Rome’s splendor. For example, after the conquest of the city of Ronda in Granada, Isabel ordered five churches to be built in Rome, and she provided all the means for their construction and spared no cost to provide them with the liturgical items necessary for Divine worship.

We have seen how, as a Queen ‘ready to shed her blood for the Church’, Isabel generously served the Catholic Church and assisted several Popes. Let us now hear what the Popes themselves had to say about her. There were four popes who lived in Queen Isabel's lifetime and they all spoke highly of the Catholic Queen. Pope Sixtus IV told the Queen: "Your sincerity and piety is well noted by us." Pope Innocent VIII wrote: "to Isabel and Ferdinand is proclaimed glory and fame before all Christian people." Pope Julius II said of the royal couple that, "they have labored in Christ's name with great danger to themselves." And Pope Alexander VI, together with the whole College of Cardinals, issued the Bull "Si Convenit," bestowing on Isabel and Ferdinand the title, “Catholic Monarchs" on account of “their justice, religiosity, piety, magnanimous soul[s], clemency to the Faith and zeal for the Roman Church."

It was Isabel’s intention to pass this zeal along to her own children. In her last will and testament, she not only expressed her willingness to shed her blood for the Church of Rome, but she also exhorted her children to follow her example. Here are the words of the dying Queen to her children:

“...I pray and mandate that the...princess, my daughter, and the...prince, her husband, as Catholic [royalty], should take much care in everything for the honor of God and His Holy Faith, being zealous and procuring to guard and spread [the Catholic Faith], because for it we are obliged to [risk] our persons and lives and all that is necessary, and to be very obedient to the commandments of Holy Mother Church, and to be protectors and defenders of Her as they are obligated ... and to strive on behalf of the Faith against the infidels...”

The Queen’s mandate was not only carried out by her children, but it was passed on to her grandchildren as well. For example, at the Diet of Worms in Germany, Isabel’s grandson, Charles V, declared himself against Luther’s so-called “reform” by invoking the example of his maternal grandparents, the Catholic Monarchs of Spain. Charles stated that Isabel and Ferdinand “have left behind them the holy Catholic Rites that i should live and die therein. ... I have therefore resolved to stake upon this cause [that is, the defense of the Catholic Church] all my dominions, my friends, my body, my blood, my life and my soul.”

Isabel, therefore, proved in many diverse ways that her declared readiness to give her life for the Catholic Faith was not simply a pious phrase said in passing, but the deepest conviction at the center of her being. In an heroic way, her actions matched her words: she showed her complete obedience to the Church at her marriage, at her coronation and in her last will and testament; she reformed the Church in Spain, not along the lines of a Martin Luther, but in complete submission to the very same Church she strove to renew; she had strong practices of Catholic devotion, especially to the Most Blessed Sacrament and to the Immaculate Conception; she successfully carried out three campaigns for the defense of the Church of Rome, against the Moors in Granada and North Africa, and against the Turks in Europe; she arranged for the construction of churches in Rome and generously helped maintain the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem; and, as a good mother, she formed her descendants to have the same convictions, the same filial love for Mother Church. But her greatest achievement was certainly her impact on the Americas. As the historian, William Thomas Walsh, wrote: "Isabel the Catholic was a woman with the soul of a crusader that not only changed the course of civilization but also the aspect of the entire world."

In the evangelization of America, Granada and all of her realms, Isabel showed how she saw the Catholic Faith as a most precious gem -- a jewel that, once unveiled, would be dearly coveted by all those who saw it. Thus, she always exhorted the prelates and monks that she sent to evangelize: "Do not force anyone to become a Christian, but instruct them well in the Catholic Faith, for it is so beautiful, they will readily embrace it." This, by the way, also happens to be the exact idea behind the annual Path to Rome Conference.

Let us now return to the question we asked at the beginning. Is there a single person we can identify as the Apostle of the New World? The word apostle comes from the Greek “apostolos,” meaning “one who is sent.” The truth is, many different apostles were sent to bring the Gospel to the Americas. But the person primarily responsible, either directly or indirectly, for these missionaries being sent is Queen Isabel. While physically the Queen never stepped foot in the Americas, it was her zeal to spread the Catholic Faith which caused and inspired many apostles to sail across the Atlantic bearing the Good News of Christ. In fact, in this, the Queen resembles Our Savior more than the Apostles. Our Lord did the sending, the apostles were the ones sent. And the results of Isabel’s efforts were tremendous. As the late Cardinal Herrera pointed out, 20 Catholic nations owe their evangelization to Isablel’s apostolic spirit. Therefore, Isabel does in fact merit a unique title, not exactly as “the Apostle of the New World,” since she was never sent there, but certainly as “the Evangelizer of the New World.” History proves that there are no other candidates for this title. And today, Catholics in lands stretching from my island of Puerto Rico, down to the southern tip of South America, and all the way to the mission cities on the coast of California – all can look to Isabel as their historical Mother in the Catholic Faith. Considering her Christian impact on two continents and twenty nations, it can be argued that she, and no other, merits the title of "history's greatest evangelizer."

So let us thank God for giving the world Queen Isabel the Catholic. Traditionally, a person’s name was understood as indicating the person’s role or state in life. For example, the name “Jesus” means “He who saves.” Simon Peter’s name in Aramaic is “Cephas,” which means “the Rock.” How fitting, then, that Pope Alexander VI gave the Queen the title: “Isabel the Catholic.” The word “Catholic” truly reveals the essence of what made Isabel great.

St. Augustine maintained that “a man possesses the Holy Spirit to the extent of his love for Christ’s Church.” Isabel’s love for the Catholic Church permeated every thing she did, from sponsoring the evangelization of the New World, to riding in battle with her troops, even to sewing shirts for her husband the King. In all she did and said, Queen Isabel showed herself worthy to be called “the Catholic.”

I would like to close with the Prayer for the Intercession of Queen Isabel. Please join me in your hearts as we pray...

In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Almighty Father, in Your infinite goodness, You made Queen Isabel the Catholic a model for young ladies, wives, mothers, women leaders and Government rulers. As the first sovereign and evangelizer of the American continent, You granted to her heart a sense of piety, justice, compassion, and the vision of a new land full of promise. Grant us the grace to see Your infinite majesty glorified in her prompt canonization, and through her intercession, grant all of the petitions we carry in our hearts, that we ask of You in this present need through Christ Our Lord. Amen.

Servant of God, Queen Isabel. Pray for us.

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