Divina Disponente

By Pope Benedict XV

Extract of the May 16, 1920 papal bull effecting the canonization of St. Joan of Arc. After going through the earlier life and exploits of Joan, Pope Benedict XV concludes his sermon with the poignant emprisonment and death of the saint.

Meanwhile the Maid, trusting in Divine Providence, was supported by the lively hope that her imprisonment would not impede God’s plans to be fully accomplished. Therefore with a serene soul, before being sold to the English, she remained for about four months in the castle of Beaulieu; she was sent then to the castle of Beaurevoir: while there she found out that she had been sold to the English and, having heard that the city of Compiegne was about to be destroyed, she attempted to escape from prison, but with no success. Nonetheless she was consoled by celestial voices who predicted that the city of Compiegne would be freed before the Feast of Saint Martin; which is what the events actually confirmed. Afterward she was taken to the castle of Crotoy, where, in the month of November, she was handed over to the English by the Duke of Borgogne. While she was staying in these castles, everyone admired her faith and devotion. Finally, in the month of December, she was transferred by the English to the castle of Rouen, where the wicked trial against her started.

The English harbored a deadly hate against Joan and wished her death at any cost, because she had come to the aid of the most Christian King of France, and they feared her especially because of his victories attained because of her; and, having understood that in France the Maid was considered as one sent by God, they plotted to send her to be burned at the stake, under the accusation of being a witch. Not long before, they had already condemned to the stake a poor woman in Paris, only because the woman had said that the Maid was a saint and had acted driven by the will of God. Since the aim of the trial was also to dishonor the King of France, the English took great care to have Joan also covered by ignominy and be condemned as a heretic, thus decreeing the death of the Maid before her trial. The English King, Henry VI, on January 3, 1431 wrote to the judges that, if perchance Joan were not condemned as a heretic and witch, he reserved to himself the right to hold her. So the judges, for their own safety, asked and obtained a letter of protection by the King of England.

All the witnesses of that time, when interrogated, declared in sincerity that the trial had been set up “by the will and under the pressure of the English,” who always kept Joan under their surveillance and did not allow that she be guarded in the ecclesiastical prisons. Some historian, almost contemporary, wrote that the passion of the Maid started at the trial. Eyewitnesses reported that she was in prison, with iron fetters, locked in an iron cage with neck, hands, and feet restrained; the custodians of her prison were awful men, with no respect and sullied with stains of vices of any sort.

According to not a small number of eyewitnesses, this trial, which lasted four months, was not only unfair, but also faulty and null.

During that time the behavior of the Maid was really admirable: she, who was less than twenty years old, exhibited such tranquility in her soul, and answered the questions of the judges with so much prudence, that all looked at her with marvel. The witnesses, regarding her faith and devotion during this time, declared that she always asked if she could attend Mass, especially in the days of obligation, and also receive the most holy Eucharist, and she was very sorry if these spiritual consolations were denied to her.

During this same trial the Maid fell ill and the English were caught by a great fear that she might die of natural death, so that many doctors were sent to her, one of whom, among other things, affirms: “The King had bought her at high price and he did not wish her to die except by court verdict, and by being burned alive.” After she regained her health, but not yet strong enough, the trial resumed in haste.

Joan’s answers over and over again stated that she was willing to submit completely to the judgment of the Roman Catholic Church, but the judges contended that she should submit to them, as the Church’s representatives. When asked if she would submit to the Lord the Pope, she answered yes to the Pope, but not to the judges there present because they were his mortal enemies. This very answer, foreseen by the same judges, became the basis of the accusation, since it was falsely misrepresented as if Joan did not wish to submit to the Church.

Another charge for prosecution was alleged by the judges to be her visions and revelations, which they stated were from an evil spirit, and particularly those male clothes, which Joan said she had worn by divine command. These accusations were collected in twelve clauses and some men, especially from the University of Paris, extremely hostile to the Maid, although unaware of the trial, expressed their opinion against Joan. However, in France, others who defended her with all their might were not lacking: in fact, many requests for her liberation were issued. After all, the nullity and the malice of the trial were indeed very clear so much so that when the most renowned priest John Lohier, Dean of the Roman Rota, arrived from Normandy to the city of Rouen, when asked his opinion about the trial of the Maid, in the presence of the Bishop, he affirmed that it was null for various reasons. After this, other highly qualified men, also important for their ecclesiastical rank, proved very clearly the injustice and nullity of the trial and, for love of truth, and to give honor to them, we should like to remember Cardinal Elias de Bordeille, Bishop of Perigueux, John Gerson, Teodoro de Lellis, Examiner of the Sacred Roman Rota, Pontano, Lawyer of the Sacred Consistory, and other most distinguished jurists.

Until the end of the trial, and even in the presence of the executioner, the Maid never wished to deny her visions and revelations, despite the fact that the judges used any stratagem to have her reject them as false. It was indeed very important for the English to have her declare her visions and revelations as false and untrue before being condemned; in fact, if she remained resolute in her depositions, people would always firmly think that her mission had been received from God. That is why the judges, to achieve their aim, as a last resort, exposed her to the view of the people and of the executioner. So on May 24 of the same year 1431, Joan was brought into the square of the sepulcher of Saint-Owen, where, on a platform built for this purpose, there were the Bishop with the Cardinal of Winchester, the judges, the doctors, and many others. The Maid was placed on a stand facing everyone, where she could see also her executioner on a carriage in the street waiting for the sentence that the body of Joan be burned.

But, before that, Nicholas Loyseleur, who perfidiously betrayed the Maid, told her that she would be spared from death if she did what was being asked of her. Master William Erard started a speech, and against the King of France, among other things, said the following: “O Kingdom of France, you are thought of and called most Christian, and your Kings and Princes also most Christian: but now, by your doing, Joan, even your King, who calls himself the King of France, by following you and believing your words, has become heretical and schismatic.” The Maid, in her humility, said nothing about herself, but wanted to defend the King for being himself a good Christian; the above-mentioned Master imposed silence on Joan and ended his speech. But the Maid affirmed she had done nothing wrong, that she believed in the twelve articles of the Faith and in the Ten Commandments, and that she had always believed all that the Holy Church of God believed; at that point the Bishop told Joan that the Bishops were judges in their own dioceses and therefore she had to submit to them.

Meanwhile Master Erard handed the sheet of abjuration to the Maid to have it signed, but Joan declared: “Let this paper be examined by the clergy and by the Church, in whose hands I have to be put, and if they will recommend me to sign it and to do what it is asked in it of me, I will do it willingly.” Master Erard in reply to her: “Do it now, otherwise your days will be ended today in the fire.” He went on by starting the reading of the sentence to death. Joan, exhausted, terrified by the threats, astounded by so many suggestions and exhortations, was forced to capitulate, submitting to the conscience of the judges. At this point they read to her a small list of abjurations, in which they required her not to wear man’s clothes, not to carry weapons and stuff of that sort. If more had been asked in this writing, especially regarding the visions and revelations of the Maid, the judges feared that her conscience would make her withdraw from what she had just accepted. But instead of the list, which, according to the testimony of John Massieu and others there present, consisted of about eight lines and no more, during the trial a much longer one was substituted instead.

Furthermore, as Joan was illiterate, she traced a circle with a cross in the middle, as a mockery, on the list handed to her. Then she asked the Prosecutor if she would be put in the hands of the Church, as promised; on the contrary, she was sentenced to life in prison in the same castle of Rouen, under English custody. At that point a great turmoil ensued among the present, and many stones were thrown.

On Thursday afternoon, May 24, when the Maid, in feminine clothes, returned to the same jail, she had to suffer much at the hands of the English, who tormented her in many ways, and they were so irate, also against the judges, that, three days later, when some of the judges entered the castle to see Joan, they were pushed back by them with drawn swords.

Meanwhile the Maid wore again male clothes, to better protect her virginity; in fact she was violently tempted by the guards and also by a man in high position. When asked by the judges about the reason why she was wearing male clothes again, she answered that she did it to defend her purity. When asked if she had had more visions, Joan answered in all sincerity to have been scolded by the celestial voices because of her abjuration, which she declared to have done under violence and for fear, and whose meaning actually she had not even understood. Lastly, when asked if she desired to wear female clothes, she said she was ready to do it under the condition of being retained in a safe place.

On May 29 the judges met, and the death of the Maid was decreed, on the accusation of being a repeat offender. The day after, early in the morning, two priests were sent by the Bishop to Joan in jail to prepare her for death. The poor girl, hearing that she was condemned to be burned, started crying for men’s malice, capable of burning her virginal body. But immediately she lifted up her anguished soul putting her every hope and trust in God. After receiving the Sacrament of Penance, she herself asked for the Holy Eucharist, then surrounded by about 800 English soldiers, she was taken to the square of the old market; on a sheet of paper affixed above her head was written: “Heretic, Witch, Apostate, Recidivist.” Along the way, while pouring devout tears, she kept recommending her soul to God and to the Saints with so much devotion that moved to tears all who heard her.

In the square were three platforms, two for the judges and the prelates, and a third one with the wood for burning Joan. When arrived in the square, dressed with a long gown, as she had asked, in front of a large multitude of people, she listened to the speech of Master Nicolò Midi, who, after he finished, told the Maid: “Go in peace, the Church delivers you now into secular hands.” Some of the council members rightly asked for the formula of the abjuration to be read again, to no avail; rather, the sentence of death was immediately delivered without the opinion of the secular judge, so, taken with great violence by the armed English, she was lead to the execution. The Maid, on her knees, renewed prayers to God; she asked forgiveness to all, and asked the priests to celebrate each of them a Mass for her soul. She asked for a little cross which an Englishman on the site made out of two wood-sticks; after kissing it with great devotion, Joan placed it on her breast. But she asked also for a cross from the Church, and she got it. Then, after greeting farewell to all the people there, she was pressed by the executioner to climb the wooden pile, in the shape of an ambone, and the executioner started the fire from underneath.

In this supreme hour, the Maid well understood the prediction of her liberation, which she had heard from celestial voices: “Bear willingly everything: do not worry and do not be scared for your martyrdom: you will enter the realm of Paradise.” She clearly understood that death had been given to her because of her mission and, recommending herself with all her strength not only to the most holy Virgin Mary, but also to blessed Michael the Archangel, to blessed Catherine and all the Saints, up to the last instant of her life she declared that all she did was according to the will of God. She begged the father confessor to lift the cross of the Lord, so she could see it; which he did; and Joan, hugging it while pouring abundant tears, with great devotion kissed it until, continuously invoking in the midst of the flames the Most Holy Name of Jesus, she expired.

The holy death of the Maid raised the admiration of all, to the point that also her enemies got very scared, and the executioner himself declared that Joan had been condemned to death unjustly and that he feared very much for himself, because he had burned a holy woman. And soon prodigies happened. In fact many in the crowd saw the name of Jesus written within the flames that burned Joan, and an Englishman, very much hostile to the Maid, who had said he wished to be the one to light the fire, watching her die, remained in awe and immobile, revealing afterwards to have seen a dove flying through the flames. Moreover, the heart of the Maid remained intact and bleeding, which was confirmed by the executioner himself. But the English wanted her heart to be thrown in the river Seine, together with Joan’s ashes, not to have people claim her relics. Finally God, vindicator of innocence and justice, inflicted many punishments on the wicked ones; in fact, all who were responsible for the martyrdom of Joan died a horrible death; moreover, as the Maid had predicted, the English were thrown out of the city of Paris, then out from Normandy, from Aquitania, and from the whole of France.