Those of us who occasionally have been cantankerous can take some solace that among the ranks of the Blessed there are those who also had such moments while on Earth. One of those is Blessed William Ward whose feast day is today.
Born about 1560 at Thornby in Westmoreland as William Webster, William was brought up a Protestant by his Protestant parents. We know very little about his early life other than that he converted to Catholicism during a trip to Spain, and then converted his mother to the Faith. He was about 44, an advanced age for the Seventeenth Century, when he began studying for the priesthood at Douai. Ordained to the priesthood as a member of the Secular Franciscans on June 1, 1608, he traveled to England in October, but was driven onto the shores of Scotland by a severe storm and was imprisoned there for three years.
Nothing daunted by his three years in captivity, upon his release he immediately went to England where he spent the next 30 years serving as an undercover priest, with 20 of these years being spent in captivity for the “crime” of being a Catholic priest. Described as being of a fiery temperament, Blessed Ward developed a reputation as being tough on penitents in the confessional. In spite of, or rather because of, this trait, he never lacked penitents eager to be placed under his spiritual direction. He was accused of avarice, because of the poverty in which he lived, his accusers having no knowledge of his numerous secret charities to which he dedicated almost all donations he received. A hard man in many ways, he was hardest on himself, as he pursued his mission of preaching Christ in a completely hostile environment.
In 1641 Parliament and King Charles I were involved in an ever escalating conflict that would lead to open civil war in 1642. The Puritans in Parliament accused King Charles of being soft on “popery” and on April 7, 1641 Parliament passed a law banishing all Catholic priests in England on pain of execution. Father Ward heard of this law, but brave and stubborn as always, he refused to leave his England.
Arrested, he was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn on the feast day of Saint Anne, to whom he had always had a particular devotion, on July 26, 1641. His last words were, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, receive my soul!”. He was beatified by Pope Pius XI in 1929 along with 162 other English martyrs.