Saint William, Archbishop of Bourges
WILLIAM DE DONJEON, belonging to an illustrious family of Nevers, was educated by his uncle, Peter, Archdeacon of Soissons, and he was early made canon, first of Soissons and afterwards of Paris; but he soon took the resolution of abandoning the world altogether, and retired into the solitude of Grandmont Abbey, where he lived with great regularity in that austere order, till, seeing its peace disturbed by a contest which arose between the choir monks and lay brothers, he passed into the Cistercians, then in wonderful repute for sanctity. He took the habit in the abbey of Pontigny, and was after some time chosen abbot, first of Fontaine-Jean, in the diocese of Sens, and secondly in 1187 of Chalis, near Senlis, a much more numerous monastery, also a filiation of Pontigny, built by Louis the Fat in 1136, a little before his death. St William always reputed himself the last among his brethren; and the sweetness of his expression testified to the joy and peace that overflowed his soul, and made virtue appear engaging even in the midst of formidable austerities.
On the death of Henry de Sully, Archbishop of Bourges, the clergy of that church requested his brother Eudo, Bishop of Paris, to assist them in the election of a pastor. Desirous to choose some abbot of the Cistercian Order, they put on the altar the names of three, written on as many slips of parchment. This manner of election by lot would have been superstitious had it been done relying on a miracle without the warrant of divine inspiration. But it did not deserve this censure, when all the persons proposed seemed equally worthy and fit, as the choice was only recommended to God, and left to this issue by following the rules of His ordinary providence and imploring His light. Eudo accordingly, having made his prayer, drew first the name of the abbot William, to whom also the majority of the votes of the clergy had been already given. It was on November 23, 1200. This news overwhelmed William. He never would have acquiesced had he not received a double command in virtue of obedience, one from Pope Innocent III, the other from his superior, the Abbot of Citeaux. He left his solitude with tears, and soon after was consecrated.
In this new dignity St William's first care was to bring both his exterior and interior life up to the highest possible standard, being very sensible that a man's first task is to honor God in his own soul. He redoubled his austerities, saying it was now incumbent on him to do penance for others as well as for himself. He always wore a hair-shirt under his religious habit, and never added or diminished anything in his clothing whatever the season of the year; and he never ate any flesh-meat, though he had it at his table for guests. The attention he paid to his flock was no less remarkable, especially in assisting the poor both spiritually and corporally, saying that he was chiefly sent for them. He was most gentle in dealing with penitent sinners, but inflexible towards the impenitent, though he refused to have recourse to the civil power against them, the usual remedy of that age. Many such he at last reclaimed by his sweetness and charity. Certain great men abusing his leniency, usurped the rights of his church; but William strenuously defended them even against the king himself, notwithstanding his threats to confiscate his lands. By humility and patience he overcame, on more than one occasion, the opposition of his chapter and other clergy. He converted many Albigensian heretics, and was preparing for a mission among them at the time he ws seized with his last illness. He persisted, nevertheless, in preaching a farewell sermon to his people, which increased his fever to such a degree that he was obliged to postpone his journey and take to his bed. The night following, perceiving his last hour was at hand, he desired to anticipate the Nocturns, which are said at midnight; but having made the sign of the cross on his lips and breast, he was unable to pronounce more than the first two words. Then, at a sign which he made, he was laid on ashes, and thus St. William died, a little past midnight, on the morning of January 10, 1209. His body was interred in his cathedral, and being honoured by many miracles it was enshrined in 1217, and in the year following he was canonized by Pope Honorius III.
See the Acta Sanctorum for January 10, and the Analecta Bollandiana, vol. iii (1884), pp. 271-361; BHL., nn. 1283-1284.
Butler's Lives of The Saints, Herbert J. Thurston, S.J. and Donald Attwater
Nihil Obstat: PATRICIVS MORRIS, S.T.D., L.S.S., CENSOR DEPVTATVS.
Imprimatur: E. MORROGH BERNARD, VICARIVS GENERALIS
WESTMONASTERII: DIE XXIII FEBRVARII MCMLIII