In addition to saints, there would seem to be two kinds of people: those who think that saints are possible, and those who do not. Neither will ever be extinguished in this world, where miracles also do or do not occur. The latter group (who call themselves “sceptics,” for they are also given to misuse of language) prevail at the moment, but this was not always so.

There were outright atheists in the Middle Ages, in addition to heretics and proto-protestants of many stripes, yet it was an age of faith, in the main, and gratitude for saints and sanctity was widespread. There were satirists of the claims made for saints, as for the behaviour of errant monks, priests, and other religious. But it did not follow that they mocked sanctity, or the claims of Holy Church herself. Rather they mocked charlatanry. That is another thing.

I should like to say something unmodern, on behalf of the simple mediaeval peasant, in awe of the Saints of Our Lord. It is true they were not intellectuals, and had not the facilities to check what they were told about the world beyond their immediate horizons. Yet they were in a better position than the complicated modern peasant, who also lacks the means to check what he reads and hears in the filth of our media. It is true that most men and women want to believe, want to trust, want to live in peace with their neighbours, now as then. But the phenomenon of Faith is not the same as credulity.

As some realize, and some do not, there are such things as saints, and angels. We might name them incorrectly, or mistake details, but still they would be there. We have, even in our two-dimensional ways, brushed against things in three dimensions. Some do, some don’t, realize what has happened.

Sanctity and heroism are tried in the forges. To be faithful unto death: that is the standard, and can only be the standard for faith in this world. There is no running from it. In reading of the fate of that French gendarme, Arnaud Beltrame, who surrendered himself in ransom for a kidnapped woman, and died as he could only expect, shot and with his throat slashed by a Muslim terrorist, we were slapped by history.

Here was a man who believed in saints. I do not mean this casually. Raised in a modern home, free of religion, he was called to military service. As a French soldier, he was decorated for his bravery in Iraq. In his thirties, he became a Catholic convert; made a pilgrimage to Sainte-Anne d’Auray, to ask the Virgin Mary to find him a wife. Found Marielle, a woman of deep faith like his own. Just before the terrorist attack at Trèbes, he had made his latest pilgrimage, to Compostela. He was an amateur historian, too, whose interest was in the Catholic roots of his own once-Christian country, France.

He would thus have been familiar with her long conflict with Islam, going back to Charles Martel. He would have known that in the Middle Ages, across the Mediterranean range of Europe, there were whole orders (including the Franciscans) devoted to ransoming Christians captured by Muslim pirates and slaving raids — often sacrificing their own lives. He would have known something of the very Catholic history of the men-at-arms, the Gendarmerie, and of the chivalric ideals that inspired them. More is conveyed by an old photograph of Beltrame’s face, wearing a smile of becoming simplicity. He had escaped the complexity of our modern world, while remaining very much part of it, and when he was called, by God, to redeem an innocent captive woman, he did not hesitate.

A Czech woman, moved to Canada by “events” (those of 1968), said something interesting to me yesterday, about this place: “Yet with all the things that bug me about contemporary Canada I retain a strange conviction: that the young lives lost in such numbers in the two World Wars have been guarding and protecting us.”

Note, that like Beltrame, they are all dead now; have been dead for decades, for a century. But they were our gens d’armes, and like this Frenchman, did not hesitate in their trenches.

On this Wednesday in Holy Week, which subsumes a ferial in commemoration of St John Capistran — the Franciscan Crusader whose appeals to faith stopped the Ottoman advance at the great Battle of Belgrade, shortly after Constantinople had fallen to them in 1453 — we are reminded of what has not changed.

How much worse things would be for us if such men hadn’t done as they did in life; or did not do as they continue to do.