The Lives of Saints
St. David of Wales
Bishop & Confessor
St. David of Wales
Bishop & Confessor
St. David was the son of Sant, King of South Wales, and the nun St. Non. His mother was a pious woman who lived in prayer, but she was raped by King Sant as he was traveling through her home region of Dyfed. St. Non raised the son she bore as a result of this traumatic incident and when he was old enough to leave his mother he was placed in the care of a nearby monastery where he memorized the Psalms and the Divine Office. It was likely here that he was ordained a priest.
After his ordination he began the task of evangelizing the Welsh countryside. He traveled and preached, edifying the various Churches and founding twelve monasteries. Eventually he settled in one of them, Mynyw. Here his monks imitated the life of the desert fathers. His rule called for one meal a day, nothing but water to drink, long periods of silence, and harsh manual labor. No animals were allowed and the monks pulled their plows themselves. The monks prayed from Friday vespers until the end of Sunday Mass straight through, allowing only a one hour pause to sleep. St. David led his monks by his example, praying for hours after they went to bed every night.
Eventually he was called from his retreat. A great synod was held for the Welsh Church and he was forced against his will to attend. At this synod it was decided that David should replace the current elderly archbishop who wished to retire. David protested vigorously but was forced to accept the post. He moved the see to Mynyw. During his episcopacy he gained a reputation as an inspired preacher. One legend relates how a dove landed on his shoulder while preaching, and another that the land he was standing on grew into a hill while he spoke so that his large audience could hear him. His great dogmatic victory came at the synod of Caerleon where he put a final end to the presence of Pelagianism in Britain. He died on March 1, 589 (or 601). His last words were “Lords, brothers and sisters, Be joyful, and keep your faith and your creed, and do the little things that you have seen me do and heard about. And as for me, I will walk the path that our fathers have trod before us.”
Bishop & Confessor
Bishop & Confessor
St. Chad and his three brothers were all trained in the faith by St. Aidan at Lindisfarne. He spent some time in missionary work in Ireland before being recalled to Northumbria to be made abbot of Lastingham Monastery when the previous abbot, his brother St. Cedd, was appointed bishop of London. The local see of York was empty at this time. St. Wilfrid had been selected to fill the post and had been sent to France for consecration by Catholic bishops. It had been over a year and no one knew what had happened to St. Wilfrid. Chad agreed to be made bishop by one Roman and two Celtic bishops. He thus began to govern the Church in Northumbria.
St. Chad was a model bishop. He devoted himself to the evangelization of the area and the pastoral care of its people. To this end he would walk everywhere, never riding a horse, striking up a conversation with everyone he passed. He brought many pagans to Christ during this period. However it was not to last. St. Wilfrid returned from France and there was a dispute as to who was the actual bishop of York. St. Theodore, the archbishop of Canterbury, decided in favor of Wilfrid. Chad’s consecration by Celtic bishops was ruled invalid. The saint accepted this in humility. He wrote to Theodore: “If you decide that I have not rightly received the episcopal character, I willingly lay down the office; for I have never thought myself worthy of it, but under obedience, I, though unworthy, consented to undertake it.” This impressed Theodore, who need bishops in new sees, and he regularized Chad’s ordination. Chad was then asked to evangelize the fronter people of Mercia.
St. Chad labored among the Mercians for the next two years. St. Bede attributed the Christianization of Mercia almost entirely to Chad’s ministry. The saint continued to walk along the country roads preaching the gospel to everyone he met. He also constructed a church which he used as his base of operations. One day the two princes of the country were out hunting when they came across Chad at prayer. They were so struck by the life of the elderly bishop that they asked for his blessing. In time they asked for baptism as well. Their father, an apostate from the faith, was furious and had them both killed. When he went to find Chad the window of the saint’s cell was pouring forth a blinding light. The King repented and accepted the faith, becoming a firm supporter of the efforts to Christianize his people.
One day one of Chad’s disciples hear angelic singing coming from his cell. St. Chad came out and asked the monk to gather the community together. When the monk had done so, Chad came out and blessed them all one by one, encouraging them to keep the faith he had taught them. He then announced he would die soon, calling death “that friendly guest who is used to visiting the brethren” and sent them all away. When the monk asked about the singing Chad confessed it had been an Angelic choir announcing his coming repose. This repose came on March 2, 672. St. Bede relates that “"he had always looked forward to this day – or rather his mind had always been on the Day of the Lord" and that a monk in Ireland had seen a vision of his passing to heaven escorted by the Angels and Saints, including his own brother St. Cedd.
Ss. Perpetua, Felicitas, and Companions
Ss. Perpetua, felicitas, & companions
These saints suffered for the faith in Carthage about the year 203. They were all catechumens who were arrested for desiring to convert to the Christian Faith. The 22-year old Perpetua was their leader. With her were Felicitas and Revocatus (a couple and Perpetua’s slaves), Secundulus, and Saturninus. They were baptized in prison by their catechist, Saturus, who turned himself in to the pagans so that he could encourage them in their trials. Perpetua was still nursing her infant son and Felicitas was 8 months pregnant.
While in prison they suffered greatly and Secundulus even died from the poor treatment. Perpetua herself recorded everything that happened to them, including a number of mystical visions she received preparing her for the arena. They were interrogated several times. During one interrogation Perpetua’s pagan father begged her to recant which resulted in both her and him being beaten. Finally, they were assigned a date to die in the stadium. Felicitas was worried that she would not die with her friends because Roman law forbade the execution of pregnant women. However she entered labor a few days before the sentence was to be carried out, her daughter being entrusted to a Christian family in the city. The night before they entered the arena they held a love feast together, and many of the other prisoners were converted by their example in the face of death.
The account of their conduct in the arena was recorded by an eyewitness. The women marched in proudly singing psalms and the men warned that the judgment of God was waiting for the crowd. As a result they were all scourged. The men were exposed to wild beasts, who killed Saturnus and wounded the others. The women were placed in front of a wild bull which gored them with its horns. Perpetua picked herself up and straightened her hair, lest the crowd think she was morning. Even the pagan crowd was disturbed by this treatment of such brave women and demanded they be put out of their misery. The first attempt to behead Perpetua failed and, despite the fact she was screaming in pain, she had to calm the executioner and guide the sword to her own neck. Thus they all finally passed to their reward. The account of their martyrdom was so popular in Africa that St. Augustine had to explain that its treatment as equal to scripture was inappropriate. Ss. Perpetua and Felicitas are mentioned in the canon of the Mass.
St. Gregory of Nyssa
Bishop, Confessor & Doctor
St. Gregory of Nyssa
bishop, confessor & doctor
St. Gregory, the younger brother of St. Basil the Great, was born about the year 335. As a young man he studied the secular arts in Caesarea, but, while pious, he was not extraordinarily so. This changed following a request from his mother, St. Emily, to come to the Church of the Holy Martyrs of Sebaste for their feast day. Gregory reluctantly came, but he was so tired after the trip that he left the church during the service and fell asleep. While sleeping he had a dream in which the 40 Martyrs appeared to him holding rods, warning him to stop slacking and practice the faith with zeal. Thirty-nine of the martyrs began to beat him but one eventually convinced them to stop. Then he woke up. From that day forward he began to spend more time in sacred studies and was ordained a reader. He continued to live in the world, making his living teaching rhetoric and taking a wife (whom he would live with as brother and sister after he was made bishop). A few years later St. Gregory Nazienzen sent him a letter encouraging him to devote all his time to the Church. Shortly after this he was ordained a priest and moved to his brother’s monastery.
Basil had bigger plans for St. Gregory. In an effort to stem the tide of heresy, Basil was appointing as many Orthodox bishops in his metropolis as possible. When the see of the small city of Nyssa came open a reluctant Gregory was made bishop. There he devoted himself to study and prayer, while trying to combat the Arianism which was strong in the area. The Arians were annoyed by his efforts and he was deposed and nearly arrested on false embezzlement charges. Gregory escaped the men sent to arrest him, and spent the next several years wandering from place to place. When he was brought back to his seat it was only for a short time. St. Basil died soon after this and the role of champion of Orthodoxy in the East passed to his little brother. Despite the fact that the Church of Nyssa had no special honor in Church politics, Gregory was such a giant of a man that he was for all intents and purposes Patriarch (those Churches in communion with Nyssa were considered Orthodox). He attended several councils defending the faith, including the 2nd ecumenical council in Constantinople. He wrote numerous dogmatic, exegetical, and mystical works before dying in peace at around 60 years old.
The Forty Holy Martyrs
The Forty holy martyrs
These men were all soldiers stationed in Sebeste in Armenia. In the year 320 the pagan Licinius who ruled in the East had a falling out with the Western Emperor St. Constantine. As the two men started to move toward war Licinius began to persecute Christians, especially those in the Army, fearing that they might side with Constantine. Thus all the soldiers of the 12th legion were asked to sacrifice to the gods. These 40 men refused.
The prefect was hesitant to lose 40 soldiers, however, and devised a method which he believed would cause them to renounce the faith. They were all stripped naked and forced to stand on a frozen pond. It was hoped that the cold would cause them to deny Christ. Any man who denied his Lord was promised not only pardon but promotion. In order to tempt them further, warm baths were placed around the pond.
That night the soldiers stood together singing hymns and encouraging each other. One man could not take the cold any longer and ran to the shore to jump into the bath. As soon as he did this the shock of the warmth so soon after the cold killed him. At the same time one of the guards who was asleep had a dream in which he saw the 39 men who were left crowned in glory. When he woke up he declared himself a Christian and ran out on to the ice to be with his new brothers.
In the morning most of the men were dead. Only a few were still alive, and only barely. In disgust the prefect commanded that they be burned alive (possibly with the bodies of their comrades though the record is not clear). The youngest was named Melition and his mother lived in the area. When she saw her son was alive she placed him on the cart which would take him to his death herself, urging him to finish the race. He and the other survivors had joined their fellow soldiers in paradise by the end of the day.
That night they appeared to the local bishop, St. Peter, in a dream. They told him where they had been burned and where he could find their relics. Peter quickly sought them out and gave them an honorable burial. Devotion to these martyrs spread all over the eastern world. Only some 50-60 years later St. Basil was preaching in a Church dedicated to them and his brother St. Gregory had a special devotion to these men, crediting his vocation to a vision of them he had at their Church. In the West, several Churches were dedicated to them by the 5th century, including a chapel in the forum at Rome.
St. Gregory the Great
Bishop, Confessor & Doctor
St. Gregory the great
bishop, confessor & doctor
The future Pope and Doctor of the Church Gregory was born about the year 540. Italy was in a sorry state during his lifetime. When he was three years old the black plague swept through the country killing nearly a third of the population. The Lombards and the Franks were laying waste to the northern provinces and hundreds of thousands of refugees fled south drowning Rome and its surrounding areas in a tidal wave of human suffering it was ill equipped to manage. Even Rome itself was largely in ruins after several sackings in the last century. The secular leaders in Constantinople were focused on troubles on the Eastern borders and could do little to help the citizens in the West. It was this world and his actions to better it that would earn St. Gregory the title “Great”.
Like all young men of his high social standing Gregory was given a thorough secular education. He also came from a pious family. His great-great-grandfather was Pope St. Felix III and his mother, St. Silvia, with two of his aunts are also venerated as saints. He must have showed great administrative talent as he was the prefect of the city at the age of 33. However, he held no secular ambitions, and he would found the monastery of St. Andrew on his ancestral property to pursue a life of contemplation.
He was not to enjoy this life forever. Soon he was made a deacon and sent to Constantinople as the Papal representative with the goal of asking the Emperor to send aid against the Lombards. This proved unsuccessful, but he retained the post for almost a decade. He spoke little Greek, so much of his time was largely spent living the same contemplative life he’d lived in Rome. During this time many of the leading citizens of the city considered him their spiritual father. He produced several works during his stay, notably his commentary on Job. He also made so many suggestions to the structure of the prescantfied liturgy used in the Byzantine Rite during lent that it still bares his name. Finally he corrected some dangerous ideas common in the city about the resurrection, namely that we will not possess material bodies.
He returned to his monastery in Rome for a period of five years. In 590 he was proclaimed Pope by popular demand. While he made it clear that he prefered the monastic life, he accepted the burden placed on him and threw himself into pastoring the city. Around this time there was another outbreak of plague. St. Gregory organized several processions throughout the city which begged for God’s mercy. This mercy was granted and the plague stopped. Gregory also reorganized the way that the Church’s lands produced income. Instead of growing cash crops and using the income to support the Church in Rome, Gregory had them grow food which was distributed freely to the people of the city. He did much to help with the refugee crisis, finding employment and shelter for the people fleeing the Lombards. His clergy were expected not only to give to anyone who asked, but to actively seek out poor people who might be too proud to ask for help. Gregory himself would not eat until these clergymen returned in the evening and every night he had dinner with twelve of the city’s homeless people at his own table. He was also known to personally cook meals and send them as “gifts” to higher class men and women in need to spare them the embarrassment of accepting charity.
St. Gregory not only cared for the souls of his own city, but he also felt deeply the need to Christianize the pagan tribes of Northern Europe. He worked to bring many of the Arian Germans into the Catholic faith and famously sent St. Augustine with monks from his own monastery of St. Andrew’s to evangelize the Angles. He followed the advance of the Gospel in England with special interest and St. Bede would later remark that “if he is not an apostle to others yet at least he is to us.”
His life of prayer also left its permanent mark on the Church. In addition to the Byzantine presanctified Liturgy, the text of the Mass is largely credited to him (hence the commemoration of St. Andrew, patron of his monastery, after the Lord’s prayer). He compiled and wrote many of the Church’s antiphons. Plain Chant came into such widespread use through his efforts that it bares the name Gregorian Chant today. He produced many extant sermons and the famous Pastoral Rule, copies of which were to be given to Bishops at their consecrations for centuries. He fostered a healthy devotion to the saints and composed the lives of many holy men and women of Italy, notably St. Benedict. Many Lenten hymns and traditions, including Ash Wednesday, have also been attributed to him.
By the time he was 64 he had served as Pope for 13 years. His body was worn down from the ascetic labors of his monastic days and his constant pastoral activity. He had stomach problems. He also suffered from gout and arthritis. Still he never complained. He reposed in peace on March 12, 604. His was one of the fastest canonizations in history, with the laity of Italy immediately canonized him after his death by popular acclaim.