|7:00pm||- Deacon's Mass/Silent Prayer|
Those of us who live in the Washington area are accustomed to seeing careers rise and fall with changes in the political climate, and it is not surprising to us when someone who was in favor is suddenly sent packing with a change in administration. What we may find surprising is that some of the saints of the Church have experienced these same situations. One such saint was Mellitus of Canterbury, whom the Church honors on April 24.
We read of St. Mellitus in the pages of the chronicle of English Church history which St. Bede the Venerable wrote in 731. Bede tells us that the progress made by the first group of missionary monks sent by Pope Gregory to the Anglo-Saxons in Britain under the leadership of St. Augustine was so great that St. Gregory had to send additional help.
Mellitus was St. Gregory’s choice to lead a new group. He was an abbot, probably from the monastery dedicated to St. Andrew which Gregory had founded on his family estate in Rome. While Mellitus and the other monks were still en route to Britain, the pope wrote a letter describing a change in his directions for their missionary work. His earlier instructions had been to destroy all the pagan shrines and altars and then convince the people of the truth of Christianity. Gregory had now come to a wiser approach and directed the missionaries to leave the pagan buildings standing and to respect the cycle of festivals and celebrations which they were accustomed to. The monks should instead destroy only the idols and “baptize” the buildings and customs into the Christian Church. They should permit the people, for instance, to have a harvest festival but to render their thanks to God, the Creator of all life, instead of a pagan earth god or goddess. This more charitable and pastoral approach proved to be of much greater value in the conversion of people all over the world.
The newly-arrived monks were helpful in continuing the work begun by the first missionaries. In 604, Augustine consecrated Mellitus to serve as the bishop for the East Saxons, with London as the see city, and he consecrated Justus to be the bishop of the city of Rochester.
Archbishop Augustine died soon after the consecrations and was succeeded in office by Laurence, who also tried to exert his authority over the British and Irish who had accepted Christianity long before the Anglo-Saxons. In contrast with the steady progress in converting the Anglo-Saxons which the missionaries had experienced so far, conflicts arose with the British Christians, primarily over the date for the celebration of Easter. The age-old animosity between these races of people could not be overcome by their common religion when the practices of that religion were very different.
Then, in 616, King Ethelbert, who from the beginning of this endeavor had protected and zealously supported the missionaries, died. His son and successor, Eadbald, had never accepted Christianity and he immediately changed the climate for the practice of the faith. He began by taking his father’s wife for himself and effected a return to pagan practices by the people.
Soon Saeberhrt, Ethelbert’s nephew who had served as the local ruler over the East Saxons, also died, leaving three pagan sons to take control of his territory. These sons made life extremely difficult for Bishop Mellitus and his monks. On one occasion, they came into the church when the bishop was celebrating the Divine Liturgy and demanded the he give them the “white bread” he was giving to the faithful who were in attendance. The bishop told them that they could receive the bread only if they would be cleansed in the font of baptism as their father had done. They refused, expressing no need for such a thing, and they expelled the bishop from the kingdom.
What a sad turn of events in the life of the Church! Mellitus consulted with Archbishop Laurence and Bishop Justus and they mutually agreed that they should all go to Gaul to await more favorable times for the Anglo-Saxon mission.
But God’s plan did not allow the holy bishops to give up on these people. Mellitus and Justus went to Gaul, but Laurence, preparing to join them, had a dream in which St. Peter appeared to him, scolded him harshly for attempting to leave his flock to the wolves, and flogged him severely. In the morning, with the marks of this supernatural flogging clearly visible on his back, the bishop went to King Eadbald. He told him of the dream and said that St. Peter’s actions were done out of concern for the king’s salvation. Much moved by this event, King Eadbald had a change of heart. He gave up his unlawful wife, received instruction and was baptized, promising to allow the missionaries to continue their work among the people.
Laurence sent for bishops Mellitus and Justus to return from exile and, when it was apparent that the East Saxons were still not ready to return to the fold of the Church, Bishop Mellitus assisted Laurence in Canterbury. When Archbishop Laurence fell asleep in the Lord in 619, Mellitus was elevated to follow in his place as Archbishop of Canterbury.
Despite suffering the infirmities caused by gout, Archbishop Mellitus’ care for the Anglo-Saxon people extended beyond concern for the condition of their souls to temporal matters as well. At times, he exhibited miraculous powers in coming to the aid of his people. On one occasion, Canterbury was ablaze with a fire which had been carelessly set. Seeing the people in danger and unable to put the fire out with water, the bishop asked to be carried into the midst of the flames. Standing before the Church of the Four Crowned Martyrs, with the fiery blaze all around, the archbishop prayed fervently that God would save the people and the city. Very soon, the direction of the wind changed and then it became calm and the flames died away. God had heard the prayers of his faithful servant, Mellitus.
St. Mellitus reached the end of his earthly pilgrimage on April 24 in the year 624 and was buried in the Church of St. Peter in Canterbury near his predecessors, Augustine and Laurence. Thirty years later, the people of London, who had expelled St. Mellitus many years before, returned to the Christian faith, and eventually the whole island of Britain was converted, fulfilling the work begun by the missionaries which Pope St. Gregory had sent out in 592.
We give thanks to God for the perseverance of St. Mellitus who, despite changing circumstances and even exile, was faithful to the task before him. We give thanks that, due to his efforts and that of his companion missionaries, Christianity was brought to the English people. May he intercede for us as we continue to preach Christianity to English-speaking people.
There are few post-apostolic saints who have had the renown of the Holy and Great Martyr George. He is called saint not only because he gave up his life rather than renounce his Lord, but also because of the holiness of his life and the miracles associated with his relics and through his intercession since his martyrdom.
St. George has provided inspiration for great works of art (icons, paintings, sculpture); he is considered the patron of countries (England, Portugal), cities (Venice, Genoa), Archdioceses (ours), soldiers, and many other institutions and peoples; there are churches dedicated to him (from Constantinople and Rome to 16th Street in Washington, D.C.) throughout the world; and there are ancient manuscripts of writings of his deeds and miracles in Greek, Latin, Armenian, Coptic, Syrian, Ethiopian, and Turkish. He was numbered in St. Jerome’s (341-420) list of martyrs, as well as that of St. Bede (673-735), and was included in the Sacramentary begun in the 6th century by St. Gregory the Great. By what great heroism and acts of devotion did St. George reach such fame?
Born in Cappadocia of Christian parents, George had been brought up in the faith and learned at an early age the cost of faithfulness to Christ when his father was martyred for his beliefs. George and his Palestinian mother went to her homeland where she owned property. When he reached a sufficient age, George entered the army and there distinguished himself for his bravery and physical strength, attaining the great honor of being named Trophy-Bearer by the Emperor, Diocletian. Although Diocletian had declared himself divine, he had thus far allowed the Christians in the empire to live in peace. However, in the year 303, he issued the first of several edicts (directed first at the clergy and later the laity) against Christians who refused to pay homage to him and renounce their God.
The saint did not wait to have his Christian allegiance discovered and challenged. He first divided his considerable wealth among the poor and released all but one of his servants – and this one he asked to stay with him until his death so that he could provide him with a proper burial. George then bravely appeared before Diocletian and confessed his great faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. Astonished by this revelation, the Emperor tried to dismiss George’s attitude as youthful impertinence and to persuade him to offer sacrifice to the pagan gods. When the young soldier refused, he was carried off to prison and there began a series of tortures meant to break him of his resolve.
Each successively more extreme method of torture to St. George’s body only served to strengthen his soul, and his endurance confounded his enemies. The Emperor, assisted by his counselor, Magnentius, and his chief magician, Athanasius, devised more trials for George and tests to pit the One True God against the pagan gods of the empire. Many who witnessed these things, and those who talked with George in prison, were converted to the Christian faith, as was Diocletian’s wife, Alexandra. When the Empress confessed her faith before a large crowd of people, Diocletian’s rage could no longer be contained and he immediately ordered the death penalty for both the soldier and the queen. Alexandra died on the way to her execution and George was beheaded on April 23, 304.
Of the numerous miracles associated with St. George and with churches dedicated to him, there are many which involve the return of kidnaped children to their parents. There are also many stories of conversion of pagans through miracles attributed to St. George. Although legends of St. George killing a dragon and rescuing a princess were popular in the Middle Ages, the dragon which appears in icons of the saint really represents evil and George’s triumph over it. May the intercession of the holy George and his example of unwavering faith aid us on our journey toward sanctification.
The conversion of Eastern Europe toward the end of the first Christian millennium is a story of many different elements vying with one another for prominence in the history of this area. While the work of such missionaries as St. Boniface and Ss. Cyril and Methodius had brought the Christian faith to the Germanic and Moravian peoples in the 9th century, paganism was still very much alive among others in the next century, making for uneasy relations between neighboring territories. Ancient ethnic rivalries stood in the way of peace. Some of those lands which had become at least nominally Christian struggled with the relationship between the authority of the Church and that of the civil rulers. Although the Latin and Slavic languages co-existed in liturgical usage, the Byzantine Empire in the East and the Holy Roman Empire in the West competed for influence in this area, both politically and ecclesiastically. In the midst of these struggles was St. Adalbert of Prague, whose memory we celebrate on April 23.
Adalbert – called Vojtĕch by his family – was born around 956 to a Christian Czech prince and his Bohemian wife. After their son survived a serious illness in childhood, his parents dedicated him for service in the Church and to this end, sent him to Magdeburg to study with (St.) Adalbert, a monk and archbishop with missionary zeal. Vojtĕch took the name of his mentor. When the elder Adalbert died in 981, the younger man returned to Prague where he was ordained to the priesthood by the bishop, Dietmar. A year later, when Bishop Dietmar died, Fr. Adalbert was chosen as his successor despite his being under the canonical age requirement.
The people of Prague expected to continue their practice of Christianity in name only. They expected that a young bishop from a wealthy family would fit in very well but Bishop Adalbert disappointed them. At his consecration, he remarked that it would be easy to wear the mitre and the crown but quite another thing to answer to the Judge of the living and the dead for his care of his people. The bishop led an austere life, giving a portion of the diocese’s income and much of his personal wealth to the poor; he opposed Christians who participated in the slave trade and who practiced polygamy; he visited those in prison and worked for their release.
Bishop Adalbert spent six years trying to establish true Christianity among the Bohemian people, but made little progress. When his family refused to participate in a war with the Polish people, the bishop was no longer welcome so he left Prague. In 990 he traveled to Rome, where he lived as a hermit in the Benedictine Monastery of St. Alexis
Boleslaus, the ruling Duke in Prague, did not give up in seeking the support of Adalbert’s family for his political ambitions and so, in 995, he wrote to Pope John XV and requested that the bishop be returned. The pope agreed, with the understanding that Adalbert could leave again if he felt it necessary. Upon his return, Bishop Adalbert established the first monastery in Czech territory. But his time in Prague was very short-lived as war again broke out between rival factions and his brothers were killed in the fighting. In the midst of this turmoil, a woman accused of adultery sought sanctuary in a monastery and the bishop upheld her right to do this. After her accusers broke into the monastery and murdered her, Bishop Adalbert excommunicated them. Once again, it was not safe for him to remain in Prague so he returned to Rome.
The man who was appointed to be the successor to Bishop Adalbert in Prague, Strachkvas, died unexpectedly and mysteriously during his Consecration Mass and the Pope ordered Adalbert to return to Prague. This time, Adalbert successfully begged to become a missionary instead and so went into Hungary, where he baptized Grand Prince Géza and his son, Stephen (later St. Stephen of Hungary). Further missionary efforts took him into Poland where he was made bishop of Gniezno. Bishop Adalbert desired to preach the Christian faith to the Prussian people, who were enemies of the Poles, so the duke of Poland sent soldiers with the bishop for his protection. This no doubt contributed to the hostility with which the missionary was received. Although many of the people were receptive to his preaching, the pagan priests strongly objected to his presence.
St. Adalbert was murdered by stabbing on April 23, 997. He was decapitated and his head displayed on a pole. Duke Boleslaus of Poland ransomed his body for its weight in gold and it was sent back to Gniezno, where a shrine for his relics was built. Later, Prague also received relics of the saint and another shrine was built. Within three or four years of his martyrdom, Adalbert was declared a saint and several “lives” were written by monks and bishops who had known him. In the centuries since, he became known as the patron saint of Bohemia, Poland, Hungary and Prussia. In 1997, the one thousandth anniversary of his martyrdom was celebrated by the Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant churches of Poland, the Czech Republic, Germany and Russia.
Are the times we live in any less tumultuous than those which St. Adalbert experienced? Do not some of the same struggles between Church and State and Christian and non-Christian still exist?
Are there not still tensions between East and West in our world? May St. Adalbert intercede for us that we may remain steadfast in the Faith against opposition, that we may share his missionary zeal, and that we may be prepared even to suffer martyrdom. Holy Adalbert, pray for us.
Sources; Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs and Other Saints by Rev. Alban Butler; Greek East and Latin West (Vol. II of the Church in History) by Andrew Louth; online Wikipedia article.