If you were asked off the top of your head to name five saints of the Catholic Church, who would come to mind? St. Therese of Lisieux, St. Padre Pio, or St. Francis of Assisi? Perhaps St. John Paul II or Mother Teresa? But what about St. Euphemia or St Paphnutius? Surely St. Iphigenia made it somewhere on the list?
If these latter names don’t ring any Church bells for you, this new column may be right for you. It’s no secret that we have “saint celebrities.” If you’ve lost an item, you think to pray to St. Anthony, not St. Abundantius. If you want help in discernment, you probably prefer St. Therese’s roses to St. Rosalia’s. But what about these other saints? Don’t they have something to teach us, to inspire us with, to remind us?
This new column, “Sancti Obscuri,” will look at different saints who, for one reason or another, have become obscure to the modern Catholic imagination. The posts won’t be exhaustive, considering how historical obscurity tends to coincide with a paucity of source material. But if these forgotten men and women have received the crown of sainthood, then they have a story worth hearing. (They know something of Thomas Jefferson’s exasperation in this old “Simpsons” episode, “Mr. Lisa Goes to Washington.”)
Our first “sanctus obscurus,” St. Porphyrius, shares a feast day with Our Lady of Sorrows on September 15. In his life, however, he would not have known what to do with a celebration of a “Lady of Sorrows.” By profession, he was a comedian, a mimic, a famous jester. He was a prevailing voice of the remnant of paganism in the post-Constantine Roman Empire, offering to those who hadn’t accepted Christianity a sufficient mockery of its tenets. People expected comedy and corruption from him, certainly not conversion. Yet, as we will see, he was a man who, within a day, went from mimicry to martyrdom, profanation to profession. Before we tell his story, some background is in line.
His story begins best with the story of Julian the Apostate, who, given the spoiler alert in his name, didn’t care for Christianity very much. In the years following the death of Constantine the Great in 337AD, a barrage of complicated politics had plagued the leadership of the vast Roman Empire. Fast forward a couple of decades, and in 361AD one “Flavius Claudius Julianus,” a nephew of Constantine, arose as sole emperor. His reign was to be short (only 20 months), but not without activity.
Although Christianity for almost 50 years had enjoyed political freedom and support from the emperor, the rule of Julian loomed as a serious threat. Though he was a Christian for the first 20 years of his life, he came to reject the Lord and choose instead the “way of Helios” (see his Letter 47). Julian the Apostate envisioned a return to the Roman paganism of old, a religious atmosphere marked by highly syncretistic polytheism, unified, as it were, under the banner of being ‘not Christian.’
When Julian heard of the fame of Porphyrius the Mimic whose specialty was mocking Christians, he had him brought in to entertain the royal court. Everything was set up for a successful show. The audience was eager to be entertained at Christianity’s expense, and Porphyrius had put together a special play; he was going to mock the Mystery of Baptism.
The show was a riot, eliciting raucous laughter to be sure. Things seemed to be lining up perfectly. The climax of the action involved a mock-baptism scene with fake clergy dressed in liturgical garb immersing the “catechumen,” Porphyrius, into some water.
He ceremoniously pronounced that he would now be a follower of Jesus Christ, “in the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” before being immersed. But something happened when Porphyrius entered the water. Submerged in that moment, Porphyrius felt the summons of actual grace, a call to serious conversion. Coming out of the water, he announced his decision to all present that he wished to be a Christian and would no longer mock the Living God. But, while he had his metanoia, the emperor was simply annoyed. The Roman Martyrology sums up best what happened next:
“Forthwith, by order of the emperor, he was struck with an axe, and thus crowned with martyrdom.”
Struck with the extraordinary work of divine grace, he managed to get struck also by the work of human anger. Having given over his heart to Jesus, he gave his head to the emperor. Thus is the story of the great Martyr Porphyrius. Once a jester before secular courts, he was to become a martyr in the heavenly courts.
As for Julian the Apostate, his hopes for a revival of Roman paganism would not find widespread success. In 363AD, following Julian’s military death, Emperor Jovian took the emperor’s throne and restored the faith of the Roman Empire to Christianity.
Suppose St. Porphyrius hadn’t slipped into obscurity in modern spirituality. Comedians and performers would have a ready patron, and the whole Church would have a better sense of God’s poetic justice. As it is, let us at least take the lesson to have sincere reverence for the truth and all holy things even when it puts us in rather difficult situations. Don’t forget to invoke his intercession every September 15!
May St. Porphyrius pray for us, and teach us true reverence for the Lord!