Monday, April 13, 2009

Easter Martyr: St Hermenegild

On the 13th of April 585, after refusing to receive the Easter Communion at the hands of an Arian bishop, the heir to the throne of Spain was murdered on the orders of his father, the King.

It is a classic tale of family feuding, and as in any whodunnit, cherchez la femme!  In this case, there were two ladies involved: the prince's evil step-mother, the unlovely Goiswintha, fomented King Leovigild's anger; the prince's saintly wife, Ingund (or Ingunthis) - daughter of the Frankish King Sisebert I of Austrasia - was a stedfast Catholic despite the attempted suasions of her step-mother-in-law: and she, together with St Leander, Bishop of Seville (whose brother, St Isidore, later succeeded to that same see), had wrought her husband's conversion from the Arian heresy.  For these were the days of Visigothic Spain, when a Teutonic military aristocracy ruled the Romanized Spanish; and the Visigoths, prior to their irruption into the rich provinces of the Roman Empire, had been converted by Arian missionaries, not Catholics.

St Hermenegild's younger brother, Reccared (like him, a child of the King's first wife, Theodosia, who had died), had attempted to reconcile father and son during their previous feuds; but now it was too late.  Hermenegild, reconciled instead to thoughts of winning through to heaven, bowed his neck to the sword. Being slain rather than deny the Faith by sacrilegiously communing with a heretic, he won the crown of the everlasting kingdom, and reigns with Christ evermore.

(Hermenegild, spurning the promise of an earthly crown, triumphantly wins the crown of martyrdom, to the joy of the angels; his father laments, and the Arian bishop cowers away.)

From the truth thy soul to turn,
Pleads a father's voice in vain;
Naught to thee were jewelled crown, 
Earthly pleasure, earthly gain. 

Angry threat and naked sword 
Daunted not thy courage high; 
Choosing glory with the Lord, 
Rather than a present joy. 

Now amidst the Saints in light,
Throned in bliss forevermore; — 
Oh! from thy exalted height, 
Hear the solemn prayer we pour. 

Honor, glory, majesty, 
To the Father and the Son, 
With the Holy Spirit be, 
While eternal ages run. Amen.

(Hymn at Lauds, Nullis te genitor, by Pope Urban VIII.)

King Leovigild died the next year; Hermenegild's younger brother, Reccared, who succeeded as King of Spain, himself became a Catholic in 587, and by May of 589, at the Fourth Council of Toledo, the whole Visigothic nation abjured Arianism, and the great St Leander of Seville preached a famous sermon on "the triumph of the Church at the Conversion of the Goths".  Amazingly, even the Arian clergy converted, and were confirmed in their ministries!  All this, it is piously believed, was obtained by the celestial intercession of the royal martyr, whose glorious merits and suffrages won sweet grace from God.  Truly, Hermenegild was an immense treasure (Ermen Gild), for whose life the Lord paid a rich wergild: the gift of Faith to a whole people.

Pope St Gregory the Great, who was a friend of St Leander, having known him during his exile from Spain prior to his return in triumph, sings the praises of St Hermenegild in his Dialogues (III, 31).  It has been argued that the prince, having rebelled against his father, was no worthy martyr; but as St Gregory of Tours states, whatever his sins, they were blotted out by his suffering and martyrdom, whereas, if he had but accepted the Arian bishop's offer of Holy Communion, he would have been restored to his princely estate and reconciled to the King, yet at the price of abandoning the Catholic Faith: this he would not abandon, as the pearl of great price, and it was for this that he died a true martyr.

As for the martyr's widow and infant son, they had taken refuge in the Byzantine Empire, where they prospered; and his great-grandson returned to Spain to reign as King Erwig (680-687).

Deus, qui beatum Hermenegildum Martyrem tuum, cælesti regno terrenum postponere docuisti: da, quæsumus, nobis; ejus exemplo caduca despicere, atque æterna sectari.  Per...

(God, Who didst teach blessed Hermenegild Thy Martyr to esteem earthly things less than the heavenly kingdom: grant, we beg, unto us, that by his example we may despise things perishable and rather seek after things eternal.  Through...)

[BTW, caducus is a great word: tottering, falling, fallen, frail, vain, perishable...]

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