Memorial; Liturgical Color: Red
There are a few famous saints who bear the name Vincent. Today’s saint is the first Vincent. He was a deacon from the Roman town of Zaragoza, Spain. Zaragoza also hosts a famous shrine to Our Lady of the Pilar based on an appearance of the Virgin Mary there so ancient that it is more precisely described as a bilocation. St. Vincent certainly knew of this devotion in his own town. Though an early saint, then, he came from a city that, even in 300, already could brag of a mature Christian tradition.
As with so many martyrs whose names are known to us, St. Vincent died in the persecution of Diocletian, the last gasps of a dying paganism. St. Vincent and his Bishop were imprisoned around the year 303 and taken in chains to the city of Valencia on the Spanish coast. The Bishop was exiled but Vincent was subjected to such cruel and varied tortures that he died of his wounds. Tradition says that the faithful came to his cell during his sufferings seeking relics, dipping cloths into his bloody wounds.
Although pious oral traditions led mediaeval authors to embroider some of the details of the Church’s early saints and martyrs, the core facts of these narratives always have support. In St. Vincent’s case, no less an authority than St. Augustine himself gave homilies on St. Vincent which have been preserved. And St. Augustine states in these homilies that as he is speaking he has the official acts recounting Vincent’s martyrdom right in front of him. That anecdote is a wonderful proof of how widespread devotion to St. Vincent was in the early Church, even far from where he died.
Ordained deacons disappeared from the life of the church for many centuries, only to be reintroduced in the decades after the Second Vatican Council. Yet deacons’ key roles role in preaching, serving the poor, evangelizing, and acting as delegates of their bishops is clear from the Acts of the Apostles and St. Paul’s letters. As early as the second century after Christ the three Orders constituting the Sacrament of Holy Orders were already clearly identified and theologically developed, especially in the letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch. St. Ignatius saw each Order as participating, in a different way, in the one priesthood of the High Priest Jesus Christ.
It must be remembered that St. Vincent was a Deacon and was imprisoned along with the Bishop who ordained him. He must have understood the harmony and interdependence that God intended to exist among Deacons, Priests, and Bishops. This emphasis on Sacramental Orders underlines the fact that although early Christians may may have experienced more astounding gifts of the Holy Spirit than later Christians, it was still a living connection to an Apostle, not a personal charism, that authenticated and guaranteed one’s participation in the true body of Christ. Gifts were personal and private. They came and went. They could not be verified or even shared. But each Bishop was linked to an apostolic see, and bishops publicly ordained priests and deacons to share the duty to teach, govern, and sanctify the baptized. And there was nothing private about any of that. Early Christianity was not a haphazard grouping of people who loved Jesus. It received a hierarchical structure from Christ himself and immediately perpetuated, and built upon, Jewish forms of religious community life. The Church’s hierarchical community life continues today. St. Vincent undoubtedly saw his ordination as a form of service, not power. He was undoubtedly a man of great importance to his Bishop. He likely gave generous witness to the Faith before he offered up his earthly life for a richer life beyond the grave.
St. Vincent, help all who serve, especially deacons, to know, love, and serve God with all their heart, soul and mind. Few people will be called to be tortured for the faith as you were, but suffering may come in more subtle, non physical ways. Help us all to persevere in the face of whoever and whatever persecutes us, that such challenges will help us deepen our trust in God.
From Butler’s Lives of the Saints:
VINCENT was archdeacon of the church at Saragossa. Valerian, the bishop, had an impediment in his speech; thus Vincent preached in his stead, and answered in his name when both were brought before Dacian, the president, during the persecution of Diocletian. When the bishop was sent into banishment, Vincent remained to suffer and to die. First of all, he was stretched on the rack; and, when he was almost torn asunder, Dacian, the president, asked him in mockery “how he fared now.” Vincent answered, with joy in his face, that he had ever prayed to be as he was then. It was in vain that Dacian struck the executioners and goaded them on in their savage work. The martyr’s flesh was torn with hooks; he was bound in a chair of red-hot iron; lard and salt were rubbed into his wounds; and amid all this he kept his eyes raised to heaven, and remained unmoved. He was cast into a solitary dungeon, with his feet in the stocks; but the angels of Christ illuminated the darkness, and assured Vincent that he was near his triumph. His wounds were now tended to prepare him for fresh torments, and the faithful were permitted to gaze on his mangled body. They came in troops, kissed the open sores, and carried away as relics cloths dipped in his blood. Before the tortures could recommence, the martyr’s hour came, and he breathed forth his soul in peace.
Even the dead bodies of the saints are precious in the sight of God, and the hand of iniquity cannot touch them, A raven guarded the body of Vincent where it lay flung upon the earth. When it was sunk out at sea the waves cast it ashore; and his relics are preserved to this day in the Augustinian monastery at Lisbon, for the consolation of the Church of Christ.
Reflection.—Do you wish to be at peace amidst suffering and temptation? Then make it your principal endeavor to grow in habits of prayer and in union with Christ. Have confidence in Him. He will make you victorious over your spiritual enemies and over yourself. He will enlighten your darkness and sweeten your sufferings, and in your solitude and desolation He will draw nigh to you with His holy angels.
Lives of the Saints, by Alban Butler, Benziger Bros. ed.