May 12: Saint Pancras, Martyr

Third Century
Optional Memorial; Liturgical Color: Red
Patron Saint of children, jobs, and health


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In the late 500s, Pope Saint Gregory the Great appointed monks to staff a small church in Rome, already almost three hundred years old, which was dedicated to Saint Pancras. In 597 the same Pope Gregory sent Saint Augustine of Canterbury on a missionary journey to England, and Augustine copied his Roman mentor and established a church in honor of Saint Pancras. About sixty years after Augustine, a different pope sent relics of Saint Pancras to England. This further spread devotion to this boy martyr, until a total of six ancient churches were dedicated to Saint Pancras in England alone, including the oldest church still used for Christian worship in that old country.

Little is known with certainty about the life of Saint Pancras, but the essential facts are sufficient cause for admiration. Pancras was an orphan who traveled to Rome from the east in the company of his uncle. The pair converted to Christianity and then died for that conversion during the reign of Diocletian. Pancras was perhaps fourteen years old when he traded his earthly life for a better one in heaven. He likely became well known owing to his rare combination of youth and heroic witness. Our martyr was buried near a major Roman road, and a modest basilica was constructed over his tomb. The shrine and its catacombs became a popular pilgrimage destination, partly due to its healing bath, which was famous for its curative powers.  The ravages of time and foreign armies degraded the shrine, but it was rebuilt several times over the centuries. In the seventeenth century, the Basilica of Saint Pancras was entrusted to the Discalced Carmelite Order, whose members still reside there today. Under the Basilica are extensive Roman catacombs, and a reliquary in the church contains the head of Saint Pancras. The rest of the saint’s relics were scattered to the four winds by anti-Catholic armies who occupied the church and despoiled many of its treasures.

Moments of great danger for the Church are also moments of great grace. In her long history, the Church has passed through, and continues to live, many such dangerous, grace-filled times. Saint Pancras’ times were precisely such. If he had stayed in his native land, he would likely have died of natural causes. But he went in search of something, perhaps wealth, fame, or family, in Rome, the big city, just as so many people search for the same in big cities today. But young Pancras found what he probably wasn’t looking for—God. And his decision to become a Christian, perhaps through the influence of a friend or priest or aunt, quickly took a very serious turn. He was threatened with death if he did not burn incense to a false god. The boy stood fast. Like other more famous young martyrs, such as Saint Agnes, the idealism of youth provoked both admiration and fury in his persecutors, and he was taken beyond the walls of Rome to be decapitated.

Our culture and its pressures are not from God. They are human constructs. But our Church, which is an object of faith, is from God. The friction caused by the collision of culture and church damages individuals, parishes, and governments. Sparks fly. Heat is generated. Objects melt. At times, wars ensue. Today’s martyr was an early victim to something far bigger than himself—the culture clash between a dying empire and a dawning religion. If he had gone to Rome just ten years later, Pancras would have lived in peace. Instead, Pancras and many others were executed, because they refused to bend to a leader who might die tomorrow in favor of a God who rose to life from a cold tomb.

Saint Pancras, you gave away your young life rather than offer worship to a false god. May your example inspire, and your intercession strengthen, all young people to put love of God above all else. Amen.

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