Saturday, November 24, 2012

Saint Mercurius of Caesarea

The Martyr soldiers are a special category of saints in the Christian Tradition of the first centuries. Together with the more famous St. George, St. Demetrius or St. Theodor Stratilates, Saint Mercurius is considered as being a model of a Roman soldier who became a soldier of Christ against the polytheism.

The life of Saint Mercurius
There are many accounts about the life of Saint Mercurius, from which there may be mentioned the Saint Mercurius’ Passion under Decius, a Greek text to be found in the vitae collection of the bollandist Hippolyte Delehaye, under the number BHG (Bibliotheca Hagiographica Graeca) 1274. A short version of his Passions is attributed to Acacius of Caesarea, who wrote a Panegyric about in the 4th century. To these it may be added the Coptic tradition about the early life of the saint. This variant starts as follows:  St. Mercurius was born in 225 in a pagan military family from Eskentos (Cappadocia, Asia Minor), his original name, Philopater meaning „lover of the Father”.  His father was a Scythian officer in the Roman army, named Yares, or, after another sources, Gordian. The conversion of the family happened after his father was miraculously saved from death, during a campaign of hunting, by an angel of the Lord. All of them were baptized and reached the names of Noah (formerly, Gordian), Saphina (his mother), respectively Mercurius (former, Philopater). Their life continued after the Christian teachings.
Later Mercurius replaced his father in the military position, apparently being 20 years old, joining the Roman army and gaining a reputation as a great swordsman and tactician, fighting in Armenia in the cohort of Martenses (of Mars, the ancient Roman god of the war), under the command of Saturninus.
The Greek Passion starts with the moment when, apparently not being anymore in Cappadocia, but near Rome, Mercurius participated to a fight against some barbarians who attacked the capital city, together with Emperor Decius (249-251). After several days of fighting, the Archangel Michael appeared to Mercurius holding a shining sword, and telling him: „Mercurius, servant of Jesus Christ, don't be afraid. Take this sword from my hand and fight the barbarian with it. Don't forget your God when you come back victoriously. I am Michael the Archangel, whom God sent to inform you that you should suffer for the Lord's name. I shall be with you and support you until you complete your testimony. The name of our Lord Jesus Christ will be glorified in you”. There must be mentioned that Mercurius didn’t understand at the moment who was the person who helped him. An extended text of the Passion, used in the Orthodox synaxaries attests that Mercurius was scared and thought that the person may be one of the noblemen from Rome.  The saint took the sword from the archangel and fought against the barbarians in such a manner that killed many of them.  Because of bearing two swords, one of his own and another one received from St. Michael, Mercurius bears in the Arabic world the name Abi-Seifein - "the holder [literally, father] of two swords”.
 When Decius heard the news about the triumphant victory, he appointed Mercurius as general and let the soldiers to take a breath into the city. In the same night, the angel woke him up and told him who he was. He also prophesized about his martyrical future: „See, do not forget the Lord your God. For you must compete in the customary manner on his behalf and gain the crown of victory in the heavenly kingdom together with all the saints”. In that moment Mercurius remembered about the God of his father and the way his father used to pray, and promised to confess the Lord in front of all.
In the second day, Decius wanted to thank to his gods for the victory and sent someone to call Mercurius to a council. The council decided to make a sacrifice at the temple of Artemis, but Mercurius was absent, invoicing illness. In the day of the sacrifice, Mercurius slipped into the crowd and avoided once to sacrifice. Anyway he couldn’t avoid the next meeting with the emperor who claimed to have heared some informations that he doesn’t want to sacrifice. At that moment, Mercurius confessed who was the real helper in the war, namely the only God, Jesus Christ, and told to all of them, that he was a Christian. Because of that he was degraded from his military position and dishonored.
Decius sent him into the prison until the moment of the punishment, but here Mercurius was once more encouraged by an angel. According to this Greek Passion, Mercurius told the emperor that his father’s name was a Scythian called Gordianus, and that his real name is Philopater. He received the name of Mercurius only after the tribune in the army called him like that.  He said that he is not afraid for torture, because he has “the breastplate and shield of faith through which I will conquer every scheme wrought against me”. Because of these words, Decius decided to benailed by his arms and legs over a fire, but his blood extinguished the fire and, back in prison, he was miraculously healed by an angel and further encouraged. In the next day, seeing him healthy, Decius accused him of witchcraft and ordered to his soldiers to hang Mercurius upside down with a stone along his neck. He was beaten with fourply cords and burnt with a red-hot iron. Finally Decius ordered that Mercurius must die by beheading in his land (Cappadocia) as an example to others. In Cappadocia the Lord Himself appeared to him and called him to the eternal resting, giving to him the crown of the martyrdom. He was beheaded on November 25. In Acta Sanctorum of November (which published the version of Synaxarium Ecclesiae Constantinopolitanae) there is described that he was 25 years old, (ετών κε), with lofty stature (ευήλιξ), handsome (ωραίος), rosy face (τω είδει ροδινός), blondhaired (τη οράσει ξανθόκομος). But he preferred to sacrifice himself for Christ.
St. Mercurius and St. Demetrius
Fresco at Gurasada, Romania
Then, after he was blessed, Mercurius was so happy that he ran to his executioners, begging them to carry out the king's orders immediately. Then he knelt down and said, "Lord, do not count this sin against them." Mercurius was beheaded on 4 December 250. 

The veneration of St. Mercurius and his Relics
The relics of the saint supposedly remained in Cappadocia, in a church. But the cult of the saint started to increase rapidly in Egypt, where there are many churches dedicated to him, including the one in Qasr al-Sham in Old Cairo, dating from the 6th century.
An Armenian Catholicos visited Egypt during the patriarchate of Jon XIII (1484-1524) and brought part of the relics of Saint Mercurius, in order to be placed in the church already mentioned. This moment is celebrated in the Coptic calendar on 9 Baounah (16 June). Some other relics are spread in other churches, such as Monte Vergine in Campania and church of San Mercurio a Serracapriola, near Foggia, both in Italy. Another relic is reported to be hosted in the monastery of Vatopedi and also in about 10 other monasteries in Athos and the same number in Greece. According to the tradition, the relic of the head of St. Mercurius is in the Cathedral in Râmnicu Vâlcea (Romania) since 1767. Another relic may be found in the monastery of Horezu, about 100 km near Râmnicu Vâlcea and in the Church of St. Mercurius in Bucharest. The Egyptian Church possesses many small pieces of his relics in many temples  especially in Cairo, Giza and Alexandria> such as the St. Mercurius church in Old Cairo, also in the Coptic church in Frankfurt and in the Coptic monastery of Kröffelbach, both in  Germany.
St. Mercurius killing Julian the Apostate.
Coptic variant
The miracles with his body started directly after his death. He became white like a snow and emitted a sweet smell of myrrh and incense. He was buried in the place where he died and the later vitae attest a lot of miracles about him. From these, we will mention a story from The Life of Basil by Amphilochius of Iconium (9th century, Bibliotheca Hagiographica Graeca 247) and from the Chronicle of John Malalals (5th century). St. Basil of Caesarea was praying about 100 years later for the Christians to be protected from the hands of the pagan emperor Julian the Apostate (361-363). He had two icons towards him, namely one of the Virgin Mary and another of St. Mercurius.  At that time Julian was engaged into a war against the Persians. In the very moment of the prayer, the spear of St. Mercurius appeared as blooded, and there is reported that Julian died in the very moment, being killed by an unknown soldier with a spear. Anyway the story differs from the official one, according to which Julian died because of an arrow. The story is depicted especially in the Coptic icons of the saint, where he appears with his two swords and killing with a spear the emperor Julian, during St. Basil, in the background, is praying.
St. Mercurius killing Julian the apostate.
Greek variant
According to two Syriac sources, The Romance of Julian the Apostate and The Life of Eusebius of Samosata (Bibliotheca Hagiographica Orientalis 294), the executioner of Julian was Mar Qurus, one of the forty martyrs of Sebaste. This identification made some researches to think that the story of St. Mercurius under Decius may be apocryphal.
St. Mercurius is celebrated in the Western Church on 11 November, and in the Eastern on 24 November (7 December, after the Gregorian calendar), which corresponds in the Coptic Calendar with 25 Hathor (4 December). Additionally the Coptic Church celebrates him on 9 Baounah (16 June), the date of moving of the relics and on 25 Abib  (1 August) when celebrates the commemoration of the consecration of the first church named after the great St. Mercurius Abi  Saifain.  There is also to be mentioned that in the eve of his commemoration of 9 Baounah (that being 15. June) 2007, there were registered about one million pilgrims at the Coptic Monastery Abi Seifein in Cairo.
Relics of the Saint at Horezu, Romania
Troparion (hymn) of the saint
Your holy martyr Mercurius, O Lord, through his sufferings has received an incorruptible crown from you, our God. For having your strength, he laid low his adversaries and shattered the powerless boldness of demons. Through his intercessions, save our souls!


  1. a very great saint, a model for our times

  2. Yes he's a great and wonderful martyr

  3. I wanted to see the relics of this Head found in Vatopedi monastery in Mt Athos. I want to kiss his head and bow before it.