Sunday, April 23, 2017

Saint George's Day

Today, Saint George’s Day, is the Pope’s Onomastico (Name Day). Name days still have a certain resonance in Catholic countries and cultures, and in the Vatican itself the papal Onomastico is annually observed as a legal holiday.

All we know for certain about Saint George himself is that he was martyred in the East at the beginning of the 4th century. He was widely venerated in both East and West long before tradition turned the onetime Roman soldier into a medieval knight. In Rome itself, the second Lenten station - the day after Ash Wednesday - is at the ancient Church of San Giorgio in Velabro, which I have written about before. It is one of those wonderful old Roman churches that I would likely never have gotten to see the inside of, were it not for the venerable Roman tradition of the Lenten stations.

(Saint George is famously the patron saint of England, whose flag is the red cross of St George on a white field. It is thus one component of the UK's "Union Flag" - the combined crosses of Saints George, Andrew, and Patrick. In that form, St George's cross continues to appear on a number of flags throughout the Commonwealth, and on its own the red-on-white cross of Saint George also appears above the shield in Ontario's Provincial flag.)

Saint Peter Damian (1007-1072), praised Saint George as a man who abandoned one army for another, who gave up the rank of tribune to enlist as a soldier for Christ, and who plunged into the thick of the battle, an ardent soldier for Christ.

Medieval tradition portrayed Saint George as a gallant knight who slayed a monstrous dragon. According to Jacobus de Voragine’s famous 13th-century compendium The Golden Legend, George encountered the dragon in Silena in Libya. For some time the dragon had terrorized the town with its poisonous breath. To appease it, the townspeople had sacrificed first their sheep, then their children, and were on the verge of sacrificing the King’s daughter, when George appeared on the scene. George captured the dragon and promised the terrified citizens that he would slay it if they accepted Christ and received Baptism. Unsurprisingly, the king and all the people did so, and George indeed slew the dragon. Before leaving he instructed the king to care for the Church, to honor the priests, to assist devoutly at the Divine Office, and to keep the poor in mind always.

In the Book of Revelation, the Dragon is, of course, the classic image of the Evil One, Satan, the Devil, against whom, as Pope Francis himself has so frequently reminded us, the Christian life is a continuous battle.  

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