Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Hail, Gorgonius of Rome, martyr

Arm reliquary of St. Gorgonius of Nicomedia, Minden Cathedral

Gorgonius is not a popular name for boys these days, at least not in my neighborhood, but back in the third century AD Gorgonius must have been as popular as Jackson, Aidan and Liam (the top 3 baby names for boys in 2013) because six martyrs named Gorgonius are venerated by the church.

There is some confusion about which Gorgonius was which.  In the old calendar, today was the feast of St. Gorgonius of Rome, about whom very little is known for sure.  The Jerome Martyrology, attributed to St. Jerome but actually the work of Gallic monks in the fifth and sixth centuries, tells us that Gorgonius was buried between two laurel trees on the Via Labicana near Rome.  Other than that, all we have is this not very specific and poorly written epigram of Pope Damasus I (reigned 366 AD - 384 AD):

This martyr's tomb beneath a great hilltop holds Gorgonius, guardian of the altars of Christ. Whoever comes to seek here the thresholds of the saints will find that in the nearby dwelling abide the blessed whom likewise, as they went, piety bore to heaven.

St. Gorgonius of Rome is often mixed up with St. Gorgonius of Nicomedia, which is understandable, since the Nicomedian Gorgonius has a much more interesting story.  According to the most blood-curdling version, one day, after making the usual sacrifice of animals to the gods, the emperor Diocletian's haruspices (priests and entrail diviners) attempted to divine the future by examining the sacrificed animals' entrails, as they usually did, since it was their job.   For some reason, on this occasion, the haruspices failed.  This displeased Diocletian, which put the haruspices in a tough spot, so, thinking fast, they blamed the Christians in Diocletian's household.  Diocletian followed the old religion, and considered Christians troublemakers, so it made sense to him that Christians were to blame for his haruspices' problems.  Diocletian immediately ordered everyone in his court to perform a sacrifice to the gods, knowing this would expose the Christians, since they would have to refuse.

The first Christian to be identified in this way was Peter, the emperor's major domo.  Diocletian ordered Peter to be stripped, hung upside down and whipped until the flesh came off his bones.  Salt and vinegar were then rubbed in Peter's wounds, and he was trampled, burned at the stake and then grilled on a gridiron.  Seeing Peter so heroically glorifying our Lord by his witness to the faith, other Christians stepped forwarded, including Dorotheus, the imperial chamberlain, Gorgonius, an army officer, and Migdonio, another army officer.  These all received the same treatment as Peter.  Once they were dead, Diocletian, knowing Christians would venerate the martyrs' remains, had the remains cast in the sea.  However, by miracle, the Christians recoverd the martyrs' remains.

Gorgonius's relics were at first brought to Rome.  In the 8th century AD, St. Chrodegang of Metz translated the relics to a monastery in Lorraine.   Over time, Gorgonius's relics were distributed to many churches in France, as well as to the cathedral of Minden in Germany.  Most of Gorgonius's relics in France were destroyed during the French Revolution.  That was a very dangerous time for all religious relics in France.

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