Today is the feast day of Saint Alexius. Ora pro nobis.
By Father Francis Xavier Weninger, 1876
The life of Alexius teaches us how great God is in His Saints. His parents, Euphemianus and Aglae, were rich and distinguished people, but they were long without issue. At length, after many prayers, they were blessed with a son, whom they named Alexius. They neglected nothing to give him a pious education; and Alexius, who was always much inclined to piety, never gave them any cause for sorrow, but was their greatest happiness and comfort. When he grew older, his parents desired that he should take to wife a maiden who was highly esteemed in Rome, as well on account of her riches as of her virtues. Although Alexius had different thoughts as to the life he wished to lead, he nevertheless, after having asked God’s advice in prayer, consented to their wish, and the wedding was celebrated with great festivities. Alexius, however, on the same day, felt an invincible desire to leave his bride, and his home, and all his riches. He obeyed the Divine voice within him, and proceeding to the apartment of his bride, he made her most costly presents of jewels and other precious things, asking her to receive and keep them as tokens of his love. He then went into his room, and, without telling any one of his design, changed his clothes, and secretly left the house. He hastened to the harbor, and embarked in a ship which was ready to sail. After a prosperous voyage, he arrived at Laodicea, and thence went to Edessa in Syria.
The consternation in Alexius’ home, the grief and anxiety of his parents and pious bride, when he did not return the following day, may easily be imagined. They sent their servants in all directions to search for Alexius, and bring him back to his home, and as he could not be found anywhere in the city, messengers were dispatched to neighboring states and cities; but all was useless; they found no trace of him. Meanwhile Alexius, after visiting many remarkable places, and having made many devout pilgrimages, had arrived at Edessa, and begun the life he was resolved henceforth to lead, and which consisted in living, for the honor of God and the salvation of his soul, in voluntary poverty until his death. Hence he gave to the poor all he still possessed, covered himself with a ragged garment, and went to a church dedicated to the Blessed Virgin. This house of the Almighty became, so to say, his dwelling-place, as he spent in it the whole day, except the hour for begging alms. He passed the greater part of the night in praising the Lord in the vestibule of the sacred edifice, giving only a few hours to sleep on the bare ground. He fasted most rigidly and distributed most of the alms he received among the poor. His manner of living altered the face of the Saint to such a degree that no one would have recognized him. He convinced himself of this fact by asking alms of his own servants who had come to Edessa in search of him: they gave him alms without recognizing in the miserable beggar their own master. When Alexius had lived in this manner for some time, several persons who had observed his virtuous conduct, began to think that this beggar was more than he appeared. The curate of the church, one day, while pondering over the actions of this beggar, heard a voice proceeding from an image of the Blessed Virgin, informing him that the poor man, who dwelt at the door of the church, was a great servant of the Almighty, and that his prayers were very agreeable to the Most High. This was soon known to many, and Alexius perceived that they began to honor him and treat him with distinction; and as he had determined to live in abnegation and poverty, he resolved to leave Edessa. Accordingly, he went on board of the first vessel he found, praying God to lead him where it was His holy will that he should serve Him unknown and unheeded. His prayer was accepted; for, instead of reaching Laodicea, whither the ship was bound, it was driven into the harbor of Rome. The heroic conqueror of himself saw in this that it was the design of Providence that he should continue in his home the life he had begun at Edessa.
The Almighty, who wished to give to the world an unprecedented example of self-abnegation, inspired Alexius to go into the house of his father; and the holy youth, although willing to obey the call, went first to the seven principal churches of the city, praying God to give him strength for the terrible struggle before him. No sooner had he finished his prayers, than he went to his father’s house. At that moment Euphemianus, followed by many of his servants, was coming out of his house. Alexius, clad in rags, approaching him most humbly said: “Lord, for the sake of Christ, have compassion on a poor pilgrim, and give me a corner of your palace to live in.” Euphemianus looked in pity at Alexius, and although he had no idea that his son was concealed under the garments of the beggar, his heart was moved and he consented to his request. Hence he ordered his servants to assign him a place where he might live, and to give him his daily food. The order was obeyed, and a corner under the staircase, or as some say, a small room was appointed to the poor pilgrim as his dwelling. He gratefully accepted it and remained there until his death without being recognized by any one.
God permitted that the servants soon grew weary of him, and often treated him with great indignity. They not only derided and abused him, but even sometimes dared to lay hands on him. The holy pilgrim bore it all without complaining. His greatest trial was when he saw his father, his mother or his bride, or when he heard from their own lips, how they were grieving for the loss of their Alexius. But the grace of God sustained him and he wavered not in his heroic resolution. He never left his corner, except when he went to church. Every week he partook of the Blessed Sacrament and passed many hours in church in prayer and devout reading. He fasted daily, slept on the bare floor, and mortified his body most unmercifully. He possessed no other pictures but those of Christ and the Blessed Virgin, the sight of which encouraged him to persevere. These were the means by which God enabled him to overcome the world, the flesh and the devil. For seventeen years he thus struggled and conquered his own heart in his father’s house, when it pleased the Almighty to bestow upon this brave and incomparable soldier, the crown of everlasting glory. The hour of his death was revealed to him, and Alexius, after having, according to his custom, assisted at Holy Mass and received the Blessed Sacrament, went home and wrote who he was, why he had left his father’s house, and all that had taken place during his absence. This note he folded together and held in his hand when he peacefully and happily gave his heroic soul to God, in the year of our Lord 403, or as others say in 304.
At the hour of his death, Euphemianus, his father, was in church, assisting at the divine sacrifice, which Pope Innocent I. offered in the presence of the Emperor Honorius, when suddenly, a voice announced that the great servant of God at the house of Euphemianus was dead. The latter, questioned by the Pope and the Emperor, what servant of God dwelt in his house answered: “It can be none but the poor beggar to whom I have given lodgings for many years.” Accompanied by the Pope and the Emperor, Euphemianus went home, found Alexius dead. Seeing a paper in his hand, Euphemianus would have taken it, but the fingers of the dead had closed so tightly over it, that it was not possible to loosen them. The Pope and all present fell on their knees and prayed that God would permit the paper to be read, after which the Pope approached the Saint, and took the paper without any effort. The astonishment of all, but especially of Euphemianus, the Pope and the Emperor, when they read that the beggar was the long-lost son of Euphemianus is easier to be imagined than described. Grief, surprise, joy and sorrow overwhelmed the father’s heart with such force, that, for a long time, he was unable to utter a word. At last throwing himself at the feet of his holy son, he bedewed them with his tears, and broke out into piteous lamentations that he had not recognized him. Meanwhile, the mother and bride of the Saint were apprised of the startling event; and no pen can describe the scene which took place when they beheld the holy body. The report of this astonishing occurrence spread quickly through the city, and the palace of Euphemianus was soon filled with people. Every one wished to kiss, or at least to see the holy relics. Several miracles which took place, and the heavenly light with which God graced the countenance of the Saint, increased from hour to hour the crowd that came to see him. The Pope ordered that the body should be transported to the Church of St. Peter, to satisfy the people. He, as well as the Emperor, followed in the funeral procession, which was more like a triumphal march, and such as Rome had never seen before. The holy relics were, in the course of time, transferred to the church of St. Boniface; and the dwelling of Euphemianus was converted into a church and dedicated to St. Alexius. The costly tomb which encloses the holy body has been honored with many and great miracles. (6)
According to the most recent researches he was an Eastern saint whose veneration was transplanted from the Byzantine empire to Rome, whence it spread rapidly throughout western Christendom. Together with the name and veneration of the Saint, his legend was made known to Rome and the West by means of Latin versions and recensions based on the form current in the Byzantine Orient. This process was facilitated by the fact that according to the earlier Syriac legend of the Saint, the “Man of God,” of Edessa (identical with St. Alexius) was a native of Rome.
Saint Alexis lived in his family home for seventeen more years, until his death in 404, which the Lord revealed to him in advance. On the day of his death, he took pen and paper, writing a note of apology and begging for forgiveness for the earthly pain he had caused his wife and parents. That day, the day of his death, heavenly voices spoke at Masses offered throughout the city—one to Archbishop Innocent saying, “On Friday morning, the Man of God comes forth from the body. Have him pray for the city, that you may remain untroubled.” Those present were terrified, falling to the ground upon hearing the heavenly voice. Upon recovering, they searched the city, but were unable to locate humble Alexis, living under the stairs in his father’s courtyard. A second voice was heard by the Pope, while serving Mass in the Church of Saint Peter. The voice spoke, “Seek the Man of God in the house of Euphemianus.” Many traveled to the house, including the Pope and Emperor, but Alexis was found to be dead. His face was transformed into that of a angel, his youth and vigor restored and enhanced. In his hand, he clasped his final note, but it was unable to be pried free until the Pope and Emperor—addressing him as if he were alive—asked to read it.
St. Alexius is mentioned in the Roman Martyrology under 17 July in the following terms: “At Rome, in a church on the Aventine Hill, a man of God is celebrated under the name of Alexius, who, as reported by tradition, abandoned his wealthy home, for the sake of becoming poor and to beg for alms unrecognized.”
While the Roman Catholic Church continues to recognize St. Alexius as a saint, his feast was removed from the General Roman Calendar in 1969. The reason given was the legendary character of the written life of the saint. The Catholic Encyclopedia article regarding St. Alexius remarked: “Perhaps the only basis for the story is the fact that a certain pious ascetic at Edessa lived the life of a beggar and was later venerated as a saint.
Image: Hellmonsödt ( Upper Austria ). Saint Alexius parish church: High altar ( 18th century ) – Altar painting of Saint Alexius ( 1758 ) by Bartolomeo Altomonte. (4)