Today is the feast day of Saint Germanus, Bishop of Auxerre. Ora pro nobis.
Saint Germanus (Germain) was born of noble birth around 380. He was the son of Rusticus and Germanilla. His forebears were lords of the county of Auxerre in Gaul. He was not of outstanding piety during his youth. He studied first at Lyon and Arles, then civil law in Rome, and practiced law there with distinction. He married Eustachia, a lady highly esteemed in imperial circles. The emperor sent him back to Gaul, appointing him one of the six dukes, entrusted with the government of the Gallic provinces.
Germanus resided at Auxerre and gave himself up to all the enjoyments that naturally fell to his lot. At length he incurred the displeasure of the bishop, St. Amator. It appears that Germanus was accustomed to hang the trophies of the chase on a certain tree, which in earlier times had been the scene of pagan worship. Amator remonstrated with him in vain. One day when the Germanus was absent, the bishop had the tree cut down and the trophies burnt. Fearing the anger of the Germanus, who wished to kill him, he fled and appealed to the prefect Julius for permission to confer the tonsure on Germanus. This being granted, Amator, who felt that his own life was drawing to a close, returned. When the Germanus came to the church, Amator caused the doors to be barred and gave him the tonsure against his will, telling him to live as one destined to be his successor, and forthwith made him a deacon in July 7, 418.
Germanus immediately became another man, and giving over his lands to the Church. He adopted a life of humble penance. He rapidly attained high perfection, and the gift of miracles was given him. He attempted to conceal it. Afterwards there was never a time when all the roads leading to his residence were not filled with crowds of sick persons, waiting to address the bishop and beg his assistance. Many possessed persons were also delivered. Invariably his modesty caused him to attribute the multiplying prodigies to the relics of Saints which he wore around his neck, or to the sign of the Cross, or to the holy water he sometimes used, or to oil which he blessed. The furious demons tormented him with temptations and terrifying apparitions, but found themselves powerless.
He built a large monastery dedicated to Sts. Cosmas and Damian on the banks of the Yonne, where he eventually wanted to retire. In 429 the bishops of Britain sent an appeal to the continent for help against the Pelagian heretics, who were corrupting the faith of the island. St. Prosper, who was in Rome in 431, tells us in his Chronicle that Pope Celestine commissioned the Church in Gaul to send help. Germanus and Saint Lupus of Troyes were deputed to cross over to Britain. On his way Germanus stopped at Nanterre, where he met a young child, Genevieve, destined to become the patroness of Paris, Saint Genevieve. Germanus requested Genevieve live as one espoused to Christ.
Tradition tells us that the main discussion with the representatives of Pelagianism took place at St. Alban’s, and resulted in the complete discomfiture of the heretics. Germanus remained in Britain for some time preaching, and established several schools for the training of the clergy. On his return he went to Arles to visit the prefect, and obtained the remission of certain taxes that were oppressing the people of Auxerre. He constructed a church in honour of St. Alban about this time in his episcopal city.
In 447 he was invited to revisit Britain, and went with Severus, bishop of Trèves. It would seem that he did much for the Church there, if one can judge from the traditions handed down in Wales. On one occasion he is said to have aided the Britons to gain a great victory (called from the battle-cry, Alleluia! the Alleluia victory) over a marauding body of Saxons and Picts.
On his return to Gaul, he proceeded to Armorica (Brittany) to intercede for the Armoricans who had been in rebellion. Their punishment was deferred at his entreaty, till he should have laid their case before the emperor. He set out for Italy, and reached Milan on 17 June, 448. Then he journeyed to Ravenna, where he interviewed the empress-mother, Galla Placidia, on their behalf. The empress and the bishop of the city, St. Peter Chrysologus, gave him a royal welcome, and the pardon he sought was granted.
While there he died on 31 July, 450. His body, as he requested when dying, was brought back to Auxerre and interred in the Oratory of St. Maurice, which he had built. Later the oratory was replaced by a large church, which became a celebrated Benedictine abbey known as St. Germain’s. This tribute to the memory of the saint was the gift of Queen Clotilda, wife of Clovis. Some centuries later, Charles the Bald had the shrine opened, and the body was found intact. It was embalmed and wrapped in precious cloths, and placed in a more prominent position in the church. There it was preserved till 1567, when Auxerre was taken by the Huguenots, who desecrated the shrine and cast out the relics. It has been said that the relics were afterwards picked up and placed in the Abbey of St. Marion on the banks of the Yonne, but the authenticity of the relics in this church has never been canonically recognized. St. Germain was honoured in Cornwall and at St. Alban’s in England’s pre-reformation days, and has always been the patron of Auxerre.
The principal source for the events of his life is the Vita Germani, a hagiography written by Constantius of Lyon around 480, and the Passio Albani, which may possibly have been written or commissioned by Germanus.
Image: Sculpture en bois polychrome représentant saint Germain l’Auxerrois datée du XVe siècle, conservée dans l’église Saint-Germain-L’Auxerrois à Paris. (4)
See Life of St Germanus of Auxerre by Constantius of Lyons, in the Western Fathers, Makers of Christendom Series, translated by Hoare. Sheed and Ward, Ltd, 1954.
Research by REGINA Staff