Today is the feast day of Saint Pelagius of Cordova. Ora pro nobis.
Pelagius was born about 915, and was martyred 925. Essentially nothing is known of his birth and early life. He had an uncle who was Bishop of Tuy (in the northwestern region of Galicia), named Hermoygius. Pelagius lived in Galicia, at a time when there was fighting between the Moors and the Christians.
During this time Henceforth, in the contests between the Moors and the Christians in neighboring Galicia, the Christians were on one occasion defeated, and a bishop, named Hermoygius, was taken prisoner by Abdurrahman, who carried him in chains to Córdoba and imprisoned him there. Now, Bishop Hermoygius was anxious for the welfare of his flock. He entered into terms with Abdurrahman. Hermoygius had a young cousin, named Pelagius, and the bishop offered him as hostage, while he himself returned to his people, either to raise the ransom-money or to effect an exchange of prisoners. The Moorish caliph agreed, the child was handed over, and the bishop was set free. The latter hoped soon to have the ransom-money, and meanwhile his freedom seemed of more importance than that of a little boy of no real use in the affairs and issues at stake in the great world. Only in this case, as Our Lord says, “The last shall be first!” Such is the way of things with God. (2)
When Pelagius was brought to Abdurrahman, he was carefully eyed by the caliph, no physical feature escaped his gaze. His good looks were already renowned at court. When one of the young princes, doubtless jealous in his heart of this handsome young stranger, stepped up, the caliph made the children stand back to back, and noted with satisfaction their equal height, though the Spaniard was a year younger than the Moor, Prince Selim. (1)
The caliph, already upset that Bishop Hermoygius had not as yet sent the ransom, decided to make Pelagius a page in court instead of sending him back to his cell.
Pelagius was anxious to be freed from his imprisonment, though it was not, certainly, the complete freedom to return to his native Galicia. But before he could be sworn into the caliph’s service, he had to renounce his Christian faith.
But that was something that Pelagius simply could not do. Knowing that if he only were to pronounce the words of his new, imposed faith: “There is no god but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet,” it would mean denying Christ. But hey, what does that matter… if Christians and Muslims believe in the same God, right? (1)
Pelagius knew that if he would but say those few words once, the caliph would be satisfied. But that meant to deny Christ. As far as he knew, no fellow Christian would witness his denial. Even if he were at last claimed by his own people, they need never know of his momentary apostasy. But it would nonetheless be a great sin, and surely, his holy guardian angel stood at his side, watching over him, as would his Lord. He lifted brave eyes to the caliph. “I will, indeed, be true to thee and obedient in all else,” he answered; “but first, I am Christ’s. Nothing may part me from Him.” (2)
At this, the caliph grew angry, especially coming from one being offered such an honor: to be freed from imprisonment and made one of his pages in court. This outrage provoked the caliph and his aides, who now looked upon the handsome boy with anger.
“I am a Christian, and believe in Christ. Christ I will never deny.” One of the caliph’s aides laughed. “He mocks you,” he said in the caliph’s ear: “the Spaniard boy mocks you, as his friend the bishop did, in his Christian insolence.” Pelagius’ refusal chafed at Abdurrahman’s weakest spot—his pride, a pride already hurt by the conduct of Bishop Hermoygius. The caliph became ever more infuriated. He had suffered enough at the hands of the boy’s uncle. Should this boy too, here, in his own palace—a boy whom he wished to befriend and to place, as a companion, with his sons; a boy to whom he had openly offered all these advantages—should this youngster defy him to his face and shout aloud the name of his Christ, it would be simply too much insolence.
As the narrations of “Passions of the Saints” continue to tell, the caliph, already much infuriated, was moved by lust, and decided to at least take advantage of the young Christian boy’s handsomeness. But if little Pelagius showed great fortitude in his firm profession of faith in Christ, the boy also showed an admirable fortitude towards the caliph’s immoral sexual desire, and resisted just as resolutely. Such impudence, such insolence, from this young Christian Spaniard, was unheard of in the Moorish palace. There nothing left to do but finish little Pelagius off. And so, the caliph ordered his torture: “Take him out,” he said to the executioner, “and hang him up by his wrists till the pain forces him to deny his Christ.” (2)
When the executioner came back, he informed the caliph that Pelagius had fainted. The caliph ordered him to bring Pelagius back to court. He did so. The young boy was bleeding from his wrists. “Once more, and for the last time,” the caliph said, “infidel and ungrateful as thou art, I give thee another chance. Happy freedom, honor, my favor and protection—or death. Choose!”
And just as a true Christian martyr would say “I have chosen,” replied the boy resolutely, “Christ!” “Take him away,” said Abdurrahman; “cut off his hands and feet and throw him into the river.”
And so, the liturgical feast of St. Pelagius, boy-martyr, is 26 June. As the traditional Roman Martyrologium recounts at the Hour of Prime on the eve, 25 June:
Cordubæ, in Hispania, natalis sancti Pelagii adolescentuli, qui, ob confessionem fidei, Regis Saracenorum Abdarameni jussu forcipibus ferreis membratim præcisus, martyrium suum gloriose consummavit / At Córdoba, in Spain, the holy child Pelagius, who crowned his confession of the faith with a glorious martyrdom, by being torn to pieces with iron pincers, by order of Abdu’l-Rahman, King of the Saracens.
Yes, little Pelagius was literally torn to pieces with cruel iron pincers, back in the early X century. As the psalmist sings (cf. 115 Vulgate) in the Office of Martyrs: Pretiosa in conspectu Domini, mors sanctorum eius / Precious in the sight of the Lord, is the death of his saints. (1)
Image: From the Martyrs Mirror, this is an etching by en:Jan Luyken (1649-1712). The text at the top of the page is translated as follows: “Pelagius, a lad of thirteen years, after much suffering for the true Christian faith, at Cordova, has his arms and legs cut off, and is finally beheaded, A.D. en:925” (3)
Printed with kind permission from Father José Miguel Marqués Campo