Saint Pulcheria, Virgin

September 10

Today is the feast day of Saint Pulcheria.  Ora pro nobis.

Saint Pulcheria was the eldest daughter of the Emperor Arcadius.  She was born 19 Jan., 399.  After the death of Arcadius (408), her younger brother, Theodosius II, then only seven, became emperor under the guardianship of Anthimus. Pulcheria had matured early and had great administrative ability; she soon exerted salutary influence over the young and not very capable emperor. On 4 July, 414, she was proclaimed Augusta (empress) by the Senate, and made regent for her brother. She made a vow of virginity and persuaded her sisters to do the same, the imperial palace thus becoming almost a monastery (Socrates, “Hist. eccl.”, VII, xxii).

by Father Francis Xavier Weninger, 1876

We find this day, in the Roman book of Martyrs, a record of the life of the holy empress, St. Pulcheria. This Saint was a daughter of the emperor Arcadius, who, at his death, left four daughters and one son. The latter succeeding him upon the throne; reigned most gloriously under the name of Theodosius the younger. Pulcheria, though hardly two years older than her brother, supplied to him the place of a counselor, without whose advice he did not undertake anything. God had gifted her with such wisdom, that she administered the most important affairs of the state, to the universal satisfaction and great benefit of the people. She instructed her brother, the emperor, most carefully, how to lead a holy life, not only for himself, but also as an example to his subjects, whose happiness she taught him to consider his greatest study. She had a peculiar way of correcting his faults, of which the following may serve as an example: The emperor had the most implicit trust in some of his counselors, and used to sign, without reading them, ill the orders and letters they placed before him. Pulcheria, desiring to break him of so dangerous a habit, prepared an order, by force of which, his imperial spouse, Eudoxia, was to be delivered to Pulcheria as a prisoner. This order was laid before the emperor, among many others, and he signed it with the rest. Pulcheria took it, invited the empress into her apartments, and presenting the imperial order to her, said that she was and should remain her prisoner, until the emperor would countermand his order. Somewhat later, Theodosius sent for the empress, but Pulcheria returned for answer that Eudoxia was her prisoner, and that, as such, she would not release her. The emperor, surprised, hastened to his sister for an explanation of her answer. Placing before him the order he had signed, she said: “Behold, my brother and emperor, what may happen, when we are too hasty in our affairs, and sign what we have not read and examined.” The emperor, kindly receiving the admonition, promised in future, to be more guarded.

For several years, all went well, and God visibly blessed what the emperor, advised by his sister, had done. At length, however, Chrysaphius, a wicked counselor, succeeded in prejudicing the emperor against Pulcheria to such an extent, that he desired to be free from her presence, and to govern his people without her guidance. When Pulcheria became aware of this, she withdrew from the affairs of the government, and leaving the court, she went to a country-seat, not far from Constantinople, where she served God most fervently in peaceful solitude. She had long since taken the vow of perpetual chastity, and had persuaded her three sisters, Flaccilla, Arcadia and Marina, to do the same. Hence it became no difficult task for her to leave the pleasures and honors of the court, and occupy herself only with Him whom she had chosen as her spouse.

The imperial court, however, soon wore a different aspect. Omitting many other disgraceful acts which were performed there, we will mention only a new heresy, which was allowed to spring up and thrive at Constantinople. Its author was a certain Eutyches. Chrysaphius, won by him, imparted the poisonous doctrines to the emperor and empress, who, favoring the heresiarch, soon began to persecute the faithful Catholics. Pulcheria, when informed of it, was deeply distressed that her brother had allowed himself to be so unhappily seduced, as to become, from a zealous protector of the true church, its persecutor. She prayed ceaselessly to the Almighty to enlighten and convert her brother, and requested the prayers of other pious servants of the Lord, to the same effect God granted her request, and bestowed upon Theodosius the grace to recognize and correct his error. As, at the same time, it became clear to him that he never would have become guilty of so grave a fault, if his pious sister had been near him with her counsel, he besought her to return to court. Although Pulcheria was happy and contented, and had no desire to return to the tumult of the world, the wish to lead her brother in the right path, and to guard him from again wandering from it, determined her to consent. She returned, therefore, to the court and city, and after having entirely restored her brother to the true faith, she endeavored, to the utmost of her power, to exterminate the new heresy, employing the same means which she had used when Nestorius began to disseminate his heretical errors. The bishops at the Council of Chalcedon hence called her a protector of the faith, an exterminator of heresy, and another St. Helena. The holy Pope, Leo I., thanked her, and congratulated her on account of the twofold victory she had won over those two heretics.

On the death of Theodosius, Pulcheria remained mistress of the empire. To assist her in this difficult position, she chose Marcian, who had been an officer of high rank under the late emperor, and was a man of distinguished merit and great sanctity of life. To him she gave her hand in marriage, but with the condition that both should live in continency, as she had consecrated her virginity to the Almighty. Marcian promised to respect her vow, and faithfully kept his word. The benefit which the holy church and the state derived from this union, cannot be described in the limited space allowed to us. The sole desire of the people, was, that Pulcheria and Marcian might be spared to reign over them for many years. But it pleased the king of all kings to call his faithful handmaid, Pulcheria, to her heavenly home, A. D., 453, before she had completed her fifty-fifth year. As she had never set her heart on temporal things, it was not hard for her to leave the world; indeed, when she felt that death was approaching, her desire to be united with Christ, whom she had served in chastity and faithful love, became more and more intense. Having devoutly received the Holy Sacraments, she ended her holy life calmly and peacefully.

The poor, to whom this incomparable empress had always been a most loving mother, became, by her will, her heirs. She had built, and richly endowed many churches and hospitals. Although in the midst of constant gaieties, she exercised herself in various penances, read daily in a devout book, and frequently rose at midnight to honor the Almighty by chanting the Psalms. She paid due reverence to the Saints and their relics, and was deeply devoted to the Queen of Heaven. She defended the honor of the Blessed Virgin, especially against the heresiarch, Nestorius, who blasphemously pretended that although Mary was the mother of Christ, she was not therefore the mother of God. The council of Ephesus condemned this blasphemy, and St. Pulcheria, on this account, built a magnificent church, in honor of the Blessed Virgin. May the Almighty give to His church many such protectors, and guard and keep those who endeavor to follow the example of this Saint in her zeal, her generosity and magnanimity. (2)

She is venerated as a saint in the Greek and other Oriental Churches as well as in the Latin Church. Her feast is given under 10 Sept. in the Roman Martyrology and in the Greek Menaia; in the other Oriental calendars it is under 7 Aug.

Image: The Trier Ivory, representing a procession with royal figures theorized to depict Theodosius II and Pulcheria. (5)

Research by REGINA Staff


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