Saint Erasmus, Bishop and Martyr (Feast: June 2)

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Saint Erasmus, Bishop and Martyr (Feast: June 2)

By Michael McKenna, Director, Office of Liturgy

Named for St. Erasmus of Formiae (St. Elmo in the Italian) the patron saint of sailors, “St. Elmo’s Fire” is a weather phenomenon frequently experienced during thunderstorms, or even a volcanic eruption, where a crown like discharge emanates from a sharp or pointed object in a strong electric field in the atmosphere producing a luminous plasma. Regarded by sailors with pious awe, St Elmo’s Fire likely references that event where Erasmus continued preaching even after a thunderbolt struck the ground beside him. It prompted a cult among sailors when in danger from sudden storms and lightning and its appearance at the mastheads of ships was long interpreted as a sign of Erasmus’ protection and watchful presence.

Bishop of Formiae, Italy during the persecutions of the emperors Diocletian and Maximian (284-305), Erasmus reportedly hid himself away on Mount Libanus where legend holds that living an austere existence he was fed by a raven. At the prompting of an angel, Erasmus returned to his city but was captured and tried at Antioch before the emperor Diocletian. Tortured, bound with chains and thrown into prison, he is helped escape by an angel.

Restoring to life a beloved son of Lycia resulting in a good many conversions, Erasmus’ was again arrested, and at the order of Maximian taken to a temple of the idol where legend holds that along the route each of the idols fell and were destroyed along with the temple. An enraged Maximian had Erasmus enclosed in a barrel full of protruding spikes, and rolled down a hill. Miraculously suffering little ill effect from the ordeal, further tortures ensued. He was beaten, whipped, coated with pitch and set alight and still he survived. Thrown into prison and left to starve the saint again miraculously escaped.

He eventually succumbs to death by disembowelment, and it is for this reason his intercession is invoked by women in labor and those suffering intestinal disorders. In this regard, Erasmus is counted among the venerated Fourteen Holy Helpers referenced as the “fourteen angels” of the lost children’s prayer in Engelbert Humperdinck’s fairy opera, ‘Hansel and Gretel’.

Erasmus is depicted in sacred art holding the instrument of his death, a windlass around which is wound his intestines. He is an incredibly relevant saint for our time.

Notwithstanding the vagaries of legend, his example in enduring excruciating torments without failing in his Faith gives us pause to reflect upon our own commitment. How little does God, who himself staked his only Son for our redemption, ask of us? How much more could we be doing?