“Because every one that exalteth himself, shall be humbled; and he that humbleth himself, shall be exalted.” (Luke 14:11)
In one of his parables, Our Lord Jesus Christ tells of the great feast and of the guests assembled for the banquet. One man, thinking himself of some importance, took his seat among the higher places. The Master of the house saw him, and bade him yield to one worthier than himself. Another guest had humbly taken his seat in the lowest place: to him the Master said, “Friend, go up higher.” So it was with a young, pious Christian boy by the name of Pelagius (Pelayo), who lived in Spain during the early years of the Tenth Century, and who was once sent to take the place of a man in a prison—his uncle, Hermoygius, Bishop of Tuy—because the man was accounted of more importance than the boy. And yet, it was the boy who was bidden, “Friend, go up higher,” in the kingdom of his Lord.
The Catholic Reconquista of peninsular Spain began in the early Eighth Century in the Kingdom of Asturias, in the slightly northwestern coastal province, bordering the Cantabrican Sea, directly east of Galicia. It was near the old capital of Cangas de Onís, at Covadonga—a beautiful Marian Sanctuary—where another renowned Pelagius, King of the Astures, drove back the Moors in 722, eleven years after their invasion took place. 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.
When the exchange of hostages was undertaken, little Pelagius was but ten years of age. Pelagius was a boy of extraordinary physical beauty, and—as history has most certainly also proven—of extraordinary spiritual beauty as well. Three years passed with Pelagius languishing in the Moorish prison. It is not known what oversight or problem occurred, but for some reason or other, the ransom never came, nor did his Bishop-uncle ever return to free him. But not in vain had young Pelagius prayed intensely for his freedom. With the reports of his jailer, who had providentially turned out to be kind to to him, Caliph Abdurrahman wanted to see the imprisoned little Christian boy.
No formal court was being held that day. In the palace, the handsomeness of the captive Christian boy was already well-known. The caliph sat at the other end of the hall, on an dais raised a couple of steps above the level of the floor; some of his courtiers were with him. He himself and most of the elder men there wore the green turbans denoting that they had made the pilgrimage to their holy city, Mecca. A few boys, sons of the caliph and his nobles, and some slaves were also present; and, though Pelagius did not know it, behind the “grille” high in the wall under the farther arch, the ladies and slaves of the royal harem were peeping curiously down to see the handsome captive, the account of whose good looks had reached them as well.
When Pelagius was brought to Abdurrahman, he was carefully eyed by the caliph. No physical feature escaped his gaze. When one of the young princes, Selim, perhaps a little jealous in his heart of this handsome 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. The caliph, already upset that Bishop Hermoygius had not as yet sent the ransom, decided to make Pelagius a page in his 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 Moorish caliph’s service, he was told that he must renounce his Christian faith. This was something that Pelagius simply could not do, knowing that if he were to pronounce the words of his new, imposed religion: “There is no god but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet,” it would mean denying Christ. But was it possible to publicly renounce Christ and yet not do so interiorly? This was the dilemma faced by all martyrs, just as the Christian martyrs of the Roman Empire had been bidden to do: renounce Christ and acknowledge the Emperor as god. Could not they have done so publicly, enough to satisfy the pagan Romans, and yet in their hearts continue to honor the One and Triune God? No. It would be hypocritical, a betrayal of their Lord, who said, “Every one therefore that shall confess me before men, I will also confess him before my Father who is in heaven. But he that shall deny me before men, I will also deny him before my Father who is in heaven.” (Mt. 10:32-33)
St. Cyprian, Bishop and Martyr of Carthage (+258), wrote a treatise on the “lapsi,” that is, the “fallen” – those apostates who renounced their profession of faith in Our Lord Jesus Christ for fear of Roman persecution and martyrdom. If any were to be spared martyrdom and return to the Catholic faith and Church, St. Cyprian would not readmit them without serious penance. Indeed, St. Cyprian always praised the Roman martyrs, of which he himself would eventually be counted. Some of these were young, too, like St. Eulalia de Emérita Augusta (Mérida), in Hispania—who did not fall away in their profession of faith. The first three centuries of Roman martyrs is a glorious chapter in Catholic history. Catholics today can learn a great deal of the importance of professing the Catholic faith valiantly — in the face of persecution, danger, and even death — from those who lived centuries ago.
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.”
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.”
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 with the courage of a true Christian martyr, the boy resolutely responded, “I have chosen: Christ!”
“Take him away,” said Abdurrahman; “cut off his hands and feet and throw him into the river.” And so, as the Roman Martyrology recounts at the Hour of Prime, little Pelagius was literally torn to pieces with cruel iron pincers. Such was the dear price he paid for his faith and his chastity.
The 26th of June marks the traditional—and modern—liturgical feast day of this courageous young saint. In the traditional Roman Breviary, at the morning hour of Prime on 25 June, the brief but moving Martyrologium reading (which always mentions the glorious martyrs celebrated on the following day) states the following: 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, [in the tenth century,] 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.”
In our trying times of today, when we see our cities attacked once again by Muslim forces, and when Christians, especially in the Middle-East, including young children, are tortured with such diabolical cruelty by extremist Islamists and beheaded; when the overwhelming influence and temptations of a world gone mad with all sorts of sexual disorder and immorality press around us, all Catholics, especially young ones, should be able to take heart by procuring the blessed intercession of St. Pelagius, this young Christian boy, this noble martyr from tenth century Spain.
Through his steadfastness in purity and faith, St. Pelagius was set free from all bondage and brought home to Heaven in triumph. Instead of walking in the rose-garden of Abdurrahman, the Moorish Caliph of Córdoba, he walks in the unfading garden of the King of Kings, crowned for ever with the roses of his precious martyrdom, as the psalmist (115 Vulgate) says: Pretiosa in conspectu Domini, mors sanctorum eius / “Precious in the sight of the Lord, is the death of his saints.”
Originally published on November 15, 2015.