St. Vincent, one of the most celebrated martyrs of Spain, was born in Saragossa, of one of the most respectable families of that city. While very young, he was placed under the tutelage of Valerius, Bishop of that church, who with great pains instructed him in the doctrines of religion, giving him at the same time a very extensive acquaintance with human science. Vincent, having made wonderful progress in learning, was ordained deacon by this prelate, who being himself prevented from preaching by an impediment in his speech, entrusted this office to Vincent. The young Levite discharged this important duty with such success that a great number of sinners, and even of pagans, was converted at his discourses.
At that time, namely, in the year 303, Spain was under the rule of Maximian; and Dacian was governor of the province of Tarragona, in which Saragossa was situated. This Dacian was a most cruel man, and an unrelenting persecutor of the Christians. Hearing of the manner in which Vincent advanced the Christian faith, he had him arrested, together with his Bishop, Valerius, and brought to Valencia, where he resided. He caused them to suffer much in prison, thinking that by maltreatment he would render them easier to be tampered with, but he soon perceived that this means did not correspond to the end he had in view. When they had been brought into his presence, he first endeavored by kindness to induce them to apostatize. To Valerius he represented that his declining age and infirmity required that repose which he might obtain by obeying the imperial edicts, but if he resisted he would feel the effects of their just anger. Then turning to Vincent he said: “You are young, and should not despise the reward of fortune which you may earn by abandoning your religion. Obey, young man, the commands of the emperors, and do not, by refusal, expose yourself to an ignominious death”.
Whereupon Vincent, turning to Valerius, who as yet had made no reply to the governor, said: “Father, if thou wilt, I shall answer for thee.” The saintly bishop, resolved to suffer for Jesus Christ, replied: “Yes, my son, as I formerly entrusted to thee the preaching of God’s holy word, I now charge thee to manifest our faith.” The holy deacon then declared to Dacian that they adored one only God, and could not worship the gods of the empire, who were devils, adding: “Do not think to shake our fortitude with threats of death or promises of reward, because there is nothing in this world which can be compared with the honor and pleasure of dying for Jesus Christ.” Dacian irritated by such liberty of speech said to the holy deacon: “Either you must offer incense to the gods or you must pay with your life the contempt that you show.” To this Vincent, raising his voice, replied as follows: “I have already told you that the greatest pleasure and the most distinguished honor that you can procure for us is to make us die for Jesus Christ. You may rest assured that you will tire of inflicting torments sooner than we of suffering them.”
Dacian condemned Valerius to banishment, and resolved to wreak his vengeance upon Vincent.
He first caused him to be stretched upon the rack, by which horrid machine the saint’s arms and feet were so distended, that the bystanders could hear the noise of the dislocation of his joints, which remained attached only by the over-stretched and relaxed sinews. Dacian perceived the placid meekness with which the young martyr endured his torments, and, as Fleury observes, heard him say, “Behold, what I have ever desired is now being accomplished! Behold the happy consummation of what I have always sighed for!” The tyrant hence concluded that the executioners were remiss in making him feel the torments, and caused them to be beaten with rods.
He then commanded that the sides of the saint should be torn with iron hooks, until the ribs should be visible; and, knowing how much the pain would increase by allowing the wounds to cool, and then opening them afresh, he ordered this torture, which was inflicted with great cruelty, until the bowels appeared, and the blood flowed in torrents. Meanwhile, as Orsi relates, the martyr insulted the tyrant, saying: “Since thy cruel ministers have exhausted their strength, come, thou chief butcher, and help them; — stretch forth thy wicked hands and slake thy thirst in my blood. Thou art deceived, thinking that torments can overcome my faith — within me there is another man strengthened by God, whom thou canst not subdue.”
Hereupon, seeing his constancy, Dacian ordered a cessation of his tortures, begging of the saint, for his own sake, that if he persisted in refusing to sacrifice to the gods, he would at least give up the sacred books to be burned. Vincent answered that fire was not created by God to burn holy books, but to torture the wicked forever: nor did he hesitate to admonish him, that if he did not abandon the worship of idols, he would be one day condemned to eternal flames. The governor, more incensed than ever, condemned him to the most cruel of torments — that of being broiled on a species of gridiron studded with sharp points. The saint hearing this barbarous command, walked with joy to the frightful engine, in anticipation of his executioners: — such was his eagerness to suffer. Upon this gridiron the saint was stretched at length, and bound, hand and foot, while the fire burned beneath. Red-hot plates of iron were placed on his mangled flesh; and his wounds were rubbed with salt, which the activity of the fire forced deeper into his burned and lacerated body. In the midst of these tortures, the countenance of the martyr evinced the inward consolation and joy of his soul, while, with eyes raised to heaven, he blessed the Lord, and besought of him to receive his sacrifice. All admired the prodigious fortitude with which God inspired the holy youth, and the pagans themselves exclaimed that it was miraculous.
The effect that the spectacle of such patience produced obliged Dacian to remove him from the public view. Yet, not content with the tortures he had already inflicted, he caused him to be thrown into a dungeon, his feet placed very wide apart, in wooden stocks, the pain of which was so great that many martyrs died under it. His body was then stretched on potsherds, which, opening his wounds afresh, caused the most painful anguish. In order to weary his patience, strict orders were given that no one should be admitted to see or offer him the least consolation; but the saint at midnight perceived his dungeon illuminated by a celestial light, and perfumed by a heavenly odor. The Lord then sent his angels to console him, to intimate that his tortures were at an end, and to assure him of the reward of his fidelity. The jailers, being awakened by the splendor of the light, approached, and heard the martyr in concert with the angels rendering praises to the Lord. They believed and avowed the Christian faith.
Dacian being informed of this, ordered that the saint should be removed from prison to a soft bed, and that his wounds should be healed, with the intention of renewing his torments when he would be sufficiently recovered to bear them. The faithful being permitted to visit and console him, kissed his wounds and absorbed the blood in their napkins, which they preserved as most precious relics. But the time for our saint’s triumph had arrived, and he expired in the embraces of his brethren; while his soul was wafted, by the angels who had assisted him, to the regions of everlasting bliss.
The tyrant on hearing of his death commanded that his body should be exposed to be devoured by wild beasts; but a raven was sent by God to defend it with its claws and beak, even against a wolf that had come to devour it. Dacian having exhausted his malice, ordered that the body should be put in a sack, and, with a heavy stone tied to it, cast into the sea; but there is no power against the Lord — the body floated like a feather on the water and was carried by the waves as far as Valencia. The mariners tried to get possession of it, but before they could reach it, it was carried by the waves on the seashore and covered with sand.
The saint afterwards appeared to a pious lady named Ionica, and indicated the place where his body lay. She went there, accompanied by other Christians, and finding the relics, deposited them in a little chapel; after the persecution had ceased, they were translated to a magnificent church outside the walls of Valencia, where they have always been regarded with devout veneration. St. Augustine attests that at his time the feast or St. Vincent was celebrated with a special joy in all the countries whither the Christian religion had penetrated.