Home  »  Volume VIII: August  »  The Invention of St. Stephen, or the Discovery of His Relics

Rev. Alban Butler (1711–73). Volume VIII: August. The Lives of the Saints. 1866.

August 3

The Invention of St. Stephen, or the Discovery of His Relics

        From the authentic relation of Lucian, and from St. Austin, Evodius, &c. See Tillemont, t. 2, p. 9. Orsi, l. 25, n. 118, t. 11, p. 218. Fleury, l. 23, n. 22, t. 5, p. 425.

THIS SECOND festival, in honour of the holy protomartyr St. Stephen, was instituted by the church on the occasion of the discovery of his precious remains. His body lay long concealed, whilst the glory of his sanctity shone both in heaven and on earth. The very remembrance of the place of his burial had been blotted out of the minds of men, and his relics lay covered under the ruins of an old tomb, in a place twenty miles from Jerusalem, called Caphargamala, that is, borough of Gamaliel, where stood a church which was served by a venerable priest named Lucian. In the year 415, in the tenth consulship of Honorius, and the sixth of Theodosius the Younger, on Friday the 3d of December, about nine o’ clock at night, Lucian was sleeping in his bed, in the baptistery, where he commonly lay, in order to guard the sacred vessels of the church. Being half awake, he saw a tall comely old man of a venerable aspect, with a long white beard, clothed in a white garment, edged with small plates of gold, marked with crosses, and holding a golden wand in his hand. This person approached Lucian, and calling him thrice by his name, bid him go to Jerusalem, and tell bishop John to come and open the tombs in which his remains, and those of certain other servants of Christ lay, that through their means God might open to many the gates of his clemency. Lucian asked his name? “I am,” said he, “Gamaliel, who instructed Paul the apostle in the law; and on the east side of the monument lieth Stephen who was stoned by the Jews without the north gate. His body was left there exposed one day and one night; but was not touched by birds or beasts. I exhorted the faithful to carry it off in the night-time, which when they had done, I caused it to be carried secretly to my house in the country, where I celebrated his funeral rites forty days, and then caused his body to be laid in my own tomb to the eastward. Nicodemus, who came to Jesus by night, lieth there in another coffin. He was excommunicated by the Jews for following Christ, and banished out of Jerusalem. Whereupon I received him into my house in the country, and there maintained him to the end of his life; after his death I buried him honourably near Stephen. I likewise buried there my son Abibas, who died before me at the age of twenty years. His body is in the third coffin which stands higher up, where I myself was also interred after my death. My wife Ethna, and my eldest son Semelias, who were not willing to embrace the faith of Christ, were buried in another ground, called Capharsemalia.” Lucian, fearing to pass for an impostor if he was too credulous, prayed, that if the vision was from God, he might be favoured with it a second and a third time; and he continued to fast on bread and water. On the Friday following Gamaliel appeared again to him in the same form as before, and commanded him to obey. As emblems of the relics he brought and showed Lucian four baskets, three of gold and one of silver. The golden baskets were full of roses; two of white and one of red roses; the silver basket was full of saffron of a most delicious smell. Lucian asked what these were? Gamaliel said: “They are our relics. The red roses represent Stephen, who lieth at the entrance of the sepulchre; the second basket Nicodemus, who is near the door; the silver basket represents my son Abibas, who departed this life without stain; his basket is contiguous to mine.” Having said this he disappeared. Lucian then awaked, gave thanks to God, and continued his fasts. In the third week, on the same day, and at the same hour, Gamaliel appeared again to him, and with threats upbraided him with his neglect, adding, that the drought which then afflicted the world, would be removed only by his obedience, and the discovery of their relics. Lucian being now terrified, promised he would no longer defer it.
  After this last vision, he repaired to Jerusalem, and laid the whole affair before bishop John, who wept for joy, and bid him go and search for the relics, which the bishop concluded would be found under a heap of small stones, which lay in a field near his church. Lucian said he imagined the same thing, and returning to his borough, summoned the inhabitants to meet the next day in the morning, in order to search under the heap of stones. As Lucian was going the morning following to see the place dug up, he was met by Migetius, a monk of a pure and holy life, who told him, that Gamaliel had appeared to him, and bade him inform Lucian that they laboured in vain in that place. “We were laid there,” said he, “at the time of our funeral obsequies, according to the ancient custom; and that heap of stones was a mark of the mourning of our friends. Search elsewhere, in a place called Debatalia. In effect,” said Migetius, continuing the relation of his vision, “I found myself on a sudden in the same field, where I saw a neglected ruinous tomb, and in it three beds adorned with gold; in one of them more elevated than the others, lay two men, an old man and a young one, and one in each of the other beds.” Lucian having heard Migetius’s report, praised God for having another witness of his revelation, and having removed to no purpose the heap of stones, went to the other place. In digging up the earth here three coffins or chests were found, as above mentioned, whereon were engraved these words in very large characters: Cheliel, Nasuam, Gamaliel, Abibas. The two first are the Syriac names of Stephen, or crowned, and Nicodemus, or victory of the people. Lucian sent immediately to acquaint bishop John with this. He was then at the council of Diospolis, and taking along with him Eutonius, bishop of Sebaste, and Eleutherius, bishop of Jericho, came to the place. Upon the opening of St. Stephen’s coffin the earth shook, and there came out of the coffin such an agreeable odour, that no one remembered to have ever smelt any thing like it. There was a vast multitude of people assembled in that place, among whom were many persons afflicted with divers distempers; of whom seventy-three recovered their health upon the spot. Some were freed from evil spirits, others cured of scrophulous tumours of various kinds, others of fevers, fistulas, the bloody flux, the falling sickness, head-aches, and pains in the bowels. They kissed the holy relics, and then shut them up. The bishop claimed those of St. Stephen for the church of Jerusalem, of which he had been deacon; the rest were left at Caphargamala. The protomartyr’s body was reduced to dust, excepting the bones, which were whole, and in their natural situation. The bishop consented to leave a small portion of them at Caphargamala; the rest were carried in the coffin with singing of psalms and hymns to the church of Sion at Jerusalem. At the time of this translation there fell a great deal of rain, which refreshed the country after a long drought. The translation was performed on the 26th of December, on which day the church hath ever since honoured the memory of St. Stephen, commemorating the discovery of his relics on the 3rd of August, probably on account of the dedication of some church in honour of St. Stephen, perhaps that of Ancona. 1 The history of this miraculous discovery and translation, written by Lucian himself, and translated into Latin by Avitus, a Spanish priest, (native of Braga, then living at Jerusalem, an intimate friend of St. Jerom,) is published by the Benedictin monks in the appendix to the seventh tome of the works of St. Austin. This account is also attested by Chrysippus, an eminent and holy priest of the church of Jerusalem; (whose virtue is highly commended by the judicious author of the life of St. Euthymius;) by Idatius and Marcellinus in their chronicles; by Basil bishop of Seleucia, St. Austin, 2 Bede, &c. It is mentioned by most of the historians, and in the sermons of the principal fathers of that age. St. Stephen’s body remained in the church of Sion till the empress Eudocia, wife of Theodosius the Younger, going a second time to Jerusalem in 444, built a stately church to God in his honour, about a furlong from the city, near the spot where he was stoned to death, into which she procured his body to be translated, and in which she was buried herself after her death, in 461. St. Austin 3 speaking of the miracles of St. Stephen, addresses himself to his flock as follows: “Let us so desire to obtain temporal blessings by his intercession, that we may merit in imitating him those which are eternal.”  2
  Our corporal necessities were not the motive which drew our omnipotent Physician down from heaven, but the spiritual miseries of our souls. In his mortal life he restored many sick to their health, and delivered demoniacs, to give men a sensible proof of his divine power, and for an emblem that he came to relieve the spiritual miseries of our souls, and to put an end to the empire of the devil over them. In like manner, when through his servants he has bestowed corporal blessings on men, he excites our confidence in his mercy to ask through their intercession his invisible graces. We ought to pray for our daily bread, or all necessary supplies of our bodily necessities; but should make these petitions subordinate to the great end of our sanctification, and his divine honour, offering them under this condition, as we know not in temporal blessings what is most expedient for us. God offers us his grace, his love, himself: him we must make the great and ultimate end of all our requests to him. If some rich prince should engage himself to grant us whatever we should ask, it would be putting an affront upon him, if we confined our petition to pins or such trifles, as St. Teresa remarks.  3
Note 1. The relics of St. Stephen were soon dispersed in many places, and God was pleased to glorify his divine name by many miracles wrought through their means, and the intercession of his servant. St. Austin relates, (Serm. 323, pp. 12, 78,) that a certain person who was present at the martyrdom of St. Stephen, picked up one of the stones that had struck his arm, and brought it afterwards to Ancona in Italy, where “from that time there began to be a memory (that is, an oratory) of St. Stephen,” says that father. When the Christians had the liberty to erect churches, a famous one in honour of St. Stephen was built, on this account, near Ancona, which is mentioned by St. Gregory. (Dial. l. 1, c. 5, p. 24).
  After the discovery of his sacred relics, portions of them were brought, with great devotion, into Europe and Africa. Avitus, the Spanish priest, who then lived in Palestine, obtained of Lucian, out of the part which he had reserved for himself, some of the dust of the flesh, and a little portion of the small bones of the martyr, which he sent by Orosius (who was then setting out with a view to return to Spain) to Palconius, bishop of Braga, his native place, to be a comfort to that church under the calamities which were brought upon it by the incursions of the Vandals and Goths. Paul Orosius, a native, and a learned priest, of Tarragon, went first into Africa to consult St. Austin, and afterwards into Palestine, to advise with St. Jerom about certain difficult points of sacred literature; his name is famous in the writings of both those fathers. Orosius left Palestine in 416, and with his sacred treasure landed first in Africa, to pay a visit to St. Austin, and thence sailed to Minorca; but found it impossible to go to Spain, by reason of the devastations of the Goths. He therefore returned to Africa, where, by the advice of St. Austin, he wrote, in seven books, a history of the world from its creation, in a clear and manly style, chiefly to demonstrate against the Pagans that the calamities which the world then felt, were not to be attributed to the neglect of their ancient superstitions; to prove which he shows, that mankind had in all ages been frequently afflicted with the like. Orosius left his relics of St. Stephen in a church near Magone, now Mahon, (one of the two ancient cities of that island,) till they could be sent to the Bishop of Braga, with the letter of Avitus to him, which is still extant. Severus, the bishop of Minorca, came from Jammona, now called Citadella, the other city, to Mahon, to receive the relics, and to hold conferences with the Jews, who were there very numerous. At the sight of the relics, and by the zeal of the Christians, five hundred and forty of that obstinate people, with their patriarch Theodorus, were converted to the faith in eight days’ time, and demanded baptism. There were a few women among them who stood out for some days. The converted Jews built a new church, not only at their own cost, but with their own hands. The Bishop Severus wrote, in a circular letter, an account of this wonderful event, which is yet extant.
  On the very day that Evodius, bishop of Uzalis, read this letter of Severus to his flock, some of the martyr’s blood contained in a vial, and some small fragments of his bones, which certain monks had procured from Palestine, arrived at the chapel of SS. Felix and Gennadius, two ancient martyrs, near that town. The bishop went out with great joy to receive so precious a treasure. A barber, named Concordius, who had bruised his foot very much by a fall, and kept his bed several days, having recommended himself to St. Stephen, was cured, walked to the church of the martyrs to give God thanks, and having prayed a long time, he lighted up several wax tapers, and left his stick behind him. The bishop having celebrated the divine mysteries, ordered a procession to the city. An infinite number of people, divided into companies, and carrying tapers and flambeaux, walked in it, singing psalms and hymns. When at night they arrived in the town, the relics were deposited in the church under the absis, that is to say, in the chancel, and were put upon the bishop’s throne covered with a cloth. A blind woman named Hilaria, a baker, recovered her sight by devoutly applying this cloth to her eyes. Afterwards the relics were put upon a little bed, in a place shut up, where there were doors and a little window, through which cloths were applied to the relics, which healed the sick. People came from afar off, and a great number of miracles were wrought there.
  Evodius caused a list of them to be written by one of his clerks; which account was publicly read to the people on the festival of St. Stephen, and after the reading of each miracle, the person healed was called upon, and made to pass through the middle of the church, walking alone; and to go up the step of the absis and there remain for some time standing, to be seen by the people, who redoubled their tears and acclamations at the spectacle. Thus Hilaria, and two men, who had all three been blind, and recovered their sight; thus Restitutus, who came from Hippo, and was cured of a palsy, and many others showed themselves to all the people, who seemed to see the miracles rather than hear the account of them read.
  The zealous Bishop Evodius, the intimate friend of St. Austin, approved and published two books, On the Miracles of St. Stephen, which were written by his order, and are usually quoted under his name. He mentions (l. 2, c. 4, n. 2.) that before the oratory of the relics of St. Stephen at Uzalis was placed a veil, on which the saint was painted, carrying a cross upon his shoulders. Among these miracles of Uzalis mention is made of some persons restored to life, one of which is also related by St. Austin almost in the same terms. (Serm. 323, 324.) The account is as follows: A child that was a catechumen, dying, being yet at the breast, the mother seeing him irrecoverably lost, ran to the oratory of St. Stephen, and said, “Holy martyr, you see I have lost my only comfort. Restore me my child, that I may meet him before Him who hath crowned you.” She prayed so a great while, and at last the child came to life again, and was heard to cry. She went forthwith to the priests; he was baptized, and received the unction, the imposition of hands, and the sacrament of the holy Eucharist; for then Confirmation and the Eucharist always followed Baptism, when it was given in a solemn manner. But God took him to himself very soon after, and his mother carried him to the grave with the same confidence as if she had carried him to St. Stephen’s bosom. These are the words of St. Austin, who speaks again in another place of the miracles that were wrought at Uzalis. (l. 22, de Civ. c. 8, n. 20, 21.) This town was situated near Utica, in the proconsular Africa.
  No less wonderful were the miracles wrought by the intercession of this holy protomartyr at Calama, a city of Numidia, fifteen Roman miles from Hippo Regius, the strongest fortress of that kingdom (standing on the coast of the Mediterranean) and the episcopal see of the great St. Austin. Possidius, the disciple of that holy doctor, was then bishop of Calama, in which city there was a chapel of St. Stephen enriched with some of his relics, which had been procured by Possidius. Eucharius, a Spanish priest, living at Calama, who had been afflicted with the stone for a long time, was cured by the application of these relics. Afterwards dying of another distemper, when those about him were going to bury him, upon casting a tunic (which had been brought from the chapel of the saint) over his corpse, he arose. Many sick of the gout and other distempers were healed. St. Austin says, that at the time he wrote, more such cures had been performed at Calama than at Hippo, where he had reckoned seventy. Among those at Calama he dwells the longest on the wonderful conversion of one Martialis, a heathen, a man of quality, and one of the principal persons in the city. He was most obstinate in his infidelity even in his last sickness. All means of conviction having been tried in vain, his Christian son-in-law having prayed a long time before the shrine which contained the martyr’s relics, brought home some of the flowers with which it was adorned, and full of faith in the saint’s intercession, laid them near the old man’s pillow. It was then evening, and before it was day Martialis desired to speak with the bishop Possidius, who happened then to be at Hippo with St. Austin; but priests coming to him, he desired to be baptized. From his baptism to the time of his death he never ceased to repeat the last words of St. Stephen: “Lord Jesus Christ, receive my soul.”
  The Bishop Projectus carrying some of the relics of St. Stephen to Tibilis, or Aquæ Tibilitanæ, an episcopal see fifteen miles from Hippo, on the road to Cirta, a blind woman who desired to be led to them, recovered her sight. Lucilius, bishop of Synica, or Sinita, near Hippo, by carrying the relics in procession, was suddenly cured of a fistula, which never returned, though he had long laboured under it, and then waited the coming of a surgeon to cut it. In a village called Audura, a child who was at play, was crushed under the wheel of a cart drawn by oxen, and expired in violent convulsions. His mother carried him before the relics of St. Stephen, and he came to life again without any appearance of being hurt. A nun who was dead in a neighbouring village called Gaspaliana, came to life again by being covered with a tunic which had been applied to the sacred relics. All these miracles are related by St. Austin. (De Civ. Dei, l. 22, c. 8.) The church of Hippo was enriched with a portion of these relics in the year 425. With what respect St. Austin received this treasure he himself sufficiently declares, (ep. 103,) writing to the Bishop Quintian, who was going to receive a little portion of the same: “Your holiness,” says he, “knows how much you are obliged to honour these relics, as we have done.” His three hundred and seventeenth sermon seems to have been delivered on the day of their reception. In it he says, those relics consisted of a little dust into which his sacred flesh was reduced, shut up in a case. An altar was there raised, not to St. Stephen, but to God, over the relics of St. Stephen, as that holy doctor puts his flock in mind. (Serm. 318.) Fearing lest the ignorant might fall into superstition by not sufficiently distinguishing the Master from the servant, he often repeats in his sermons on those occasions, that it is to God we are to refer the miracles which he alone performs by his saints, and the graces which we receive through their intercession.
  It was not quite two years after this when he wrote his last book Of the City of God, in which he says, (l. 22, c. 8,) that he had received relations of nearly seventy miracles which had been wrought at Hippo by the relics of St. Stephen, besides many others which he knew had not been recorded. Among these he mentions three persons raised from the dead; one, the son of a collector named Irenæus, who when his corpse was laid out, and all things were made ready for the funeral, was raised to life by being anointed with the oil of the martyr, that is, probably, of the lamp that burned before the relics. Another, the daughter of Bessus, a Syrian, was restored to life by being covered with a garment, with which her father had touched the martyr’s shrine. St. Austin was eyewitness to many of the miracles that were there performed, as to the following. Ten children, of a considerable family of Cæsarea in Cappadocia, seven sons and three daughters, having been cursed by their mother for their undutiful behaviour, were all successively from the eldest seized with a dreadful trembling or shivering in all their limbs, and a distortion of their body: in this condition they wandered up and down in different places. The second son recovered his health by praying in a chapel of St. Laurence at Ravenna. Paul, the sixth child, and Palladia the seventh, arrived at Hippo in 425. Their unhappy disorder drew the eyes of all persons upon them. On Easter Sunday, in the morning, Paul praying before the place where the relics were deposited, was perfectly cured. The church echoed with acclamations, every one crying out, “Thanks be to God: praised be the Lord.” The young man being presented to St. Austin, threw himself at his feet. The saint raised him up, and embraced him. When sermon time came, he showed him to the people, saying: “We have been used to read the relations of miracles which God has performed by the prayers of the blessed martyr St. Stephen; but now the presence of this young man supplies the place of a book, nor have we occasion for any other writing than his face, which you all know,” &c. He adds, that he should not have had strength himself to support the fatigue of the long service of the foregoing day and night (which was Easter-eve) fasting, and then of preaching to them, had it not been for St. Stephen’s prayers. (Serm. 320, ol. 29, de liv.) On Easter Tuesday he caused Paul and Palladia to stand on the steps of the pulpit, that they might be seen by all the people; the first without any distorted motion, but Palladia trembling in every limb. He then made them withdraw, and began to preach on the respect which children owe their parents, and the moderation which is due from parents to children. His sermon was interrupted by the shouts of the people, repeating, “Thanks be to God.” The occasion was, that in the mean time Palladia being gone to pray before the relics, was healed. The sermon, which was interrupted by the miracle, and all the others which St. Austin preached on this occasion, are still extant. Near a year after this, he, in his last book Of the City of God, inserted this account of the healing of Paul and Palladia, and of several other miracles. (See St. Austin de Civ. Dei, l. 22, c. 8, and serm. 319, 320, 286, 94, 76.) F. Thyrsus Gonzales, general of the Jesuits, (Manuductio ad conversionem Mahometanorum, Par. 2, l. 3, c. 8,) mentions as a standing miracle, that the blood of St. Stephen, which was formerly brought by Orosius from Palestine, and which is now kept at Naples, during high mass on the 3d of August, melts and boils up, though it is at all other times congealed.
  John Le Clerc calls in question the judgment and veracity of St. Austin in the relation of these miracles. Such discoveries were reserved after so many ages to this new master in the art of criticism. But it must appear strange to a Christian ear to hear the most holy and learned doctors of the church traduced as knaves and impostors, and the rest of the faithful put in the class of weak fools. These miracles are attested not only by St. Austin, but also by St. Possidius, Evodius, and many others. Africa at that time abounded with the most subtle, inquisitive, and penetrating geniuses, as the monuments of that age evince. If the Catholics could be presumed to have been all so weak and simple that it was easy for their bishops to impose upon them the grossest cheats, their actions were too narrowly sifted by the Pagans, the Donatists, and the Manichees, (who were at that time very numerous in Africa,) and the Arians who became masters of that country, whilst these miracles were in the greatest vogue. But how can we hear without indignation such great and holy prelates charged with carrying on so wicked and base an imposture, and this by a general conspiracy? St. Austin, especially, whose gravity, wisdom, sanctity, and learning have commanded the highest respect of all succeeding ages. This great father, moreover, was of all others the most zealous in defending the doctrine of the church against lying on any account; which he maintained by his book On Lying, and two other books Against Lying, (t. 6,) not to mention several other parts of his works in which he treats of this point. He every where demonstrates against the Priscillianists. that it can never be lawful, in any case whatever, to tell the least wilful lie, not even to save the life of any man, to avert any evils or sins, or to procure baptism for a child who should be in the hands of infidels, and otherwise sure to die without that sacrament; because no necessity or good end can make that lawful which is essentially evil. Above all, a lie is most criminal in matters relating to religion; and could lying ever be lawful, a man’s sincerity might be always suspected.
  Our critic and his disciples pretend these illustrious fathers were the abettors or authors of frauds, in order to propagate their favourite doctrine of the invocation of saints, and honouring their relics. But this was certainly then established, and sometimes attended with miracles in all parts of the Christian world, as appears from the writings of SS. Paulinus, Prudentius, Sulpicius Severus, Gaudentius, and others in the West; and from those of St. Chrysostom, St. Basil, the two SS. Gregories, St. Asterius, Theodoret, St. Ephrem, &c., in the East, as Le Clerc himself acknowledges in the lives of many of those fathers. St. Austin, indeed, with other fathers, often observes, that the miraculous gifts had gradually decreased and ordinarily ceased in the church, when the gospel was sufficiently confirmed and spread over the world. But he explains himself of the working miracles, usually and almost continually, as the apostles did; and adds, that God still continues, for the glory of his name, to excite the attention and devotion of men to him, by sometimes performing miracles in his church, (l. de Verâ Relig. c. 25, and Retract. l. 1. c. 13, &c.) Hence, in his books Of the City of God, he confounds the Pagans by the miracles which were then wrought, particularly those performed by the relics of St. Stephen, among which he reckons five persons raised from the dead, mentioning their names, families, and all the circumstances of the facts. Two were restored to life by garments which some had devoutly applied to the relics of the protomartyr, imitating what they had read in the Acts of the Apostles, (c. 19,) of cloths and handkerchiefs which had touched St. Paul, having been the instruments of such favours. (See John Le Clerc, under the name of John Phereponus, Cens. in Tom. 5, Op. S. Aug. p. 550. Middleton’s Free Inquiry, and Beausobre, Hist. de Manichée, l. 9, c. 3, t. 2, p. 648.) These authors, to try the fallacy of their sophistry and raillery, may turn its edge upon the history of the dead man raised to life by touching the bones of Eliseus, 4 alias 2 Kings xiii. 21, and upon that of the sick who were cured by a devout application of aprons and handkerchiefs taken from the body of St. Paul. (Acts xix. 12.) God can by any instruments manifest his power and mercy, as Christ often used sensible signs in working miracles. [back]
Note 2. Tr. 120, in Joan. Serm. 319, &c. [back]
Note 3. Serm. 317. [back]