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St George

St George
  • Century: 4th Century
  • Patronage: England, Boy Scouts, soldiers, horses, equestrians, knights, agricultural workers, archers, shepherd
  • Feast Day: April 23rd

St. George is so associated with England that many may think he was an Englishman.  However, St. George was not only not an Englishman, but he never even set foot on English soil!  Instead, it is attested that he was born a Cappadocian (from a region in Asia Minor).  A Christian knight, the legends surrounding St. George’s life vary greatly, offering a portrait of a man whose courage, witness and zeal for Jesus Christ ultimately lead to his martyrdom. 

Perhaps the most widely recognized story about St. George has to do with his slaying of a dragon.  Most of the iconography of this saint depicts him running through a large, monstrous reptile with a lance.  The legend goes that St. George as a knight-errant was travelling through Lydia where he passed near a town called Sylene.  This town was situated alongside a swampy area and had been terrorized for some time by a ghastly inhabitant of the swamp—a dragon.  The dragon’s initial attacks on the town were met by the raising of an army to kill the beast, but its fiery breath deterred the attack from even beginning.  Instead, the townsfolk undertook an appeasement campaign to keep the dragon in the swamp by sending two sheep into the swamp every day. 

However, at 712 sheep every year, the citizens of Sylene were soon running out of sheep and they began offering a human being, instead!  A lottery was established in the area to determine the victim.  On the particular day that St. George was riding through the area, the lot had fallen to the king’s daughter—a princess was doomed to be a human sacrifice.  The princess went forth into the swamp, dressed as a bride when St. George stumbled upon the dragon stalking the victim.  With his lance, he ran it through subduing the beast.  Using the princess’ girdle as a harness for the dragon, he stood guard while the princess lead the terror back to the town 

When the people saw the beast coming toward the town, they panicked, prepared to flee when the story sees St. George gallop up to proclaim they should not fear.  Preaching the peace gained through faith in Jesus Christ, through baptism.  St. George offered to slay the dragon in return from their conversions.  When they agreed, the dragon was killed.  Subsequently, 15,000 citizens of Sylene were baptized (not counting the women and children).  Too, the king offered treasure to St. George, who refused the honors and payments, asking for money to be distributed to the poor.  Specifically, St. George asked that the king and city build churches, honor priests, regularly worship, and be generous to the poor. 

Following his dragon-slaying escapades, St. George took on another great enemy—Christian-persecuting emperors Diocletian and Maximian.  Being taken prisoner and unwilling to renounce his faith, St. George was tortured through a series of horrific devices—he was strung up and beaten with clubs, branded with red-hot irons, given poisons, pressed between spiked wheels, and boiled in molten iron before finally being beheaded.  The many agonies that St. George went through he was only able to survive by the Grace of God, who kept restoring him to health as the trials went on.  Through these restorations and subsequent hardships, many people saw St. George’s strength and witness to Christ and were, themselves, converted—including the wife of the governor.  However, upon his beheading, St. George was martyred on April 23, 303.

St. George’s widespread association with England seems to stem from St. George’s widespread repute and popularity in the Jerusalem region during the time of King Richard I’s crusades.  St. George’s exploits exist in the multiple languages of the region—Greek, Latin, Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Ethiopic—and due to the nature of the exploits, crusaders likely developed a patronage with the martyr knight St. George.  Since 1222 the English have celebrated the feast day of St. George and in 1415 it became the chief feast of the year in England.  When King Edward III founded the Order of the Garter, St. George was assigned as the patron.  Further, during the 17th and 18th Centuries, St. George’s feast day (April 23) was a day of obligation for English Catholics.  The special devotion and affinity toward St. George lead Pope Benedict XIV to recognize him as the Protector of the English Kingdom.

Practical Take-Away: St. George’s Public Religion 

When the persecution of Christianity was occurring in St. George’s life, his arrest resulted not from someone snitching on him, or because Roman authorities infiltrated a Mass and found him among the banished group.  Instead, St. George’s arrest resulted from a very voluntary and public declaration of his Faith.  According to Butler’s Lives of the Saints, as arrests were taking place many Christians became afraid and renounced their Faith publically.  “In order to set a good example [St. George] went boldly into a public place and cried out, ‘All the gods of [the pagans] are devils.  My God made the heavens and is very God” (ii, 149).  It was this declaration that lead to his arrest and martyrdom.

We live in similarly dangerous time, when we can avoid persecution by denouncing our Faith or, at least, keeping it private—something we do in our own home.  Our secular society thinks this sort of exclusively private religion suffices a s a compromise for balancing opposing secular-religious interests.  However, being Catholic is not a sometimes thing, not a half-hearted thing, not an on-again/off-again thing—it is a lifestyle, an uncompromising way of life.  When we denounce our Faith, we denounce our life, because Christ and His Church are the very source of our life—apart from Him we are nothing.  As Catholics face greater and greater pressure from secular forces to “change” or “compromise” their values especially in the public realm, we must follow the stunning and bold example of St. George.  We must be willing to endure the hardship for the opportunity to lead by example.  We dare defend our Faith; yes, even in a public place!