By CAROLE BRESLIN
Martyrdom, the crown of Christian perfection, usually happens slowly, beginning with a dying to self and a living for Christ. Some Christians pray for martyrdom with confidence, knowing that God provided the grace to many in the past and does so now around the world. To prepare for martyrdom, many saints began lives of deprivation, of saying no to their own wants as they fasted and performed penances.
Before his martyrdom, St. Hermenegild remained faithful to Christ, saying yes to Him and saying no to earthly comforts. “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).
Around the year 564 in Toletum of the Visigoth Kingdom (now Toledo, Spain), King Liuvigild and his first wife, Princess Theodosia, a Chalcedonian Christian, welcomed their son Hermenegild. Because Liuvigild was an Arian, both Hermenegild and his brother, Recared, were raised to believe in that heresy.
The king of the Visigoths was traditionally given his position by a popular vote of the nobles, but Liuvigild wanted his sons to rule after him. As a result, King Liuvigild prepared both Hermenegild and Recared to be co-regents. After a few years Princess Theodosia died and the king married Goiswintha, an overzealous Arian with great animosity toward true Christianity.
In 579 Hermenegild married 12-year-old Ingund, another Chalcedonian Christian, but not an Arian. She was the daughter of the Frankish King Sigebert I of Austrasia and Brunhilda, a Visigoth princess.
Although Hermenegild’s stepmother pressured Ingund with cruel treatment to give up her orthodox faith, the young girl resisted and remained firm. Providentially, the Christian couple left the unhealthy influence of Goiswintha when King Liuvigild sent Hermenegild to govern the southern part of his kingdom on his behalf.
The couple would govern in Seville, a city where devout Christians lived.
Hermenegild met Leander of Seville and his older brother, Isidore, both of whom became saints honored in the Catholic Church. In 1722 by Pope Innocent XIII declared St. Isidore a doctor of the Church.
Under the influence of his young bride and these two holy men, Hermenegild renounced Arianism. The rest of his family, enraged by his “betrayal,” insisted that he return to Arianism. The young man refused, which, needless to say, had severe consequences.
Because Hermenegild renounced the faith of his father, his father divested him of the title of king. Liuvigild would not return the title unless his son renounced his new faith. The king mistakenly thought Hermenegild would quickly return to the teachings of his youth once he lost his position.
However, the Catholics of ancient Spain resolved to defend Hermenegild and stand by him. Sadly, the forces of Liuvigild were considerably stronger and better trained than those of Hermenegild.
Bishop Leander of Seville, on behalf of Hermenegild, quickly went to Constantinople to seek assistance from Tiberius.
The emperor died before any help could be approved and Maurice, his successor, would not provide any support. The Sasanian Empire, an empire comparable in power and influence to the Roman-Byzantine Empire, was attacking Maurice’s army on his border. Thus Maurice could provide neither men nor resources to Hermenegild’s cause.
Having failed to obtain help from Constantinople, Hermenegild next approached the Roman generals who were encamped in Spain at the time. Although they vowed to protect Hermenegild, Ingund, and their son, the Romans betrayed the young family. Liuvigild paid the generals handsomely to kidnap the boy and they held him captive in Seville for a year.
When Hermenegild found that he could no longer defend himself or his family against the superior forces of his father, he secretly left to hide in the Roman camp. The exiled prince then learned of the treachery of the Roman generals and fled again — still remaining faithful to the Truth.
In 579, the Suebi, a tribe of Germanic people previously defeated by Liuvigild, sided with Hermenegild. Once again Liuvigild prevailed and in 583 the Suebi also abandoned Hermenegild. This time the prince fled to Seville, but then he had to flee when that city fell to a siege in 584. Next Hermenegild went to Cordoba. At that city, Liuvigild paid the Byzantines 30,000 pieces of gold to kidnap Ingund and her son.
After this setback, Hermenegild fled to Osseto to take sanctuary in a church highly reverenced throughout Spain. Not daring to violate the church, Liuvigild persuaded Recared, his younger son — also a zealous Arian — to negotiate with Hermenegild. Under his father’s instruction, Recared promised Hermenegild that their father would pardon him if he surrendered himself and asked for forgiveness.
Believing that his father was ready for reconciliation, Hermenegild exited the church. Bowing before his father, he begged for forgiveness.
Liuvigild played the loving father, embraced his son, and made more promises. His duplicity continued as he led Hermenegild into his camp and once there he revealed his treachery.
Inside the camp, Liuvigild ordered his men to strip Hermenegild of his regal attire, to load him with chains, and to put him in the tower of Seville. This took place in 584.
For two years, Hermenegild lingered in his prison cell, suffering various pressures and torments as they unsuccessfully tried to get him to renounce true Christianity and return to Arianism. As they alternately cajoled and tortured the young prince, he remained firm.
Of course, King Liuvigild punished Hermenegild for his obstinacy. But rather than weaken under such trying circumstances, Hermenegild became stronger in his faith and in his love of Jesus Christ, true God and true Man (2 Cor. 12:9-10).
He imposed penances on himself beyond those the jailers imposed on him, begging Christ to support him in his battle for the Truth. Even after meting out this despicable treatment for two years, his father met with no success. Indeed, Hermenegild thanked his father, “I confess your goodness to me has been extreme. I will preserve to my dying breath the respect, duty, and tenderness which I owe you; but is it possible that you should desire me to prefer worldly greatness to my salvation?…I value the crown as nothing; I am ready to lose scepter and life, too, rather than abandon the divine truth.”
In one last attempt, King Liuvigild sent an Arian bishop to give his son Communion on Easter Sunday. Hermenegild refused it with regal indignation, once again refusing to accept Arianism. When the king learned of the final failure, he flew into a furious rage and ordered his son’s execution. When the soldiers entered the prison to put Hermenegild to death, they found him peacefully praying. He had been waiting for this moment and died with dignity as they struck his head with an ax. He died on April 13, the day the Church now celebrates as his feast.
According to St. Gregory the Great, the martyrdom of Hermenegild led to the conversion of his brother Recared and Visigothic Spain.
Dear St. Hermenegild, dying so young for love of God and with such peacefulness, you set a shining example of the joy that comes in suffering. Guide us during this pilgrimage on Earth so that we may learn to die to self and live for Christ with all of our hearts, minds, and strength. Amen.
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(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)