Kevin Di Camillo writes regularly for The National Catholic Register and is a Lecturer in English Literature at Niagara University. His latest book is Now Chiefly Poetical, and with Rev. Lawrence Boadt he edited John Paul II in the Holy Land: In His Own Words. His work has been anthologized in Wild Dreams: The Best of Italian-Americana, and he was awarded the Foley Poetry Prize from America Magazine. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame, he regularly attends Yale University’s School of Management Publishing Course.
This month, we celebrated not one, not two, but three saints who share the name of Vincent.
First, Saint Vincent of Saragossa, Deacon and Martyr. Though he died in 304 we know surprisingly much about his life—or at least about his death—thanks to such luminaries as St. Augustine of Hippo, St. Leo the Great, and the Spanish poet Prudentius, who composed St. Vincent’s martyrdom in his long poem Peristephanon, about one hundred years after the fact.
St. Vincent was deacon to Valerius, the bishop of Saragossa in northeastern Spain. Like another famous deacon-martyr, St. Lawrence of Rome, St. Vincent was wholly devoted to his bishop. So when the psychopathic Christian-hating Roman governor Dacian forbade the practice of Christianity and made worship of the Roman gods mandatory, both St. Vincent and his bishop were promptly jailed. Strangely, the bishop was only banished—but St. Vincent was spared no torment.
And Prudentius spares no details in his recounting the Passion of Saint Vincent: he was variously racked, roasted (à la St. Lawrence) on a giant iron gridiron (with salt then rubbed into the burning flesh), ripped open with massive iron hooks, pressed between heated iron plates and limbs distended one by one. It was all to no avail: St. Vincent simply wouldn’t die. So he was thrown into a dank prison cell where his broken body landed on a pile of shattered pottery which reopened his many wounds. In this dungeon, St. Vincent was starved. But he still hung on to life—and his faith.
Then, if the poet Prudentius is to be believed (and as a poet myself I tend to believe him), something truly strange happened: the sociopathic Dacian relented in the nonstop tortures (perhaps because he’d run out of ways to torment poor Vincent) and allowed the Christian faithful to visit him and bathe his wounds. However, since St. Vincent was at this point moribund, his visitors also dipped cloths in his blood to be taken away as relics.
After this epic torture St. Vincent finally gave up the ghost. Almost instantly his cult spread throughout Spain and Western Europe. St. Augustine, one of the greatest Doctors of the Church, preached homilies on him, one of which made it into the Office of Readings:
Such savagery was being vented upon the martyr’s body while such serenity issued from his lips, such harsh cruelties were being inflicted on his limbs while such assurance rang out in his words, that we should think that, by some miracle, as St. Vincent suffered, one person was speaking while another was being tortured. And this, my brothers, was true: it was really the truth: another person was speaking. Christ in the Gospel promised this to those who were to be his witnesses, to those whom he was preparing for contests of this kind.
In this, Saint Vincent of Saragossa resembled not only the deacon-martyr St. Lawrence who was somehow able to joke with his executioners, but the protomartyr and deacon, St. Stephen, whose passion and death in the Acts of the Apostles so closely mirrors Our Lord’s own death on the Cross.
Our second St. Vincent is St. Vincent Pallotti, the founder of the Society of Catholic Apostolate. He was born in Rome in 1795 and died only 55 years later in the same city. By the age of 12 he was already exhibiting an intense devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary and the poor.
Though he soon acquired a doctorate in philosophy and theology, he abandoned the ivory tower of academia to devote himself fully completely to pastoral work. He is often compared to the great reformer, St. Philip Neri of Rome and the parallels are not without merit. However, instead of shielding Rome against heretics and schismatics, St. Vincent Pallotti’s concern was with reforming the people—all the people—of Rome.
He had some assistance from his contemporary St. Caspar del Bufalo (Jan. 2) the founder of the Missioners of the Precious Blood, but for the better part of a decade was misunderstood in his post at the Neapolitan church in Rome where, ironically, he suffered persecution at the hands of his fellow clergymen.
However, once he began his organized work for conversion and social justice with both the laity and the clergy—until the title Society of Catholic Apostolate in 1835—Rome realized it had a saint in its midst. He organized schools for shoemakers, tailors, coachmen and gardeners to improve both their education in general as well as their pride in their respective trades.
St. Vincent longed for the reunification of the sister Churches of the East and to that end he started the tradition (which is carried on to this day) of celebrating the Sacred Mysteries with a different rite each day during the Octave of the Epiphany.
He was sought out as confessor almost as much as the great Curé d’Ars, St. John Vianney, and it is reported that he often came home half-naked from literally giving his clothes away to the poor. He possessed the powers of a true exorcist, had knowledge beyond this world’s means, and was known to have physically healed the sick simply with his blessing.
St. Vincent Pallotti was a visionary, as Pope Pius XI noted, and Cardinal Pelegrinetti summed up the holy man by saying: “He did all that he could. As for what he couldn’t do — well, he did that, too.”
Perhaps what makes St. Vincent Pallotti even more remarkable is that, due to the proximity to our own day, and accounts based not on pious legend or even poetry, his holy works can all be documented without doubt.
He died, all too soon, on Jan. 22, 1850, and was canonized in 1963 during the Second Vatican Council. He lives on in the Pallottine Fathers, whose work stretches from India to Ireland, Poland to New York, Great Britain to Germany.
Finally, we recall today St. Vincent who died at Embrun in France during the persecution of Diocletian. Aside from that fact all that is certain is that his companions in martyrdom were named Victor and Orontius, all of whom are mentioned in The Roman Martyrology.