St. Erasmus, ‘Dauntless Bishop and Martyr’
“Grant us through the intercession of thy dauntless bishop and martyr Erasmus, who so valiantly confessed the Faith, that we may learn the doctrine of this faith, practice its precepts and thereby be made worthy to attain its promises. Amen.” —Prayer to St. Erasmus
St. Erasmus was a 4th-century Italian bishop who was martyred by having his intestines pulled out of his body. That’s why he’s invoked against stomach problems. He’s also the patron of sailors and the go-to saint when it comes to ducking lightning bolts.
Erasmus might not be particularly well-known even among Catholics, but those more attuned to secular entertainment may be familiar with Erasmus’ sobriquet, “Elmo.”
First, there was St. Elmo’s Fire, Joel Schumacher’s 1985 coming of age film in which Emilio Estevez, Rob Lowe, Andrew McCarthy and Demi Moore ponder the plasmic electrical discharge phenomenon upon which sailors hoped and prayed. The movie was a bit shmaltzy but, at least it gave us a pretty nice rock ballad.
The eponymously-named plasmic corona discharge phenomenon known as “St. Elmo’s Fire” is a luminosity associated with atmospheric electricity that appears as a faint light on tall-pointed objects such as church towers, airplane wing tips, electric power lines and the masts of ships during stormy weather. It’s usually accompanied by a crackling or hissing noise.
St. Erasmus’ other namesakes are of course, Erasmus of Rotterdam and Elmo of Sesame Street. (Yes, I’ve heard all of the jokes.)
Of course, Erasmus of Rotterdam had a colored and perhaps intemperate history wrangling with, but ultimately falling out with, Martin Luther as the latter instituted the Protestant split. Even now, most Catholics don’t dare mention his name above a whisper. But the truth is, European/Western culture is indebted to him for his efforts in getting the Northern Renaissance into gear. In fact, there is a European university exchange program without which European youth might not have had the opportunity to study abroad.
Erasmus’ In Praise of Folly is an excellent read. He wrote the manuscript while sojourning in St. Thomas More’s house.
Erasmus was bishop of Formia, in southern Italy. During the Diocletian (284-305) and Maximian Hercules (286-305) persecutions against Christians, Erasmus escaped Italy and went to Mount Libanus, where he hid for seven years. The entire time there, he was attended to by a raven ― a sure sign of his sanctity. Ravens serve only the best saints like Ss. Benedict of Norcia, the Patriarch Elijah, St. Cuthbert and St. Anthony the Great.
Before Diocletian’s troops could capture him, Erasmus was tipped off by an angel who urged him to return to Formia. En route, he encountered some pagans with mischief in their heart who took the bishop to Emperor Diocletian’s court in Antioch. Diocletian condemned the saint to horrible torture and subsequently imprisoned him but the same angel helped Erasmus escape.
He passed through Lycia, where he baptized many pagans. This caught the attention of the Western Roman Emperor Maximian who was worse than Diocletian. Erasmus, not a Christian to be underestimated, doubled down and denounced the emperor’s paganism. This didn’t sit well with Maximian. The emperor’s soldiers frog-marched the bishop to a nearby temple but everywhere the bishop cast his eye, pagan statues would crumble. Upon sighting the temple, flames erupted inside and a great many pagans met their Creator that very moment.
Upon hearing the sad news, Maximian had Erasmus sealed into a barrel whose interior was lined with sharp, protruding spikes, and rolled him down a hill. The aforementioned angel healed the bishop’s subsequent wounds.
Erasmus was presented to the Emperor once again looking hale and hearty. In his fury, Maximian had him whipped and then coated with tar and set alight. Again, Erasmus’ angel puts out the fire. In a second fit of fury, Maximian threw Erasmus into prison, intending to let him die of starvation. The attending angel arranged for Erasmus to once againescape the evil emperor’s evil clutches.
Around the year 303, upon Erasmus’ re-capture, Maximian had had as much as he could stand of the bishop and thus had Erasmus’ abdomen was cut open and had his intestines wound around a windlass and slowly pulled out. thus killing him.
There’s a very funny explanation as to why St. Erasmus is the patron of sailors and protection against lightning. It’s said that while preaching outdoors, he was nearly struck and killed by lightning. Instead of moving away in a calm, responsible and orderly exeunt stage left, Erasmus choose to abandon everything to God and stayed put. A very impressive move for both the pagans and Christians in the audience.
The electrical discharges at ships’ mastheads served as a reminder of Erasmus’ protection and came to be called “Saint Elmo’s Fire.”
In the sixth century, Pope St. Gregory the Great noted that Erasmus’ relics were preserved in Formia cathedral until African Muslim Saracens destroyed the church in 842. At that point, the saint’s resting place was moved to Gaeta. Erasmus is now the patron of Gaeta, Santeramo in Colle and Formia.
In addition, Erasmus is also invoked against cramps and cases of colic in children, and he is a patron of women in labor. Catholic farmers are also quick to call upon him to cure their sick cattle.
But the most fun fact about Erasmus is that he’s one of the 14 Holy Helpers ― a combination of Marvel’s Avengers and DC’s Justice League, except that the Holy Helpers have better costumes and weren’t perpetually drowning in bad dialogue and even worse plots like their superhero counterparts. The Holy Helpers weren’t mere “superheroes.” They are saints.