St. Onesimus the Slave—A Runaway Holy One

The Colossian convert’s memorial is Feb. 15. Blessed Onesimus, pray for us!

Apostle from 70 Onisim. Constantinople. 985 g. Thumbnail Minology Vasily II. Vatican Library. Rome.
Apostle from 70 Onisim. Constantinople. 985 g. Thumbnail Minology Vasily II. Vatican Library. Rome. (photo: Register Files)

I urge you on behalf of my child Onesimus, whose father I have become in my imprisonment, who was once useless to you but is now useful to [both] you and me. I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. ―Philemon 10–12

If you have ever felt overworked and underpaid or have had a desire to become somewhat of a “slave” to God, Blessed Onesimus might pique your interest. Onesimus was a slave to an early Christian family of Colossae. Understandably, Onesimus felt discouraged with his “job” and wanted a better life, so he ran away. He somehow managed to meet up with an imprisoned Paul, either in Ephesus or Rome―indications in the Bible are not clear. Paul, with his amazing understanding and ability to evangelize, first managed to convince Onesimus to embrace Christianity, then to return to his earthly master Philemon.

Paul sent a personal letter to Philemon and his family along with Onesimus, encouraging forgiveness and acceptance toward the slave. This letter became known as the Letter to Philemon. It has a very tender touch to it; you can feel Paul’s gentle nudge toward tolerance and equality.

There is a slight hint to a more relaxed side of Paul in this Letter to Philemon. The name Onesimus is Greek for “useful.” Paul plays on that word, pointing out to Philemon’s family how Onesimus was for a time “useless” but had become “useful” since his conversion to Christianity. Tradition tells us that Philemon heeded Paul’s words in the letter and did not punish Onesimus upon his return, as would have been the norm, but sent his slave back to Paul. Onesimus went from being a slave for an earthly master to a slave for God. Surely he was a wonderful help in establishing the roots of Catholicism.

Onesimus was evidently friends with another Bible saint, Tychicus (April 29), for it was Onesimus and Tychicus together who delivered the Letter to the Colossians to the Christians of Colossae. It is feasible that Onesimus also knew Epaphras (July 19), a saint of the Bible who did much to establish the Church in Colossae.

It is believed that Onesimus was martyred about AD 90.


Bible Journaling with Blessed Onesimus

If you pull out an older saint book you will most likely find Blessed Onesimus’s memorial as Feb. 16. In addition, some resources might refer to this ancient slave as a saint rather than a blessed.  In the most current Roman Martyrology (2004), however, this Colossian convert’s memorial was moved back one day—to Feb. 15.  And, he is listed as a Blessed—though, in ancient Christianity, the labels holy, saint, and blessed were often used interchangeably. Onesimus’s status as a slave must have been difficult and frustrating; people who are exasperated with their employment might find comfort in turning to Onesimus (oh-NES-i-mus) to request prayers for more heartening positions.  Below is a list of five passages that help to shed light on Bd. Onesimus; if interested, ponder one passage a day, jot down some reflective thoughts, and ask Bd. Onesimus to pray for your needs during the five days. 

  • Day 1) Colossians 4:7–9
  • Day 2) Philemon 7–12
  • Day 3) Philemon 13-17
  • Day 4) Philemon 18-21
  • Day 5) Colossians 3:22–25