Many cities have their own patron saints. Venice has St. Mark; Strasbourg, St. Fridolin; Paris, St. Genevieve; Chester (England), St. Werburga. These ancient patrons are usually adult saints. However, Alcala and Madrid in Spain share two child patrons, the brothers Justus and Pastor. When they were executed, Justus was thirteen; Pastor was nine.
The story of their martyrdom, as it comes down to us (perhaps imperfectly), is as follows: Diocletian and Maximian Hercules, Roman co-emperors around 300 AD, authorized the last great Roman persecution of Christians. Their prefect (governor) in Spain, a man named Dacian, carried out the imperial edicts with pagan zeal, touring Spain in search of Christians so that he might convert or erase them.
The governor’s tour brought him to Complutum, an old Roman city called today Alcala de Henares, which is not far from the present Madrid. The Complutensian Christians were rooted out by the police and brought before his tribunal for judgement.
Among the Christian children of Alcala there were two little brothers, Justus and Pastor. Their family background is unknown, but they must have come from educated and devoutly Christian stock. They were in class at the elementary school at the time of Dacian’s arrival. Learning of what was happening at the governor’s court to their grown-up fellow Christians, they burned with a desire to share in their witness to the faith. So they threw down their books and writing tablets and ran off to the place where Dacian had set up his public tribunal. With boyish enthusiasm they elbowed their way up to where the adult Christians were on trial, caught the eye of the civil officials, and made it quite clear to them that they, too, where Christians and not afraid to suffer for it.
The police eventually brought the lads up in front of where Dacian sat. Had he been a man of heart, he could have been touched at the sight of the innocent heroism of the young brothers. Being without compassion, he was simply annoyed with the boys for their intrusion. Sassy kids who trivialized the dignity of an imperial prefect deserved punishment. A good whipping, he thought, would destroy their “courage;” so he ordered them to be given a beating. The whippers laid on brutally, but with the strokes the boys’ commitment to their faith grew stronger, rather than weaker. Amazed at their steadfastness, the adult Christians, some of whom had been weakening, took inspiration, and began to encourage each other to be firm in faith. Embarrassed by his inability to master Justus and Pastor, Dacian ordered the pair beheaded.
The thought may occur to us, could children nine and thirteen really deserve to be crowned as saints by the Church? The answer is, Why not? It might be difficult to prove that children of that age had achieved heroic virtues apart from martyrdom, but a number of children have been proclaimed saints or blesseds who died in defense of Christian faith and virtue. Ordinarily, the basic requirement would be that they had reached the age of reason, were able to discern right from wrong, and chose to die rather than betray their consciences. In their innocence, young children can often see issues like this more clearly than adults, and follow through. I should think that the main problem with a persecuted child would be his or her natural fear. But God’s grace can take care of that.
May the spiritual courage of Ss. Justus and Pastor inspire us as it inspired the wavering adult Christians of Alcala. Their story reminds us of the truth that if we stand by Him, He will always stand by us.
–Father Robert F. McNamara