Muslims–Arabs and Moors–suddenly invaded Spain from North Africa in A.D. 711. From that date on to the end of the fifteenth century, Mohammedans ruled at least the southern reaches of the Spanish peninsula. During the era of the first Crusade (1095-99), in which European Christians sought to wrest the Holy Land from Muslim control, the Christians of northern Spain launched their own campaign to “reconquer” their country and oust the Moors from its shores. As a result, the last remaining Muslim outpost, the Kingdom of Granada, was finally overturned in 1492. At last the Spanish peninsula could once more call itself Christian.
At least in their earlier centuries of control, the Islamic overlords of Spain were fairly tolerant. They were wise enough to interfere as little as possible with local governments and church affairs. But under Muslim control, religious conflicts were bound to arise. There were, for instance, doctrinal problems. Again, while some of the Moors became Christians, some Christians also embraced Islam. Particularly at Cordova, the Muslim capital, a number of Christians died for their faith.
St. Pelagius was perhaps the youngest of these 40 or 50 martyrs. He lived in the days of Abd-ar-Rahman III, the most notable of the caliphs of Cordova. We first meet Pelagius at the age of ten when he was left with the caliph by his uncle to be a hostage. What occasioned the arrangement does not seem to be known. Anyhow, it was understood that the boy would eventually be released through an exchange of hostages.
For some reason, however, the exchange prisoners never arrived, and for three years the poor youngster remained captive. Not that he was treated badly. Indeed, as he grew into his teens and proved to be a handsome, self-possessed youth, those who had charge of him brought good reports about him to the caliph.
Caliph Abd-ar-Rahman eventually summoned Pelagius into his presence. He, too, was impressed by the lad’s potential. He even announced to him that he would willingly liberate him and confer upon him many favors. He would give him money, fine clothes, fine horses to ride, and increasing honors, but on one condition: that he renounce his Catholic faith and accept Mohammed as his prophet.
The prospect of freedom and riches would ordinarily have enchanted the average thirteen-year-old, as the caliph well knew. But the young hostage to whom he was talking was no ordinary boy. Throughout his captivity, Pelagius had kept his faith strong by prayer. His jail companions could have become a corrupting influence, but he had preserved himself from the effects of their bad example.
Would this youth accept the ruler’s offer? No, he would not. “All that means nothing to me,” he said. “A Christian I have been, Christian I am, and Christian I shall continue to be.”
Having thus failed with bribes, Abd-ar-Rahman turned to threats. Pelagius was no more moved by threats than by the promises. At length he was condemned to death. Accounts of the manner of his death vary, but it seems clear that his execution was preceded by cruel and humiliating tortures.
The Christians of Cordova rescued the boy’s poor, torn limbs and preserved them with all reverence due to a martyr. Eventually they enshrined the relics in Oviedo. His story captured a permanent place in the hearts of Spanish Catholics, and thereafter many a boy was baptized “Pelayo” in memory of the young hero, and many a church was given his name. In pictures and statues the youthful martyr is depicted either as a youth bearing red hot tongs, or as without a right hand and carrying a sword in his left.
Indeed, the youngster’s fame had spread even to Germany within the century of his death. That remarkable poet, the devout and learned Abbess Roswitha of Gandersheim,, was so touched by the story of his heroism that she wrote a long Latin eulogy of “the youthful Pelagius.”
–Father Robert F. McNamara