St. Phocas of Sinope was born in the Mideast and was a martyr held in ancient veneration. Beyond that, we know nothing for sure about him –not even the century in which he died. But the popular story of his life, however untrustworthy as history, is nevertheless pleasant and touching enough to be retold.
Phocas is said to have lived as a hermit beside the gate of Sinope, a city on the shores of the Black Sea. He divided his time between praying, tending a flower garden and helping the needy. Actually, these labors of body and soul were not in separate compartments. Phocas saw in his flowers a constant reminder of the beauty, goodness and power of God. St. Phocas was also noted for his hospitality. Travelers and strangers who could find no other lodging were welcome to eat and sleep in his little house.
Although this hermit was known for his piety and charity, he nevertheless became a victim of the Roman persecutions. Perhaps under Emperor Trajan, in the early second century, or perhaps under Diocletian, around the year 300, he was put on the government blacklist of Christians. The magistrates did not even bring him to trial. They simply sent out two soldiers with orders to kill him on sight.
Now, when the designated executioners arrived at Sinope, they searched in vain for a billet. Then they stopped at Phocas’s cell, without recognizing him. He at once invited them to be his guests. During dinner they told him why they had been sent to Sinope, and asked where Phocas could be found. The hermit replied that he was well acquainted with the man they sought, and would tell them in the morning where they could contact him.
After the guests had gone to bed, the saint went out into his garden and dug himself a grave. He spent the rest of the night in prayer, preparing for death. In the morning their host announced to the soldiers that Phocas was now at their disposal. “Where is he?” they asked. “He is here,” said the hermit. “I myself am the man.” At first the two visitors were nonplussed. How could they ever lay hands on this person who had shown them such kindness?
It was the victim himself who solved their dilemma. He explained to them that, in his belief, to die for one’s faith was a favor and the highest of privileges. So they went ahead with their assignment and cut off his head. Out of gratitude and devotion to their kindly fellow citizen, the Christians of Sinope erected a fine church named after him to serve as a resting place for his relics. St. Phocas’s church became a much frequented shrine. Around the year 400 St. Asterius, bishop of Amasea, preached a sermon in honor of St. Phocas on September 22, his feast day. In this panegyric, Asterius said, “The magnificent church which is possessed of his body is the comfort and ease of the afflicted, the health of the sick, the storehouse plentifully supplying the needs of the poor.” Sailors, he added, still sing hymns in honor of the saint, for he has often assisted them.
How St. Phocas happened to become a patron of mariners remains a puzzle. It is easy to see, however, why gardeners have sought his patronage. May we all, like him, be reminded by flowers of what Jesus once said to His disciples, “If God clothes in such splendor the grass of the field … how much more will He provide for you, O weak of faith!” (Lk. 12:28).
–Father Robert F. McNamara