Pope St. Gregory the Great is the only writer who has recorded the touching story of this humble Roman saint of his own day. Like the Lazarus of our Lord’s parable of the rich man and the poor man, St. Servulus was a crippled beggar whose piety won him a place “in Abraham’s bosom.”
Servulus, the pope tells us, was paralyzed from infancy. He could not stand. He could not sit up. He could not carry his hand to his mouth. He could not turn himself about. For even the basic services of life he had to depend on others.
The poor cripple could do nothing to support himself but beg alms. (There was no state welfare in those days, nor was there any system of private charities for the badly disabled.) So his mother and brother carried him daily to a spot in the porch of St. Clement’s Church in Rome. There he besaught the charity of churchgoers and passersby.
What was remarkable about this poor man was his devout acceptance of disability. True to his name (“Servulus” means “little servant”), he did not use his ailments as an excuse to neglect the love of God and neighbor. Whatever alms he received beyond his own needs, he passed on to others. With some of the gifts, he brought books on sacred scripture. Although unable to read himself, he had others read to him; and he memorized, pondered and prayed over what he heard. He likewise learned a number of hymns of praise and thanksgiving, and often sang them as he lay on the cold threshold. Singing served the double effect of honoring God and dulling pain.
All this went on, we are told, for a good many years. Eventually, however, Servulus sensed that his life was coming to an end. Confined to his bed at home, he asked that the poor and the pilgrims whom he had come to know, gather at his bedside and join him in singing hymns. Suddenly he cried out. “Do you hear the great and beautiful music in heaven?” These were his last words. His soul, ever beautiful and agile, left the prison of his contorted frame.
The devout beggar of St. Clement’s was buried in the very church where he had begged. Each year on December 23, St. Clement’s celebrates the feast day of its own special mendicant.
St. Gregory speaks of St. Servulus as if he knew him well. He says that one of his own monks who attended the death and funeral commented on the sweet fragrance that arose from the body of the dead cripple.
The pope found a profound lesson in the virtues of this wise paralytic. He cried shame upon those people gifted with health and wealth who complained of far lighter crosses and were stingy with their possessions.
For St. Servulus, life itself was a gift beyond compare.
–Father Robert F. McNamara