(Died A.D. 304)
With our present revival of the permanent diaconate, further interest is being shown in deacon saints of the past. Ordained to serve the bishop as preachers and administrators, today’s permanent deacons can look back with special pride on three men who not only preached and ministered devotedly, but received the martyr’s crown. These were St. Stephen, the protomartyr of Christianity, and one of the first seven deacons set apart by the Apostles; St. Lawrence of Rome, loyal servant of Pope St. Sixtus and the Roman poor, executed in A.D. 258; and St. Vincent of Saragossa, Spain, ordained by his bishop and patron, St. Valerius of Saragossa.
St. Vincent, though widely known in Europe, is less well known in America. His feast is kept on January 22. Vincent was a native of Saragossa, the son of one Eutricius and his wife Enola. The local bishop, Valerius, impressed by this promising youth, saw to it that he was carefully educated, and then ordained him to the diaconate. Although the new deacon was quite young, Valerius nevertheless entrusted him with religious instruction and with most of the diocesan preaching, for the bishop himself suffered an impediment of speech.
How long Vincent served in his diaconal role is unknown, but it was to be terminated by main force during the last of the great Roman persecutions. In 303, co-emperors Diocletian and Maximian issued two decrees intended to wipe out all Christian clergy; and in 304, by another decree, they extended the persecution to the Christian laity. This long-lasting persecution was a veritable war against the Christian faith. Tens of thousands of Christians were its victims.
Entrusted by his office to carry on the anti-Christian campaign in Spain was the Roman governor, Dacian. He proved an efficient executioner and a cruel one.
One of Governor Dacian’s early steps was to arrest Valerius and his aide, Deacon Vincent of Saragossa. He had them transported to Valencia, where he jailed them. Thinking that deprivation of food and comfort might break their wills, he left them in prison for a good while. When they appeared before his tribunal, however, they seemed so strong in body and resolution that he scolded his officers for having treated them too well in prison. The governor used the familiar approach of alternating persuasion with threats – the carrot or the stick. Valerius at first remained silent. Then his deacon said to him, “Father, if you order me, I will speak.” The tongue-tied bishop whispered, “Son, as I committed to you the dispensation of the word of God, so now I charge you to answer in vindication of the faith which we defend.” Thereupon Vincent told the governor that neither threats nor promises would influence them. They were ready to suffer anything for the true God.
Dacian decided to concentrate on the forthright young man. The bishop he simply sent into exile, but for Vincent he reserved the cruelest series of tortures that he could think up. Divine aid was not wanting to the deacon, however. Although his body twitched with pain, his soul remained calm and his mind even witty. Eventually, Dacian himself had to give up. He had never seen such courage. But he was not yet done. Having flayed Vincent and grilled him alive on a gridiron, he threw his mangled body into a dungeon. Eventually, the faithful were permitted to see the victim and dress his wounds, but he died shortly after being laid in a regular bed.
The admiration of his furious persecutor was outdone by the admiration of the faithful for this heroic spiritual victim. Veneration of Vincent quickly spread throughout Europe and even into the East. His name was placed in the Litany of the Saints. Valencia, Saragossa, and Portugal adopted him as patron, as did winemakers, brickmakers and sailors. But he is most appropriately invoked by deacons.
May his prayers win them courage and eloquence in preaching the Good News!
–Father Robert F. McNamara