As I watch my social media feeds, I confess I’m a tad jealous of two friends of mine who just so happen to be visiting Barcelona. Today is the Feast of St. George – “Sant Jordi” in Catalan – and he is the patron saint of both the city of Barcelona and the region of Catalonia, of which Barcelona is the capital. My friends really lucked out on their trip corresponding with the celebration of local traditions about the city’s favorite hero.
Of course, old stories about St. George fighting a dragon are not to be taken literally. Most scholars believe that George was born in what is today Palestine to Greek Christian parents sometime around 275 A.D.; his father was a well-respected and wealthy army officer, but both George’s parents died when he was in his teens. Like his father before him, George decided to join the army, and eventually rose through the ranks to become an officer. He was later imprisoned, tried, and finally executed on April 23, 303 A.D., under the mass persecutions and purges of Christians carried out by the Roman Emperor Diocletian in the early 4th century.
Even though he was never in Catalonia – whatever the charming old medieval legends may say – St. George does have a more important, spiritual connection to the Christian community in Barcelona. St. George was part of a huge wave of martyrs, created just before Christianity was finally legalized under Diocletian’s successor Constantine. In Barcelona, within 12 months of St. George’s execution in what is now Turkey, the city had a number of its own Christian martyrs, as a result of Diocletian’s murderous paranoia.
St. Eulalia, a young girl martyred as part of this persecution near Barcelona’s old Roman Forum, is now entombed in a magnificent shrine beneath the equally magnificent Barcelona Cathedral, just a few hundred feet from where she met her untimely end. St. Severus, Bishop of Barcelona during Diocletian’s reign, was also executed during the same time; today his remains lie in the only perfectly preserved Baroque church in the city, a beautiful, peaceful spot for contemplation. And the ancient Basilica of Sants Just i Pastor, which served as the Pro-Cathedral in the Middle Ages while Barcelona’s present Cathedral was being built, was constructed over the catacombs containing the remains of two Christian schoolboys, Justus and Pastor. They were beheaded near the spot where the beautiful church named for them now stands, during the same period, for refusing to recant their faith.
This gives us a sense not only of how the Church attracts people of all ages and backgrounds, but also how quickly and widely it spread from its humble beginnings in Jerusalem. George serving in the army out in Turkey would never have known or heard about Eulalia, Severus, Justus, and Pastor living in a small colonial town on the Iberian Peninsula. However all of them, as well as the many others who met their end for their Christian faith, knew that they were part of something much larger than themselves, and chose to act heroically, when faced with either confessing the truth or saving their own skin.
In the present age, examples like that of St. George are good ones for us to keep in mind. Here was a real hero, dragon or no dragon. He chose the fork in the road that lead to his death, but which also led him to life, and to the respect of thousands of Christians down the centuries who have named their children in his honor. Would that if and when our time comes, we would be heroic enough to make the same choice that he did.