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St George, Patron of England

Monday, April 23, 2007
Martyrdom is now an ambiguous and misunderstood phenomenon. If it simply means 'dying for what you believe', what makes that laudable and holy? It is certainly not laudable and holy if such a demise inflicts suffering and death on others, or if it is a deliberate taking of one’s own life removed from the context of threat and persecution in faith.

For the Catholic Church, the content of what is believed bears upon whether or not individuals are to be venerated as martyrs. In Oxford, for example, there is a ‘Martyrs Memorial’ which commemorates men who died for Protestantism under the Catholic Queen Mary during the Reformation. The Church, however, venerates Thomas More and John Fisher as saints and martyrs from this same period because they died upholding the Catholic faith. John Paul II re-defined martyrdom when he canonised Maximilian Kolbe who died as a martyr of charity rather than a martyr of faith. Even more controversial was his canonization of Edith Stein as a martyr: she died because she was Jewish by race and Catholic in her faith. Martyrdom, as a holy and sanctifying example, must be carefully understood.

These points are relevant to the remembrance of England’s patron, because St George as a martyr and as a soldier remains significant across Christian denominations seventeen centuries after his execution. He is venerated in the Church of England, the Catholic Church and particularly the Eastern and Orthodox churches. This is extraordinary considering nothing is known about him for certain. Thought to have been tortured and put to death in 303 under the Emperor Diocletian for refusing to participate in the persecution of Christians and counting himself among them, he is said to have been a tribune in the Roman army and came from what is now Turkey. But even these pieces of information are vague, even legendary. It is interesting to note that as early as 496, Pope Gelasius includes George as one of the saints ‘whose name is rightly reverenced but whose actions are known only to God’.

It is thus extraordinary that his patronage is linked to so many countries and situations. It is not only England who asks for his prayers but Aragon, Catalonia, Georgia, Lithuania, Palestine, Portugal, Germany and Greece; also Moscow, Istanbul, Genoa and Venice (second to St Mark). Why is an unknown, Turkish soldier, living and dying before many of these places gained their identity, revered as a national, identifying patron?

I think we must return to the careful examination we have made of martyrdom. George, in the face of darkness and persecution, chose the light and followed his Lord Jesus. As a soldier he would have known battle, faced the possibility of death. This is not the issue. His submissive, passionate action, defying soldier’s orders, maintained compassion in the face of tyranny and justice at the risk of dishonour and treason. This is the example that so many have found in our patron saint, that sudden rush of love that falls on those born again in the Spirit, that at the last, changes one’s life.

But what of the identity that the patronage of George the Turk brings to England? Ireland’s Saint Patrick brought the light of Christ to their nation, defining the country’s soul; St David was a saintly Bishop, shepherding his people in Wales in the Christian life. They identify with and bring identity to their nations. But St George is patron of England, not because he defines who England is, but because he exemplifies what we should be: compassionate, honourable, Christian.

'I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game's afoot:
Follow your spirit; and, upon this charge
Cry God for Harry, England and St George!'.

Henry V: Act 3, Scene 1

* * * * *

St George is depicted above in a rare 14th-century wall painting from the parish church of Hornton, Oxfordshire.



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