Saturday 22 August 2015

Saint Gunifort of Pavia, August 22

August 22 is the feast day of an Irish holy man who flourished in Italy, Saint Andrew of Fiesole. It is also, however, the feast of yet another saint reputedly from Ireland remembered in that country, Saint Gunifort. I have been reading Fra Anselmo Tommasini's account of Saint Gunifort in his Irish Saints in Italy, but below is that of Canon O'Hanlon, who has accessed the medieval Acts of the saint. Once again it seems that the claims of Irish nationality for this holy man rest only on a tradition that he was a 'Scot' and so once again I must remind my long-suffering readers that in the earlier middle ages this term was applied to the Irish. It's not a firm foundation on which to base claims of Irish nationality, but later Irish hagiologists like Fathers Colgan and White added him to the lists of native saints whose memories they commemorated. Certainly Canon O'Hanlon's willingness to place Saint Gunifort 'probably in the fourth or fifth century' raises a red flag for me as this would seem remarkably early for an Irishman to have enjoyed this type of missionary career, given that Christianity was only brought to Ireland in the fifth century. I would be far from convinced that Saint Gunifort was an Irishman but below is the evidence from Canon O'Hanlon's Lives of the Irish Saints:


The Acts of St. Guinefortus, Martyr, have been published almost from the very infancy of printing, and in the fifteenth century, by Boninus Mombritius, or Mombrizio, a distinguished poet and scholar of Milan. He collected this account from an ancient Passionarium, found in a vellum Manuscript, preserved among the Lateran archives, and which he printed during the Pontificate of Pope Sixtus IV. This holy martyr St. Gunifort is specially mentioned by Peter Paul Bosca in his Martyrology of the Church of Milan ; as likewise, by Joannes Baptista Carisius and by Aloysius Tattus, in his Martyrology of the Church of Como, in Italy. Also Ferrarius, Jacobus Gualla, and Petrus Galesinius have notices of him, at the present date, in their respective Martyrologies. In his "Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Scotorum," Thomas Dempster inserts an account of St. Gunifort. The Bollandists, likewise, present their Acts of St. Gunifort, at the 22nd of August. These Acts, in two Chapters, have a Prologue, and are comprised in seventeen paragraphs. Their author is unknown, nor can it be discovered when or where he lived. The editor, Father William Cuper, S.J., has given a previous critical commentary in fifteen paragraphs, and he has added notes. A brief account of St. Gunifortis is given by Rev. S. Baring-Gould. Among the list of lives unpublished by Colgan, as we find from Charles MacDonnell's paper, is the name of St. Gunifort, and entered for the 22nd of August.

With the history of the present holy man is associated that of a saintly brother, named Guiniboldus, and two sisters, whose names are unknown; but, all of these suffered death, for the sake of Christ. The period when these holy persons flourished has been contested by several writers.

According to Dempster, who has an account of him, the Martyr St. Gunifort and his two sisters were natives of Scotland. However, only in a general way do the most ancient accounts term them Scoti, or Scots; and, it is now universally conceded, by the modern historians of Ireland and of Scotland, that long after the introduction of Christianity to both countries, the terms Scotus and Scoti applied in use, only to a native or natives of Ireland.

However, those pious brothers and sisters were Scots by race, and of a noble family, as declared in their ancient panegyric. Whether their parents had been Christians is not distinctly stated. Still, it is related, that inspired with a desire to gain over souls to Christ in Pagan lands, and if necessary in this endeavour to encounter martyrdom; the two brothers and their two sisters resolved on leaving their parents, friends, and native country to make that heroic sacrifice. Their parents and friends remonstrated in vain, offering various inducements and persuasions, to divert their minds from such a purpose.

Having borne with this opposition for a long time, in the kingdom of Scotia; at length, they were resolved to seek escape from such importunities, and all four left their native country to journey afar in strange and distant lands. After enduring much fatigue in their travels and many hardships, through the Providence of God directing, they came to the territory of the Pagan Teutons. There the fury of persecution beset the most holy brothers, Guinefortus and Guiniboldus, with their two devoted sisters. These latter were remarkable, not alone for beautiful features, but for their purity of heart and strength of mind. By the ferocious Teutons, this noble band of brothers and sisters had been subjected to every species of insult and injury. At length, both of the holy sisters were martyred in the territory of the Teutons; yet, that particular kind of death they endured has not been recorded. However, they thus escaped all temporal torments, and passed to the embraces of their Divine spouse, Jesus Christ. Their sacred remains appear to have rested in the place of their martyrdom, although no knowledge of the exact spot has been preserved.

The two surviving brothers grieved that their beloved sisters had been thus deprived of life, or rather that these had preceded them, in obtaining the glorious crown of martyrdom. The brothers even reproached the cruel Teutons, according to the Legend, that they were not offered up as sacrifices at the same time for the cause of Christ. For using these words, although threats and angry manifestations were returned, yet the Pagans could not but admire their wonderful fortitude and courage. They deigned, even, to ask for an explanation of the Faith that was in them ; and, the holy brothers gratified them in that respect, but apparently without making much impression on their obdurate and stony hearts. Nevertheless, the Teutons persisted in requiring that they should offer sacrifice to idols. The holy brothers then declared their resolution to die, rather than do so. Whereupon, admiring their resolution, and knowing them to be good men, the Teutons would not put them to death.

After the death of their sisters, the two noble brothers, Guinifort and Guinibold, filled with the heroic desire to gain like them the crown of martyrdom, resolved on travelling to Italy, where persecution raged against the Christians at that period. This seems to have been during the time of the Pagan Emperors; and before the Arians had attempted to spread their errors there, notwithstanding a doubtful observation contained in the Acts of our saints, which might lead the reader to suppose that their persecutors were heretics.

Their journey was made accordingly to the city of Como, where the Roman authority then prevailed, and where the followers of Christ were daily subjected to torments and death. However, they were not afraid to appear in the public places of the pagans, at Como, and to announce themselves Christians, while reproaching the lictors for great cruelties towards their brethren in the Faith. To the authorities they were then denounced, and the Praetor ordered them to be arrested and brought before him. At that time, Guinifort and Guinibold were found preaching the doctrines of Christ to a great multitude of willing listeners in the public streets. However, the brothers did not obey that first summons, and [the Praetor's emissaries returned to him with a report, that they disregarded his threats, and that nearly all the inhabitants followed them.

Whereupon, the chief magistrate at Como ordered a great number of armed men to proceed thither, and making them prisoners, to bring them into his presence. Being asked whence they came, and why they attempted to seduce the people, the brothers courageously replied: "We are Scots by race, and Christians by profession; but, we seduce not your people, rather do we invite the sons of God to the country of eternal happiness." Then the Prefect asked whom did they regard as the sons of God, when they immediately replied, "Those whom He hath redeemed with His most precious blood." Filled with rage, on receiving such a reply, the tyrant commanded them to be led through the public streets of that city, and afterwards to be decapitated. Thinking that by ordering one to be sacrificed in presence of the other, the survivor might be moved through fear of death to apostatize; while the brothers were congratulating each other, that they were to suffer martyrdom together, Gunibold was beheaded, at the place of public execution, and Guinifort was released for that time. During the night, the Christians came stealthily and removed the remains of the martyr Gunibold for interment. From that to the present period, his sacred relics have remained at Como.

It does not seem likely, that Guinifort long survived. However, filled with zeal to preach the words of life, he went alone to Milan, where he converted many to the true Faith, for which he still desired to suffer, and to share the glorious crowns of his beloved sisters and brother. Nor were his hopes long deferred, for having been apprehended once more, Gunifort was again brought before the judges, and ordered by them to sacrifice before their idols. He replied: "I desire most earnestly to sacrifice myself to the living God." "Whom do you call the living God?" asked his persecutor. He then answered: "Jesus Christ is the living God and man, who created and redeemed me with His precious blood." Then, the pagan judge commanded him to be conducted without the city, and to be beheaded. Moreover, while he was led to that place destined for his execution, the lictors were ordered to inflict severe stripes upon him, and to discharge arrows against his body. That cruel sentence they strictly obeyed. They struck him repeatedly with stones and arrows, until he was all covered with wounds. Fainting through loss of blood, the glorious Martyr fell to the ground, before he arrived at the place destined for his execution. Then he exclaimed : "O Lord, King of eternal glory, O clement Father, receive my body and soul, which I offer to Thee as a sacrifice." He then lay prostrate on the earth, and apparently lifeless. Thinking he was dead, the persecutors left him there, and then departed.

After remaining for some time in that state of helplessness, it pleased the Almighty to give Guinefort strength to rise; yet, although thus severely injured and acutely suffering, with arrows fixed in his body and which he could not extract, he was enabled nevertheless to reach the noble city of Papia. In the Roman times, it was called Ticinum after the river Ticinus, now the Tesino, which flows by its walls ; but, between the sixth and eighth centuries, the ancient name disappeared, and it assumed the appellation of Papia, softened by Italian euphony into Pavia. There a pious Christian woman, who dwelt near the Church of St. Romanus, received him with great charity and veneration, while she tended him with great care for the three days he survived in her house. But then his time had arrived to receive the eternal crown, and departing this life, his soul ascended to join his sisters and brother in Paradise. At that moment, the wonders of the Almighty were manifested on behalf of his devoted servant ; for the Angels of Heaven stood around the sacred remains, filling the whole house with resplendent light, and with a most fragrant odour. At the same time were heard these joyous words of Divine praise: "Blessed be the Lord, who is always glorious in His saints."

In the Panegyric of St. Guinefort, we are told, that he was interred on the eleventh of the September Kalends (August 22nd), in the Church of St. Mary, near the Church of the great St. Romanus, where afterwards the Almighty was pleased to work many miracles, in honour of His holy Martyr. Many blind persons visiting his tomb were restored to sight. Numbers of lepers and other infirm persons, on going there, were also restored to health, through the prayers of St. Guinifort. These miracles shed no slight lustre and renown on Pavia, the city in which his relics had been preserved. Without the walls of Pavia is a church dedicated to St. Gunifort; but at Milan, where he suffered for the Faith, although the common people usually called him Bonifort, little was known regarding him, and such was likewise the case in respect to his brother the Martyr Guinibold at Como.

The present holy Martyr is commemorated in the Roman Martyrology, on the 22nd August. Besides, on this same day, various ecclesiastical writers have noted his feast, which appears to have been celebrated, not on the day of his death, but on that of his interment at Pavia. Among these writers are the author of his ancient Acts, Pietro Paulo Bosca, Joannes Baptista Carisius, Aloysius Tatti, Jacobus Gualla, Petrus Galesinus, and the Bollandists. Philip Ferarius, and Father Stephen White also commemorate him. Dempster—who claims him as a Scot, together with his brother St. Gunibald and his sisters—agrees as to the date for his feast. Gunifort, also called Gunifortis and Gunifortus in ancient writings, was regarded with special veneration in the city of Pavia.

Among the courageous and zealous Irish Martyrs who suffered for the Faith, the holy brothers Guinefort and Gunibold, with their two nameless sisters, deserve to be held in especial veneration. From the society of family and of friends, and from the attractions of home, they resolved to take up their cross and to follow Christ. Faithful to Him in their lives and deaths, their sacrifice was accepted, and their final reward had been secured, when their sufferings were over in this world, and crowned with the laurel of martyrdom.

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