Feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, shelter the stranger, bury the dead. September’s St. Phocas took the corporal works of mercy to new heights. Or should I say depths? Find the answer to that and several other bad puns in our story below.
Phocas (died around 303) was a humble gardener, living on the coast of the Black Sea, in the town of Sinope, in present-day Turkey. Like most farmers, he didn’t exactly strike it rich but that did not stop him from sharing all he had. When strangers would pass by his hut as they traveled along the coast, he would welcome them and feed them with the vegetables and fruits from his modest garden.
It hardly seems possible. You see, Sinope was a possession of the Roman Empire and Phocas was an open Christian. What with all those travelers coming and going, how did Phocas survive persecution? I bet Phocas used to ask himself the same thing.
Here is how: The Emperor Valerian treated Christianity as organized crime. His brutal persecution swept away countless saints and martyrs like Lawrence and Cyprian and Sixtus, whose names you might recognize from the Roman Canon or Eucharistic Prayer I.
But then Valerian was captured and his son, Gallienus, who reigned with him, was forced to revoke his father’s anti-Christian laws. I would like to think Gallienus was compassionate but the fact was, he had bigger fish to fry. Gallienus was up to his laurels in revolts. He ended up losing quite a bit of Roman territory during his reign. But hey, the Christians were happy! For 40 years, Rome ignored them and everyone knows that (bad pun alert) ignorance is bliss. This period is called The Little Peace of the Church.
That is where we find Phocas, planted and flourishing on the fertile soil near the Black Sea, attending his ear to the sounds of the wind and the gulls, tending the garden of his soul just as he tended the garden of the earth.
Until … the reign of Diocletian. Diocletian saw himself as a reformer who would restore the empire to its former glory. Let’s face it, Gallienus was kind of a disaster. Diocletian wanted to get everybody on the same parchment page. That included forcing everyone to return to the traditional pagan polytheistic religion of Rome. Christians had never cooperated with that. So uncompromising. They just wouldn’t assimilate into the dominant pagan culture. They were a faction, a subculture and were growing more numerous day by day. They must be stopped.
Placed where he was to meet travelers and get all the news, Phocas probably knew a fresh persecution was afoot. He responded to the threat by staying right where he was and doing what he always did. No hiding for him. Finally came the day when somebody outed Phocas as a Christian to the governor, who dutifully sent soldiers to cut off his head. The soldiers arrived at the sea side hut and asked the kindly farmer within if he knew Phocas. “We need to cut off his head,” they explained.
Phocas said yes, he knew the man. “But leave it for tomorrow. You look hungry and tired. Come in. Rest yourselves. Stay the night.” Then he fed them from his garden as he had so many travelers before. After the soldiers went to sleep, Phocas crept outside to his garden and began digging. As he dug, he prayed, as he had always done.
The next morning, Phocas kept his promise and revealed his identity. The soldiers stopped in their tracks. How could they kill this man who done them so much kindness? “We will just go back and tell the governor we could not find you.” Phocas thanked them but bared his neck all the same. The soldiers beheaded him and buried him in the grave he had dug during the night.
In a short time, a church was built over the sight of Phocas’ hut. Pilgrims came to the shrine of St. Phocas and, just as they had during his life, partook of his hospitality. They departed inspired to imitate him. Sailors would set aside a plate of food each day and sell the extra share in turns to one of the crew. At the end of the voyage, the money from “the portion of St. Phocas” would be given to the poor.
Sailors also used to invoke St. Phocas against calamities at sea. Many people testified that Phocas appeared to them and protected them from storms. He was considered the patron saint of mariners until St. Nicholas of Myra came along. He is also a patron saint of gardeners and most of all, hospitality. Do you think your house guests are killing you? Do they make you want to dig your own grave? Stay focused on Phocas. He understands.
Today, the site of the original shrine in Sinope, is alas, a ruin, having suffered severe weather even while it was still being built. In the 1990s, it was excavated and steps were taken to protect the rest of it from being engulfed in the sea. (My thought is somebody should really pray to St. Phocas about that.) Meanwhile, there are still a few coastal chapels in Greece which are dedicated to St. Phocas (feast day Sept. 22) and even one town in southern Italy named San Foca, after the peaceful patron saint of earth and sea.