The Protomartyr of the Benedictine Order stands before us today in his strength and beauty. The Roman Empire had fallen, and the yoke of the Arian Goths lay heavy upon Italy. Rome was no longer in the hands of the glorious races which had made her greatness; these, nevertheless, kept up their honorable traditions. They offered a great lesson, for future times of revolution, to other descendants of not less noble families: in lieu of the ensign of civic honor once committed to their fathers, the survivors of the old patrician ranks made it their duty to raise still higher the standard of true heroism, of those virtues which alone are everlasting. Thus St. Benedict of Nursia, fleeing into the desert, had rendered greater service than any mighty conqueror to Rome and her immortal destinies. The world soon discovered this fact; and then began, as St. Gregory the Great tells us (Dialog. lib. 2, ch. 3), the concourse of Roman nobles, bringing their children to the patriarch of monks, to be educated by him for almighty God.
Placidus was the eldest son of the patrician Tertullus. The excellent qualities early discovered in the child led his worthy father to offer to God, without delay, this dear first-fruit of his paternity. In those days, parents loved their children, not for this passing world, but for eternity; not for themselves, but for the Lord. The faith of Tertullus was well rewarded when, twenty years later, not only his first-born, but also his two other sons and their sister, were crowned with martyrdom. This was not the first holocaust of the kind in that heroic family, if it be true that they were relatives by blood, and heirs of the goods as well as of the virtues, of the holy Martyr Eustace, who had been immolated four centuries earlier with his wife and sons (Feast—September 20).
Among the children of promise enlisted by the vanquished nobles of the ancient Empire in the new militia of the holy valley, Equitius brought to Subiaco (the site of St. Benedict's first monasteries) his son Maurus, a boy some years older than Placidus. Henceforth the names of St. Maurus (Feast—January 15) and St. Placidus became inseparable from that of St. Benedict; and the patriarch acquired a new glory from his two sons, so united and yet so different.
Equal in their love of their master and father, and themselves equally loved by him for their equal fidelity in good works, they experienced to the full that delight in virtue which makes its practice a second nature. However similar their zeal in using "the most strong and bright armor of obedience," in the service of Christ the King, it was wonderful to see the master accommodating himself to the age of his disciples; so adapting himself to their differences of character, that there was nothing precipitate, nothing forced, in his education. It disciplined nature without crushing it, and followed the Holy Ghost without endeavoring to take the lead. In St. Maurus was especially reproduced St. Benedict's austere gravity; in St. Placidus his simplicity and sweetness. St. Benedict took St. Maurus to witness the chastisement inflicted on the wandering monk, who would not stay at prayer; but St. Placidus accompanied him to the mountain-top, where his prayer obtained a spring of water to deliver from danger and fatigue the brethren dwelling on the rocks above the Anio. But when, walking along the riverside, holding St. Placidus by the hand and leaning upon St. Maurus, the legislator of monks explained to them the code of perfection they were afterwards to propagate, the angels know not which most to admire: the candor of the one, winning the father's most tender affection; or the precocious maturity of the other, meriting the holy patriarch's confidence, and already sharing his burden.
Who does not recollect the admirable scene of St. Maurus walking on the water and saving St. Placidus from drowning? Monastic traditions never weary of extolling the obedience of St. Maurus, St. Benedict's humility, and the sagacious simplicity of the child pronouncing sentence as judge of the prodigy. Of such children the master could say from experience: "The Lord often-times revealeth that which is best, to him that is the younger" (Rule Ch. 3). And we may well believe that the recollections of the holy valley prompted him, later on, to lay down in his rule this prescription: "In all places whatsoever, let not age be taken into account as regardeth order, neither let it be to the prejudice of anyone; for Samuel and Daniel, while yet children, were judges over the elders" (Rule Ch. 63).
The following lessons, taken from the Monastic Breviary, will complete the account of the life of St. Placidus, and relate the manner of his death. In 1588 the discovery of the martyrs' relics at Messina confirmed the truth of their Acts. On this occasion, Pope Sixtus V extended the celebration of their Feast, under the rite of simplex, to the Universal Church:
St. Placidus, a Roman by birth and son of Tertullus, belonged to the noble family of the Anicii. Offered to God while still a child, he was entrusted to St. Benedict, and made such progress in sanctity and in the monastic life, as to become one of his principal disciples. He was present when the holy father obtained from God by prayer a fountain of water in the solitude of Subiaco. While still a boy, being sent one day to draw water, he fell into the lake, but was miraculously saved by the monk St. Maurus, who at the command of the holy father ran dry-shod over the water. Later on he accompanied St. Benedict to Monte Cassino. At the age of 21, he was sent into Sicily, to defend, against certain covetous persons, the goods and lands which his father had given to Monte Cassino. On the way he performed so many great miracles, that he arrived at Messina with a reputation for sanctity. He built a monastery on his paternal estate, not far from the harbor, and gathered together thirty monks; being thus the first to introduce the monastic life into the island.
Nothing could be more placid or more humble than his behavior; while he surpassed everyone in prudence, gravity, kindness, and unruffled tranquility of mind. He often spent whole nights in the contemplation of heavenly things, only sitting down for a short time when overpowered by the necessity of sleep. He was most zealous in observing silence; and when it was necessary to speak, the subjects of his conversation were the contempt of the world and the imitation of Christ. His fasts were most severe, and he abstained all the year round from flesh and every kind of dairy food. In Lent he took only bread and water on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays; the rest of the week he passed without any food. He never drank wine, and always wore a hairshirt. So numerous and so remarkable were the miracles he worked, that the sick came to him in crowds to be cured, not only from the neighborhood, but also from Etruria and Africa. But St. Placidus, in his great humility, worked all his miracles in the name of St. Benedict, attributing them to his merits.
His holy example and the wonders he wrought caused the Christian Faith to spread rapidly. In the fifth year after his arrival in Sicily, the Saracens (who were then pagans, this being before the time of Mohammed) made a sudden incursion, and seized upon St. Placidus and his thirty monks while they were singing the night Office in the church. At the same time were taken Eutychius and Victorinus, St. Placidus’ brothers, and his sister the virgin Flavia, who had come from Rome to visit him; and also Donatus, Faustus, and the deacon Firmatus. Donatus was beheaded on the spot. The rest were taken before Manucha, the chief of the pirates; and as they firmly refused to adore his idols, they were beaten with rods, and cast, bound hand and foot, into prison, without food. Every day they were beaten afresh, but God supported them. After many days, they were again led before the tyrant; and as they still stood firm in the Faith, they were again repeatedly beaten, then stripped of their clothes, and hung, head downwards, over thick smoke to suffocate. They were left for dead, but the next day were found alive, and miraculously healed of their wounds.
The tyrant then addressed himself to the virgin Flavia apart. But finding he could gain nothing by threats or promises, he ordered her to be stripped, and hung by the feet from a high beam, insulting her meanwhile upon her nakedness. But the virgin answered: Man and woman have the same author and Creator, God; hence neither my sex, nor this nakedness which I endure for love of him will be any disadvantage to me in His eyes, Who for my sake chose not only to be stripped, but also to be nailed to a cross. Manucha, enraged at this reply, ordered her to be beaten and tortured with smoke, and then handed her over to be dishonored. At the virgin's prayer, God struck all who attempted to approach her, with sudden stiffness and pain in all their limbs. The tyrant next attacked St. Placidus, the virgin's brother, who tried to convince him of the vanity of his idols; Manucha thereupon commanded his mouth and teeth to be broken with stones, and his tongue to be cut out by the root; but the martyr spoke as clearly and easily as before. The barbarian grew more furious at this miracle, and commanded that St. Placidus, with his sister and brethren should be crushed under an enormous weight of anchors and millstones; but even this torture was powerless to hurt them. Finally, thirty-six of St. Placidus’ family, with their leader, and several others, were beheaded on the shore near Messina, and gained the palm of martyrdom on the third of the Nones (the 5th) of October, in the year of salvation 539. Gordian, a monk of that monastery, who had escaped by flight, found all their bodies entire after several days, and buried them with tears. Not long afterwards the barbarians, in punishment of their crime, were swallowed up by the avenging waves of the sea.
"Placidus, my beloved son, why should I weep for thee? Thou art taken from me, only that thou mayest belong to all men. I will give thanks for this sacrifice of the fruit of my heart, offered to Almighty God." Thus, on hearing of this day's triumph, spoke St. Benedict, his spiritual father, mingling tears with his joy. He did not survive St. Placidus long; yet long enough to complete, of his own accord, the sacrifice of separations, by sending into far-off France the companion of St. Placidus' childhood, St. Maurus, who was destined not to rejoin him in Heaven for many long years. Charity seeketh not her own interests; she finds them by forgetting self, and losing self in God. St. Placidus had disappeared; St. Maurus had been sent away; St. Benedict was about to die: human prudence would have believed the holy patriarch's work in danger of perishing; whereas, at this critical moment, it strengthened its roots and extended its branches over the whole world. Unless the grain of wheat falling into the ground die, itself remaineth alone; but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit (John 12: 24-25). As heretofore the blood of martyrs was the seed of Christians, it now produced a rich harvest of monks.
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