Martyrs of the First Ages – Saint Philip, Bishop of Heraclea, and His Two Companions, Saint Severus and Saint Hermes, by Saint Alphonsus de Liguori

Saint Philip was elected Bishop of Heraclea, the metropolis of Thrace, in consequence of his extraordinary virtue; and so fully did he correspond to the expectation of his people, that, while they tenderly loved him, there was not one among his flock who was not the object of his most affectionate pastoral solicitude. But there were two of his disciples whom he loved with peculiar affection Severus, a priest, and Hermes, a deacon, whom he afterwards had companions of his martyrdom.

In the persecution of Diocletian he was advised to retire from the city. This, however, he refused to do, saying that he wished to conform to the dispensations of God, who knows how to reward those who suffer for his love, and that consequently he feared not the threats or torments of the tyrant. In the year 304 the saint was one day preaching to his people upon the necessity of patience and resignation, when a soldier, by the order of Bassus, the governor, entered the church, and having commanded the people to retire, shut the doors and sealed them; upon which Philip said to him: “Dost thou think that God dwelleth in these walls, and not rather in our souls?”

Philip, although unable to enter the church, was unwilling to abandon it altogether, and remained at the door with his people. Separating the good from the bad, he exhorted the former to remain constant in the faith, and called upon the latter to return to God by sincere repentance. Bassus, finding them assembled, caused them to be arrested, and having demanded who was their master, Philip answered: “I am he.” The governor said: “Hast thou not heard the edict of the emperor, that in no place shall the Christians be assembled, but shall sacrifice to the gods, or perish?” He then commanded that the gold and silver vessels, together with the books that treated of the Christian law, should be delivered up ; otherwise that recourse would be had to torture. Philip replied:

“For my part, I am willing to suffer in this my body, tottering with age, whatever thou canst inflict; but abandon thou the thought of having any control over my spirit. The sacred vessels are at thy disposal; but it shall be my care to prevent the holy books from falling into thy hands.” Bassus, infuriated at this answer, called for ward the executioners, and caused the saint to undergo a cruel and protracted torture.

The deacon, Hermes, witnessing the agonies of his bishop, told the governor that, although he were possessed of all the holy books, good Christians would never fail to teach Jesus Christ to others, and to render him the honor he deserves. After these words the holy deacon was most cruelly scourged.

Bassus commanded that the sacred vessels should be removed from the sacristy, that the Scriptures should be burned, and that Philip, with the other prisoners, should be led by the soldiers to the forum, to be executed, in order that the pagans should be gladdened and the Christians affrighted by the spectacle. Philip, having arrived at the forum, and being informed of the burning of the Scriptures, spoke at length to the people of the eternal fire prepared by God for the wicked. During this discourse, a pagan priest, called Cataphronius, came carrying some meats that had been sacrificed to the idols. Hermes, seeing him, exclaimed: “This diabolical food hath been brought, that we, being forced to eat it, may be contaminated !” Saint Philip desired him to be calm.

In the mean time the governor, arriving at the forum again, commanded the holy bishop to sacrifice to his gods. The saint asked: “Being a Christian, how can I sacrifice to marble?”

“Sacrifice at least to the emperor,” said Bassus.

“My religion,” said the saint, “commands me to honor the princes, but teaches me that sacrifice is due to God alone.”

“But doth not this beauteous statue of Fortune,” said the governor, “deserve a victim?”

The saint replied: “It may receive that honor from thy hands, since thou dost adore it; but it shall not from mine.”

“Let then,” urged Bassus, “this fine figure of Hercules move thee.”

Here the holy bishop, raising his voice, rebuked the insanity of those who worship as gods statues that, being taken from the earth, like earth should be trodden upon, not adored.

Bassus, turning to Hermes, asked him if he at least would sacrifice. The holy deacon resolutely answered that he was a Christian, and could not do so; and having been told that, should he continue obstinate, he would be cast into flames, replied:

“Thou dost threaten me with flames that last but for a short time, because thou art ignorant of the strength of those eternal flames in which the followers of the devil shall burn.”

Bassus, exasperated at the constancy of the saints, remanded them to prison. As they went along, the insolent rabble frequently pushed the venerable and aged bishop, so as to throw him down, but he with joyous looks quietly raised himself again.

Meanwhile the term of Bassus government having expired, Justin, his successor, arrived at Heraclea. He was a much more cruel man than his predecessor. Saint Philip, having been brought before him, was told that if he would not sacrifice, he should, notwithstanding his extreme age, have to suffer tortures that were intollerable even to youth. The venerable bishop replied:

“Ye, for fear of a short punishment, obey men: how much more ought we to obey God, who visits evil-doers with eternal torments? Thou mayest torture, but canst never induce me to sacrifice.” Justin:

“I shall command thee to be dragged by the feet through the streets of the city.”

Philip: “God grant that it may be so.”

The bloody threat was executed; yet the saint did not die in that torment, but his body was torn to pieces, and in the arms of the brethren he was carried back to prison.

After this the governor called before him Hermes the deacon, whom he exhorted to sacrifice, in order to escape the torments that were being prepared. But the saint replied:

“I cannot sacrifice and betray my faith; do, therefore, according to thy pleasure tear my body to pieces.”

“Thou speakest thus,” said Justin: “because thou knowest not the pains that await thee; upon a trial thou shalt repent.” Hermes: “Atrocious though they may be, Jesus Christ, for whose love I am about to suffer, will render them not only light, but sweet.”

Justin sent him also to prison, where the saints remained for seven months. Thence he sent them before him to Adrianople, and upon his arrival again summoned Philip to his presence, intimating to him that he had deferred his execution in the hope that, upon mature consideration, he would sacrifice. The saint boldly replied:

“I have already told thee that I am a Christian, and I will always say the same. I will not sacrifice to statues, but only to that God to whom I have consecrated my entire being.” Angered by this reply, the judge ordered him to be stripped and scourged until the bones and bowels were laid bare. The aged bishop suffered this torture with so much courage, that Justin himself was astonished. Three days afterwards he was again summoned before the tyrant, who inquired why it was that with so much temerity he continued to disregard the imperial edicts. The saint replied:

“That which animates me is not rashness, but the love I bear my God, who one day shall judge me. In worldly matters I have invariably obeyed the rulers, but now the question is, whether I will prefer earth to heaven. I am a Christian, and cannot sacrifice to thy gods.” Seeing that he could not shake the constancy of the holy bishop, Justin, turning to Hermes, said:

“This old man is weary of life, but thou shouldst not be so reckless of it: offer sacrifice, and consult thy safety.” Hermes began to show the impiety of idolatry, but Justin hastily interrupted him, saying:

“Thou speakest as if thou wouldst persuade me to become a Christian.”

“I earnestly desire,” said the saint, “that this should happen not only to thee, but to all those who hear me.”

Finally, the tyrant, perceiving that he could not win over these generous confessors, pronounced sentence in the following manner: “We command that Philip and Hermes, for having contemned the imperial edicts, shall be burned alive.” Sentence having been pronounced, the saints proceeded to the place of execution, evincing by their holy joy that they were two victims consecrated to the Lord. But from having been tortured in the stocks their feet were so sore that the holy bishop had to be supported, while Hermes with great difficulty followed, saying to Philip:

“Let us hasten, Father, nor care for our feet, since we shall no longer have need of them.” When they came to the place of their martyr dom, according to the custom of the country, they were placed standing in a trench, and covered with earth up to the knees, in order that they might not be able to flee from the fire. Upon entering the trench, Hermes smiled with holy joy, and the fire having been kindled by the executioners, the saints began to thank Almighty God for their death, terminating their prayer and their martyrdom with the usual “Amen.”

Severus, who was the other disciple of Saint Philip, had been left in prison while his holy bishop consummated his martyrdom in the flames ; and having been informed of his glorious triumph, was deeply afflicted at not having been able to bear him company ; hence he earnestly be sought the Lord not to think him unworthy of sacrificing his life for his glory. His prayers were heard, and on the following day he obtained the desired crown. The martyrdom of these saints is related by Cardinal Orsi, who quotes Ruinart.