Weninger’s Lives of the Saints – Saint Pelagia, Penitent

detail of the statue of Saint Pelagia the Penitent on the colonnade of Saint Peter's Basilica, Rome, Italy; c.1703 by Pierre Etienne MonnotArticle

The life of Saint Pelagia teaches us how true it is that the hearing of a single sermon often changes one’s whole life and leads to penitence and salvation. Pelagia was born of heathen parents and lived at Antioch, in the time of Theodosius the younger. Having been brought up from childhood in wickedness, her conduct, on arriving at womanhood, was such as to give scandal to all honest people in the city. Maximian, the Patriarch of Antioch, one day, had a Council of Bishops, among whom was Nonnus, Bishop of Edessa, celebrated for his virtue and holiness. When this holy man was addressing the people in the vestibule of the temple, Pelagia passed, sitting on a mule, and clad inmost luxurious garments, her head, neck and arms glittering with jewels. The assembled bishops turned away their eyes and sighed over the blindness and wickedness of this sinner. Saint Nonnus fixed his eyes on her as long as she was in sight. After the sermon, he asked the bishops how they had liked the magnificent appearance of the woman. The bishops, rather surprised at this unexpected question, were silent. Saint Nonnus said: “The sight of her has deeply touched me; for, how shall we be able to justify ourselves if our labor and our zeal are compared with hers? How much time does she employ to adorn herself in order to appear well in the eyes of men and tempt them! And what are we doing to cleanse our souls from sin and adorn them in such a manner that we may please the Almighty?” Having said this, he returned with his deacon to his lodgings, locked himself in his room, threw himself upon the floor, beat his breast, and begged God to forgive him, that he, a priest and bishop, had not employed as much time and labor to adorn his soul with virtues, as Pelagia had done to beautify her body.

He dreamed the following night that he caught a black dove, which, soiled and covered with dust, was flying hither and thither. He cast her into the water, out of which she rose snow-white, and flew away. The meaning of this dream became clear to him on the following day. It was Sunday, and Saint Nonnus again preached to the people, but in the church. The subject was the last day, when God will judge the good and the wicked. During the sermon, Pelagia, came into the church, not impelled by eagerness to learn, for she hated the Christians and their teachings, but tempted by curiosity and the desire to lay snares for others. But the words of truth, spoken by the bishop from the pulpit, so deeply touched the heart of the woman, that she began to weep bitterly at the thought of the life she was leading. Hardly was the sermon ended, when Pelagia, returning home with a penitent heart, wrote to the holy bishop, most earnestly begging him to instruct her in the Christian faith and to baptize her. The bishop, fearing that this might only be a deceit, to which the Evil One had tempted her, answered that she should not dare come to him with words she did not mean; further, that although he was only a sinner, he was a servant of Christ, to whom all hearts were laid open; if she, however, desired earnestly to change her life, she should come, not to his house, but to the church, where he would be on the following day, with the other bishops.

Pelagia went into the church, threw herself at the feet of Saint Nonnus in the presence of all the other bishops, and openly confessing her former sinful life, she begged, with tears, to be baptized, that she might obtain forgiveness of her sins. Saint Nonnus was willing to grant her desire, but asked her if she knew any one who would be security for her, that she would not return to her former sinful life, as this was necessary according to the rules of the church. Pelagia was greatly distressed at this question, as she well knew that she could find no one willing to be security for her. She therefore assured him most solemnly, that she was determined never again to return to her former life, but earnestly to do penance during the remainder of her life. She repeated her request to be received through holy baptism into the Christian Church, that she might be released from the burden of her sins. The assembled bishops, in consideration of the true repentance which she manifested, acquiesced in her wish and baptized her, after she had been instructed, and then gave her in charge of a pious widow named Romana.

Pelagia immediately began a penitential and holy life. She cut off her hair, laid aside all jewels and luxurious dresses, gave all she possessed to the poor, dismissed her servants with wholesome admonitions, mortified her body with fasting, scourging and rough hair-cloth, and daily shed many bitter tears for her former sins. The bishops and all the Christian inhabitants of the city rejoiced greatly at so astonishing a conversion. Satan, however, could not endure that so useful a tool for the destruction of souls should be taken from him. Hence, he tormented her day and night, either with the remembrance of her past life, or with the most horrible temptations. He even appeared to her visibly and tempted her with flattery, caresses and promises, to return to her former sins. Pelagia resisted him with fortitude, arming herself, in accordance with the instructions of Saint Nonnus, with the sign of the holy cross, and by this means drove Satan away. On the eight day after she had received holy baptism, she attired herself in a penitential robe, and left the city with the knowledge of Saint Nonnus. Under the name of Pelagius, she went to Jerusalem, visited with great devotion the holy places, and selected a place upon Mount Olivet, where she built a small hut, in which she passed the remainder of her life in repenting of her sins, in meditating upon the passion and death of Jesus Christ, and in the practice of severe penances. Although she endeavored to live concealed from the eyes of the world, the fame of her virtues spread through the surrounding country, and every one spoke of the virtues and holiness of the hermit Pelagius. After the lapse of three years, James, a deacon of the holy bishop Nonnus, desired to visit the Holy Land. Nonnus gave him permission to make the pilgrimage, and told him to enquire for the hermit Pelagius, and if he found her, to tell her that the bishop wished to be remembered to her. The deacon did as requested, and being informed where the hermit lived, he went to the hut, and desired admittance, saying that he had a message from Bishop Nonnus. Pelagia opened the small window of her little dwelling and immediately recognized the deacon. He, however, did not recognize her, as fasting and weeping had changed her features. When she had received the greeting of the Saint, she said: “The bishop is a holy man, and I commend myself to his prayers.” After these words she closed the window, and James went away, not without indignation at being treated in so discourteous a manner. But, while visiting the holy places, he heard so much in praise of the hermit Pelagius, that he determined to visit him once more on his return. Hence, he went again and knocked at the door, but not a sound from within told that he had been heard. Not knowing what to think of this, he opened the small window and looked in to ascertain if Pelagius was absent or sick. He was neither absent nor sick: but was lying on the floor of his small dwelling – dead. James announced this in Jerusalem, and called the monks of the neighborhood and some priests to bury the hermit. All present praised God, who had been so wonderful in this weak woman, when Saint Nonnus, who had been informed of Pelagia’s death, made known who this hermit had beeit, how heroically she had overcome herself to lead so austere a life. The holy body was buried with great honors, and God wrought many miracles by it. But the conversion of Pelagia and her constancy in expiating her former sinful conduct is certainly the greatest miracle which God wrought by her; as of thousands who are addicted to the vice of unchastity, and who have lived long in it, hardly one reforms thoroughly, or remains constant until the end; especially if the evil spirit tempts him as violently as he did the penitent Pelagia.

Practical Considerations

• Saint Nonnus was deeply moved and wept bitterly at the thought that Pelagia, the sinner, was more anxious for the adornment of her body, than he was for that of his soul. Have you not much more reason to weep, when your conscience tells you that you are much more concerned for your mortal body than for your immortal soul? Manifest in future, at least as much care for your soul as for your body, although the former deserves much greater solicitude than the latter. You procure for your body nourishment to keep it strong and healthy; when it is soiled, you wash and cleanse it; when it is sick, you immediately make use of remedies to restore its health. And what would you not do could you keep death away? Have the same care for your soul. The Holy Sacraments and the word of God are the food of your soul. Procure these for it; hear frequently the word of God, and receive the Sacraments with devotion. When you have been guilty of sin, your soul is unclean; when you live in mortal sin, your soul is sick, nay even dead in a spiritual sense. Hasten to free it from sickness and death by true repentance. Can I ask less of you? Or is it not your duty to take care of your priceless soul? “Why do we not take as much care of our soul as of our body?” asks Saint Chrysostom.

• Pelagia, the great sinner, heard a single sermon, and that through curiosity, or even a more sinful motive; and yet, she became acquainted with the danger in which she stood; she was converted to the true faith; she practised austere penance and gained life everlasting. If she had not heard the sermon, she would probably have remained in her sins, and thus have lost salvation. Oh! how many, in these times, live in mortal sin, who, if they listened to the word of God, would surely reform and save their souls. But because they neglect this, they continue in their sins and go to perdition. To whom can they trace the cause of their condemnation but to themselves? Take heed that you do not increase the number of these unfortunates. Hear the word of God frequently and with devotion. If you are in sin, it will surely lead to your conversion. If you are not in sin, it will help you to remain faithful. But understand this well: as soon as Pelagia recognized the danger in which she stood, she did penance and continued in it until her end. If God makes you acquainted with the danger in which you are, do not delay your conversion from day to day; for God, who promises you pardon if you repent, does not promise you the morrow for penance. Determine upon it today. “Tomorrow is an uncertain day, and who knows whether you will live until then? Many die suddenly; for, the Son of Man comes at an hour when he is least expected,” says the pious Thomas a Kempis. Pelagia was persuaded to do penance by a sermon on the Last Judgment. Oh! that you also would deeply meditate on the important truth: God will one day be my Judge. He will sentence me for all eternity. And what God? The same whom I now so often and so rashly offend. Can I, therefore, reasonably expect a judgment in my favor? Consider these truths seriously, that they may lead you to true penance; for by penance alone can you turn aside the wrath of God, and obtain the grace of a favorable sentence. “If we believe that we must one day appear before the judgment-seat of God, let us endeavor to appease the great Lord of Creation, without delay, by true penance,” writes Origen.

MLA Citation

  • Father Francis Xavier Weninger, DD, SJ. “Saint Pelagia, Penitent”. Lives of the Saints, 1876. CatholicSaints.Info. 10 May 2018. Web. 12 November 2018. <>