(CNS) – Catholics know that Luke, the doctor-cum-evangelist, is the patron saint of physicians and that a prayer to St. Blaise might soothe a sore throat. They may not know that Catholic patron saints cover the health spectrum from AIDS and drug addiction to sleepwalking and toothaches.
PATRON SAINTS COVER THE HEALTH SPECTRUM: A modern-day saint, Maximilian Kolbe, got his health-related patronage from the mode of his martyrdom.
The stories – or legends – of some patron saints provide the connection to their special area of health guardianship.
Take Januarius. A martyr in 305 during Emperor Diocletian's persecution, he is patron saint of blood banks thanks to an unexplained phenomenon that happens with a glass phial of his dried blood. For five centuries, this relic in the cathedral in Naples, Italy, has liquefied three times a year.
This bishop of Benevento was arrested while visiting two deacons in prison and was thrown to wild beasts in an amphitheater near Naples. When the beasts didn’t pounce, he was beheaded. His body, buried in Naples’ catacombs, later was moved to the cathedral.
Poor Apollonia, an aged deaconess martyred in Alexandria, Egypt, about 249. During a riot against Christians, an Alexandrian mob repeatedly struck her in the face, knocking out her teeth. The mob started a bonfire and threatened to burn her alive if she didn’t renounce her faith. She prayed briefly, then walked into the flames.
For the torments inflicted on her aching jaw, Apollonia is invoked against toothaches and is the patron of dentists. Her emblem in religious art is a forceps gripping a tooth – ouch!
Everyone’s heard of “St. Elmo’s fire,” the electrical discharge sometimes seen at the tips of ship masts, church spires and trees. How did it get the name of a Syrian bishop (also persecuted by Diocletian), who died about 303?
One legend said Elmo's intestines were wound out of his body on a windlass, or winch. Perhaps because of the similarity between a windlass and a ship’s capstan, Elmo came to be honored as the saint who could relieve seasickness. Sailors, pass the Elmo Seltzer!
Agatha, another martyr whose story is more legend than fact, was a Sicilian-born virgin killed during the persecution of Emperor Decius, who ruled 249-51. She reportedly was sent to a brothel to force her to repudiate a vow of chastity. When she remained steadfast her breasts were cut off. Healed when St. Peter appeared to her in prison, she died within days from further tortures.
For her agonies, Agatha is invoked against breast disease.
Another martyr, Dymphna, fled her pagan Irish chieftain father when he made sexual advances after her mother died. He caught up with her and St. Gerebernus, an elderly priest and friend who had accompanied her, in Belgium. The father beheaded Gerebernus and killed Dymphna in a rage when she still refused him.
Many miraculous healings of mental disorders and epilepsy occurred at her death site in Gheel. A famous hospital for the insane, begun there in the 13th century, still bears Dymphna’s name. In addition to epileptics and the mentally ill, she is the patron of incest victims, sleepwalkers and mental health professionals.
A modern-day saint, Maximilian Kolbe, got his health-related patronage from the mode of his martyrdom.
Having survived Nazi imprisonment with other Conventual Franciscans in 1939, Father Kolbe was arrested again and sent to Auschwitz in 1941. When the camp commander said 10 prisoners must die for every one who escaped, the priest volunteered to take the place of a husband and father facing death by starvation.
Father Kolbe was among four prisoners still alive the eve of the Assumption. A jailer finished things with a hypodermic needle filled with carbolic acid. Consequently, Maximilian is patron saint of drug addicts, prisoners and the pro-life movement.
For some saints, like Italian Servite Father Peregrine Laziosi, 1260-1345, illness foreshadowed patronage. Peregrine was well-known for his preaching, holiness and such penances as standing whenever it wasn’t necessary to sit. This led to varicose veins, then cancer of the foot.
Tradition holds that, just before his leg was to be amputated, he had a vision in his sleep of Jesus coming down from the cross and touching the leg. When Peregrine awoke, it was healed; he lived another 20 years. Naturally, he is the patron saint of people with cancer, as well as those with AIDS and other diseases.
In one case, the patron saint connection was plucked from a backyard. An herb that cured headaches and epilepsy was found in the garden of the church built over the grave of fourth-century Roman martyr Bibiana. So she is invoked for hangovers and headaches – and more serious maladies.
In another, the connection was a wayward son. Because Monica never lost hope that her dissolute son could become St. Augustine, she is patron saint of alcoholics. One bishop she consulted counseled her: “It is not possible
Copyright (c) 2007 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops