St. George, one of the most renowned martyrs of our church, whom the Greeks call the Great Martyr, was a native of Cappadocia, and the son of illustrious Christian parents. His courage and his uncommon bodily strength made him adopt the profession of a soldier. His undaunted bravery soon caused him to be advanced to the rank of commander in the army of the Emperor Diocletian, by whom he was greatly esteemed on account of his valour. The emperor was ignorant that St. George was a Christian, until the following occurrence took place. Diocletian, a bitter enemy of the Christians, one day assembled all his counsellors, and announced to them that in order to preserve their religion he had determined to exterminate all the Christians in his dominions, but desired their opinion upon the subject. One after another, the counsellors approved and praised this plan of the emperor. George alone disapproved of it, and said boldly, that he could not understand by what right they would exterminate the Christians, as their religion and teachings were full of wisdom, their commandments holy, and their conduct blameless. All present were astounded at this speech, and began to suspect that he himself was a Christian. They represented, therefore, to him on the one side, the favor of the emperor and the great consideration which he enjoyed, the riches and honors he already possessed, as well as the still greater that were in store for him; on the other hand, the disgrace in which he would be held by the emperor, the loss of all his riches and honors, as well as the cruel tortures that he would incur, perhaps even an ignominious death, in case he disagreed with the other counsellors, or if he was a Christian and did hot abandon his faith. They added much concerning the greatness and power of their gods, the errors of the Christian faith, and even refrained not from attacking its Divine founder.
All this, of course, was done to fill St. George with disgust toward the Christian religion, and to induce him to worship their idols. He listened during some time in silence; but when they spoke contemptuously of Christianity, and defamed the Son of God, he no longer kept silence, but with the magnanimity of a fearless spirit: “I am a Christian!” cried he “I worship the only true God, whose service, neither fear of the anger of a mortal man, nor the loss of my earthly possessions, can cause me to abandon. I shall consider it my highest honour to be permitted to shed my blood,in the defence of His holy Name. That you speak so irreverently of Christianity and its Founder is only to be ascribed to your ignorance. If you were better instructed you would speak differently.” Then turning to the emperor he said, “Oh! how much would it redound to the advantage of your Majesty if you would worship with me the God of the Christians! The kingdom He would give you in the other world would be incomparably greater than that which you now possess.”
It is impossible to describe the wrath of the emperor on hearing so unexpected a confession. He immediately ordered that the valiant confessor of Christ should be fettered with heavy chains and be thrown into a dark dungeon. The following day he was bound to a wheel which was set with sharply pointed irons, and was rolled up and down on it so long that his whole body seemed to be one great wound. During this dreadful torture, which the Christian hero cheerfully endured, appearing almost insensible to pain, a voice from heaven was distinctly heard, saying: “Fear not, for I am with thee; combat bravely.” After the torture, St. George was dragged again into the dungeon, where he thanked God for the strength vouchsafed to him, admonished all Christians who came to see him to be constant in their faith, and healed several sick persons by making the sign of the cross over them. The Almighty sent an angel to him who cured his wounds and exhorted him to remain faithful. When, the next morning, he was brought before the emperor, the latter ascribed the complete restoration of the Saint to witchcraft, and again tried to persuade him to the worship of the idols. The Saint desired to see the idols he was requested to adore. The emperor, thinking that his eloquence had prevailed over the constancy of the Saint, led him, accompanied by the empress, and followed by all the counsellors, into the temple of an idol. The Saint, after having looked around for one moment, placed himself before a statue of Apollo, and asked: “Is it thou who demanded of me the sacrifice which is due only to the true God of heaven and earth?” Having said this, he made the sign of the holy cross towards the image, when the devil, who was hidden in it, cried, with dreadful roaring: “No! no! I am no God. There is no other God than He whom thou dost worship.” “How dare you then, remain in my presence?” said St. George; and hardly had the words passed his lips, when, amid a terrible howling and lamenting all the idols fell down from their altars and burst into a thousand pieces. The idolatrous priest beholding this, uttered loud cries demanding vengence, and the emperor, foaming with rage, commanded them to torture the magician (thus he called St. George) in the most unheard-of manner.
It is the opinion of many that St. George was the first who fell a victim to the fury of Diocletian against the Christians, and that in order to frighten others he gave full sway to his cruelty in torturing the Saint. At last, however, convinced that he could effect nothing with the Saint, he ordered that the invincible follower of Christ should be decapitated. The Empress Alexandra was led to execution at the same time. She had secretly embraced Christianity some time before, but not until she was witness of the above described scene in the temple, had she the courage to confess openly that she also adored the God of the Christians. Many others were converted at the same time, who afterwards sealed with their blood the truth of their faith.
While proceeding with a joyful heart to the place of execution, the empress prayed unceasingly, raising her eyes to heaven. Having arrived there, St. George knelt down, and after thanking God that he had been a Christian from his infancy and had been strengthened to remain so until his end, he prayed most fervently that the Almighty might have compassion on the heathens, that light might be given to them, and that they might all be brought to the knowledge of the true faith. After this he fearlessly offered his head and received the death stroke from the hands of the executioner.
St. George is generally represented as delivering a maiden from a dragon, or slaying one of those animals in combat. This is intended to denote that he valiantly overcame the dragon of hell, which desired to devour the woman represented in the Apocalypse–the Christian Church, the virgin bride of Christ. Others maintain that the dragon represents heathendom, out of whose jaws St. George rescued the Empress Alexandra, who, incited by his intrepid confession, also declared her faith and received the crown of martyrdom. She was executed on the same day as the Saint.
The heathen counsellors of the emperor spoke much in derision of the Christian religion, endeavouring by this means to alienate St. George from it. He, however, heeded not their words, as he rightly judged that the devil speaks through the mouth of the wicked. He remained steadfast. That the heathens should have spoken derisively of the holy religion, can excite no astonishment. They knew no better. That in our day there are many who use a similar language, although they pretend to be Catholics, must necessarily cause great wonder. How many Catholics speak of the articles of faith, of the commandments and ceremonies of the Church like heretics! They scoff at confession, fasts, pilgrimages, and processions; they deride confessors, priests and religious, sometimes even worse than heretics. They even doubt certain articles of faith, but agree on many points with the heretics, to the great scandal of those who hear them. It may be that they do not mean all they say, and only wish to be regarded as great and learned men, who know everything better than the priests, or the Doctors of the Church, or even the holy Fathers.
But be they in earnest or not, they do great wrong and have to answer for the scandal they give. To scoff at religion is always wicked, is always to be condemned. In the hearts of such people the true faith is either already dead, or at least in great danger of being so. It was by his language that St. Peter, who renounced Christ, was known to be from Galilee; and thus by the language of such scoffers must we judge that they can no longer be counted as true Catholics. A true Catholic esteems his faith highly and speaks well of all that it contains. Now, pay attention, dear reader; if ever you hear any one speak against the Catholic faith, contradict him fearlessly, if you are able to do so. Should you, however, not be able, do not allow such godless speeches to mislead you. Do not believe them: the devil speaks through them as he did through the mouth of the heathens of whom I told you. Think of the instructions you have received, of the lessons which have been taught you in Sermons. You can never justify it before God, if you believe these God-forsaken people, or if you become doubtful in your faith through them, as God never intended that they should instruct you. God gave you His Church, and her teachers are to be your instructors. To these you shall give, ear, their words you shall believe. If you heed not this commandment, you cannot expect pity when you go to perdition. “Hearken not to your prophets the false ones . . . . . . . For I have not sent them, saith the Lord: and they prophesy falsely: to drive you out that you may perish” (Jerem. xxvii. 10). Thus the Almighty, in remote times, admonished His people by the prophet Jeremias. Christ, our Lord, says: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in the clothing of sheep, but inwardly they are ravening wolves” (Matt. vii. i).
The heathen counsellors of the Emperor praised and approved of his wicked design to exterminate the Christians. This they did that they might not lose the Emperor’s favour. But St. George openly denounces Diocletian’s determination, preferring to lose his favour than that of the Almighty. Take care that you never praise, justify, nor approve of what you know to be wrong or wicked. Do not decide in favour of those who say this or that is no sin when you know that it is. Take no pleasure in such opinions lest you share in the sins of others. “Woe to you that call evil good and good evil,” says the Lord our God (Isa. v.). Say. without hesitation what you believe to be true or false, and do not mind the displeasure of others. The grace of the Most High must be dearer to you than the favour of men. God, whom you offend when you call evil good, is much more to be feared than all mankind. Compare the advantage you can gain from men with what you may expect from God; and also the injury that man can do, with the punishment of an offended God. Compare these and then judge for yourself how to act. “Fear ye not them,” says our Lord, ” that kill the body and are not able to kill the soul, but rather fear Him that can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. x.).