How many people must we convert, or return to the church, or keep in the church, in order to qualify as an evangelizer? As Scott Hahn has said, mothers and fathers are the primary evangelizers. Thus, the answer could be: as few as one.
Today I want to share with you the story of a couple who, though known to be good people, qualify, for certain, as the evanglizers of only one: their daughter, Euphrasia.
The scene is set in Constantinople in the late 300s. Constantine had already ordered the Roman Empire to accept Christianity as legal several decades earlier. The Roman Empire was coming to a close, slowly, despite the acceptance of Christianity. The pope was in Rome, but the emperor, at the time, Theodosius, was in Constantinople, in what is now Turkey.
Emperor Theodosius had a not-too-distant cousin, Antigonus. This young man had held a number of positions for the emperor, possibly as a warrior in the continuing battles with the Goths, or possibly as a senator, a safe place for a man of royalty to stay.
Antigonus eventually married Euphrasia, a woman no less noble and of royal blood than he. The two worshipped God intently. Despite their lands and riches, which could have made them very worldly, the couple’s first desire was to reach the kingdom of Heaven. Soon, they were blessed with a daughter, whom they named Euphrasia, after her mother. At this point, blessed with all the good in the world, as far as they were concerned, Antigonus and his wife chose to give one more piece of themselves to God. The two decided that on account of the vanity, misery and shortness of life, they should have no more children. They vowed to live in abstinence from one another for the rest of their lives, living, instead as brother and sister. With this sacrifice, they also increased their alms, their devotions and their penances, feeling this would make them look forward, more closely, to the joys of the next world. Little did they know that the sacrifice would be so short-lived. For Antigonus died only a year after the birth of his little girl.
Euphrasia the mother was still young, beautiful and rich, and a good catch for any of the officers, senators or courtesans who occupied the palace of Theodosius. However, she did not want to remarry and wished to live a reclusive life. The emperor was asked to take care of the properties of Euphrasia and the now dead husband and to watch over the little girl. Theodosius dutifully betrothed the child to a rich nobleman, with the mother’s consent, within a few years. Despite her knowledge that Euphrasia wished to remain celibate, the empress was persuaded to ask the emperor for the hand of Euphrasia by a nobleman. The emperor was furious and upbraided his consort. When the young widow realized that she was the subject of the argument, she chose to leave Constantinople.
Having extensive lands of her own in Egypt, she took the child there. In their travels, the two stopped at many churches to leave alms and donations. When they got to Thebes, they traveled inland and found a large monastery deep into the desert. In the monastery were 130 very virtuous, ascetic women. They wore only course sackcloth garments and slept on course sackcloth rugs, which they wove themselves. The women ate little, limiting themselves to herbs and puls, boiled wheat grain. They abstained from fruit and wine and labored very hard for the little they had. They rarely looked for physicians, chosing to bear their pains with patience. their teaching was that excessive attention to health caused self-love and too much attention to worldliness.
Euphrasia, the mother, was quite taken by these austere methods of achieving God and copied their lifestyle, devotions and charity as best she could. She visited them often, bringing her little girl with her. On a number of occasions, Euphrasia offered the monastery considerable sums of money, to help them. The abbess saw it differently. She saw that money as damaging their life, saying “We have renounced all the conveniences of the world, in order to purchase Heaven. We are poor and as such we desire to remain.” The only thing she would accept was money to keep an oil lamp burning, in memory of Antigonus, and incense for services, a much smaller donation than Euphrasia could have made.
The child was entranced by the monastery and the working of the women. She begged her mother to let her live in the community. Being only seven, the mother thought the child too young for such an ascetic lifestyle. Even explaining that the women slept on the ground, ate little and spent long periods singing the entire Psalter did not reduce her desires. So, the mother let the child visit for a little while. A few days later, when the mother came to fetch the child home, the child did not want to leave. The abbess explained, “Leave her with us. The grace of God is working in her heart. Your piety and that of your husband Antigonus are bearing fruit in this manner.” 1 Of all the complements or rewards that Antigonus could have received, this was of the highest order. The mother took the child over to an icon of Jesus and offered herself to Him as his bride. Within days, the child was admitted to the convent and given a habit. She was truly happy. She referred to the habit as her bridal robe. The mother’s parting advice was :”May God, who laid the foundations of the mountains, strengthen you always in his holy fear.” 2
Euphrasia the mother did not live much longer in this world, but she had left her child in good hands. Knowing that she would soon die, the mother called her daughter to her bedside for a last visit. Again, the mother gave her words of advice: “Fear God, honour your sisters, and serve them with humility. Never think of what you have been, nor say to yourself that you are of royal extraction. Be humble and poor on earth, that you may be rich in heaven.”
From then on, the child grew in love and knowledge and wisdom. But, eventually, she was called back to Constantinople by the new emperor, Arcadius. The senator who had arranged a betrothal between Euphrasia and his son now wanted the marriage finalized. After all, she was now twelve and of marriageable age. The emperor sent for her. Being capable of reading and writing, the young girl responded directly in her own hand. She informed the emperor that she had consecrated herself to perpetual chastity for the sake of the Lord, and that she could not turn her back on that for a mere mortal. She begged him to honor the memory of her parents by selling all the estates owned by both Antigonus and Euphrasia and distributing the proceeds to the poor. In addition, she requested that tenant farmers should be informed that they owned nothing from the time of the death of Antigonus on to that present time. She informed him that she needed nothing for herself.
It is said that the emperor and those senators with him broke down and cried upon hearing her words. Some of his advisors are said to have praised her thus: “She is the worthy daughter of Antigonus and Euphrasia, of your royal blood, and the holy offspring of a virtuous stock.” 3
St. Euphrasia was the model of humility, meekness and charity. She begged the abbess for some humbling penance every time she felt tempted, one time moving stones from one side of the courtyard to another for thirty days. She cheerfully accepted the meanest drudgery and did anything she could for the others.
On her deathbed, her friend, Julia asked only one thing of Euphrasia, to be with her in heaven, soon. And not surprisingly, Julia died and joined her friend three days later.
Evangelizers have three necessary traits, according to Dr. Hahn: humility, hospitality and trust in God. The parents of this girl were certainly humble, trying constantly to focus their joys on the next life, despite their overwhelming wealth in this one. They were hospitable, giving much they had as gifts for the churches and alms for the poor. And they definitely trusted in God, for what other type of person would put their child in a convent at the age of seven.
We sometimes focus too much on the saints. But sometimes we should look at the parents of these people. For, without the parents, who are probably among the unknown saints of Heaven, half of those who grew up to be canonized would not have made it.
Copyright 2016, Debbie McCoy
1. sainteuphrasia.com/files/media/resources/1462010334Article – St. Euphrasia – Patroness of St. Euphrasia.pdf