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A patron saint for actresses

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St. Pelagia (4th century)


Feast day: Oct. 8


For the story of St. Pelagia we have two primary sources. The first is an entirely reliable account of the conversion of a notorious actress recounted by St. John Chrysostom in his Sermon 67. The second source is a detailed life of St. Pelagia written by a man who calls himself James the Deacon and claims to have known her.


Chrysostom tells us the penitent had been an actress whose reputation as a great lady of the stage and as a woman of notoriously easy virtue extended throughout Asia Minor. Her theatrical performances must have been especially lurid since St. John says, “nothing was more vile than she was, when she was on the stage.” The men she took as her lovers became intoxicated with her. For her sake, fathers abandoned their children and wealthy men squandered their estates. She even seduced the empress’ brother.


Then, inexplicably, grace came to the actress. She repented.


That is all that we know for certain about the anonymous penitent we call St. Pelagia.


James the Deacon’s version may not be as reliable as St. John’s, but it is a good read. He begins in Antioch, where eight bishops have gathered. It is a fine day, and they are all sitting outside a church, listening to a homily from St. Nonnus, bishop of Heliopolis. Suddenly down the street came a crowd of handsome young men and lovely young women, all following a woman of ravishing beauty. The modest ladies of Antioch wore a veil in public, but this woman went through the streets with her head uncovered and her shoulders bare. The bishops lowered their eyes and turned their faces away from the lascivious sight. But Bishop Nonnus watched her until she was lost in the crowd.


Turning back to his brother bishops he said, “Did not the wonderful beauty of that woman delight you?” The bishops didn’t answer, embarrassed that the good old man had forgotten himself.


“How many hours did that woman spend washing, dressing and adorning herself, then studying herself in the mirror to make certain that everything about her was perfect before she went out in public to show herself to her admirers?” Nonnus said. “We never spend so much effort to adorn our souls, to wash them with repentance and clothe them with the virtues so that we might appear pleasing to God.”


It was a clever sermon. Nonnus used an unexpected encounter with a shameless sinner prancing through the streets to teach his brother bishops a lesson in holiness.


The following Sunday, Bishop Nonnus was preaching in Antioch’s cathedral when Pelagia happened to walk by. On impulse, she stepped inside the church. As Nonnus spoke about the mercy of God, Pelagia began to reflect on her life; she was so filled with self-loathing and sorrow that she wept uncontrollably. As the congregation filed out of the cathedral, Pelagia sought out Bishop Nonnus and begged him to make her a Christian. The bishop heard her confession, gave her a concise instruction in the faith and then baptized her.


One night, Pelagia cropped her hair short, put on a tattered monk’s robe, and left Antioch for Jerusalem, where she lived as a hermit on the Mount of Olives.


Years later Nonnus’ deacon, James, went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. In Jerusalem, he heard about a pious hermit who lived on the Mount of Olives. The hermit welcomed James and told him the story of his life. That is how Deacon James discovered that the holy man was a holy woman who had once been an actress named Pelagia.


Craughwell is the author of This Saint Will Change Your Life.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017