Many times when I’m praying through the saints in the Roman Canon, I can just fire them off left and right. There are the apostles, which we all know, then guys like Cornelius and Lawrence, both of whom have pretty normal names. And then we get to this guy: Chrysogonus. What a name! It doesn’t really mix too well, right? But if you’re like me, and you stumble over his elaborate name, you probably wonder, “Who is this guy?”
Actually, very little is known about him – much less than the other saints we’ve been talking about, at least. Most of what we do know comes from legends about his life. Chrysogonus served as a functionary of the vice-prefect of Rome – essentially, an official who helped the guy…who helped the guy…who ran the city of Rome. So by day, Chrysogonus was a civil servant.
But by night (and on Sundays), he was a catechist, particularly known in the legends for teaching the ways of the faith to Anastasia, the daughter of a Roman noble named Praetextatus. When the Great Persecution under the Emperor Diocletian broke out in 303, Chrysogonus was discovered and thrown into prison. Anastasia cared for her teacher a great deal, and felt guilty for his being caught, so Chrysogonus wrote letters to her to comfort her and give her courage.
Eventually, he was brought before the Emperor (or at least the Emperor’s men) at Aquileia, in the northeast part of Italy. He was condemned to death and beheaded, and his body was thrown into the sea. Eventually, it washed ashore, where it was claimed and buried by an old priest named Zoilus (Seriously, what’s with the weird names this week?).
So why was this obscure saint, who’s name is very difficult to pronounce, in the Roman Canon? Well, one thing is for sure: we can definitely see how old this prayer is. There is a very old church in Rome dedicated to St. Chrysogonus. The present church is from the 12th century and had been added onto in the 17th century, but it is actually built on an older church from the 4th century, probably commissioned by Pope Sylvester I. That church dates to between 314 and 335, which is only 10 years after Chrysogonus’s death. This ancient church was certainly very well known, and was one of the tituli, the first parish churches in the city of Rome.
So we have one of the first parishes in Rome, built only 10 years after the death of some guy in the outlying city of Aquileia. It was probably there because people personally knew him and remembered him. Think of our own Blessed Theresa of Calcutta Parish, built a short time after the soon-to-be-saint’s death. We know and respect her as one of our own, and find special inspiration from her life. The same was probably true for the people of the 4th century, who named their church after St. Chrysogonus. They loved and respected him so much, that they also added his name to their prayers at the time, which eventually found their way into our prayers today. And that’s why we stumble over his name every time we pray it!