Saint Bartholomew: the Saint from the East


The story of his passion says that Bartholomew Apostle was martyred in Asia.
Many years after his passion, during a new wave of persecution against Christians, the pagans saw the people praying at his tomb and, out of hate, took away his body, placed it in a lead sarcophagus and threw it into the sea saying: may you never have influence over our people again.
But with the intervention of God’s Providence the lead sarcophagus, carried away by the waters, was transported to an island called Lipari.
This was revealed to the Christians so they could collect it: the body was collected and buried and a great temple was built around it.
It is now invoked and shows its benefit to many people with its virtues and graces.’
Saint Gregory of Tours wrote this in his ‘Libri Miraculorum’ in around 580 AD.
There was, then, on Lipari – already in the 6th century – a tradition about the arrival of the sacred body: a great temple was erected in honour of the Protector; and there was also a movement of foreign pilgrims who came to test the ‘virtues’ and ‘graces’ of those thaumaturgic remains, but to say that devotion to St. Bartholomew and this form of primitive tourism date back to 264, as local tradition would have it, would perhaps be rash.
However, it remains a certain fact that this was the situation on Lipari for a long time before the ancient French writer mentioned them, so let’s consider the reasons.
Between 200 and 250 AD there was a crisis in Rome in all sectors of economic and political life, and in most of the ancient civil and institutional values of the Empire.
The peoples of the provinces demonstrated their desire to govern themselves.
In this atmosphere, full of political and social ferment, Christianity made its first giant and triumphant leap forward in the pagan world and, in particular, in Sicily and along the Tyrrhenian coast of Italy.
At this point the Emperor Decio, in 249, started a general persecution, which continued under his successor, Valeriano, until 258.
Christians held responsible for such ill-fated social transformation were to be eliminated, and the number of victims is incalculable.
At that time the gesture of martyrdom began to be exalted among Christians, as did the personality of the martyrs, those who had shown their faith to Christ by giving their own life.
The martyrs were called ‘saint’ and people were convinced that the Holy Martyrs, on judgement day, would be the first to be awakened and admitted to the beatific vision without having to undergo the anxiety of God’s judgement.
To attenuate the apocalyptic fears of the ‘finis mundi’ and ‘dies judici’ the Christians gave a new dimension to the personality of the martyrs.
The idea of being able to guarantee the help of a Holy Marty was a great consolation to everybody; finding him next to you on Resurrection Day would certainly constitute a pass for eternity. Consequently, there was a rush to obtain suitable burial places for the martyrs in public and private cemeteries, even at very great expense. But it was worth it: when the angels’ trumpets blew, the Martyr would ascend to heaven, dragging a host of his devout admirers behind him. Since not everybody had a Martyr at his private disposition, an alternative belief grew up: a single martyr, officially Protector of all the Christians in a certain area, would have the same powers to the advantage of the whole community.
The Christian community of Lipari was one of the first, in the West, to open up to worship of the Martyrs, to demand a Protector for itself and assure itself of the physical presence, through appropriation, of his mortal remains.
The Liparèi had no local martyrs to honour and so fell back on one of the Apostles of Jesus.
An apostle was considered martyr for having been a direct witness of the Lord’s works and for having made, in His name, the extreme sacrifice.
The preference of the Liparèi could only fall on St. Bartholomew who must have exercised such an exceptionally fruitful and adventurous activity and, moreover, had suffered such an inhuman and complex death that, in the end, nobody knew where he had preached and how he had been martyred.

Was he beheaded? Was he burnt at the stake? Was he skinned alive?

Only one thing is sure: the dedication of St. Bartholomew to the service of the Lord provoked great admiration among the faithful.
Perhaps the Liparèi of that time, almost all men of the sea, were attracted by the name, a name which in Aramaic was Nathanael Bar-Tholmaì, Gift of God, son of he who moves the waters. He must also have the power to dominate the blind forces of nature.
Regarding the acquisition of the holy body, it is to be believed that a foreign crew, passing through Lipari, gave, in return for money, a mummified body claimed to be that of the great Apostle, or that sailors from Lipari, stopping in far-off ports were tempted to buy it in good faith.
As you can see, we are talking of events in a past which is too distant and obscure for us to be able to judge the authenticity of those remains.
After all in the second half of the 3rd century there were numerous requests for saints’ bodies; profiteers readily offered skeletons or bones claimed to be of Apostles, Evangelists or martyrs.
Time and the fallibility of man’s memory did the rest and, on the blank page of history our vivid imagination gradually created and recorded miracles (the floating stone coffin, the difficulty of pulling it out of the water).
The Liparèi of the 6th century had a nasty surprise: some writers maintained that the holy body lay at Dàrae, in Mesopotamia, and others in Phrygia.
But the people of Lipari remained faithful to the memory of their Protector then and also in 838, when his remains were removed to Benevento and their dismay was replaced by the belief that there were still excellent reasons why he should remain their Protector, ready to block God’s punishment in case of earthquakes, famine and plagues.

Taken from G. IACOLINO, ‘Gente delle Eolie’
Aldo Natoli Publishers, Lipari 1994, pg. 108-113