St. Maruthas

(Fifth Century)

If you should try to think up a romantic sounding saint’s name, you couldn’t find a better one than that of the real Syrian saint, Maruthas of Maiferkat.

Maruthas was the bishop of a small Syrian diocese near the headwaters of the Tigris River, now in eastern Turkey. Maiferkat became better known as Martyropolis, for Maruthas had devoutly gathered there as many relics as possible of the Christian martyrs of Persia. Because his diocese was near to the border between the Roman empire and Persia, he was in close contact with Persia, and in a position to exert a Christian influence on its kings.

Today we know Persia by the name of Iran. What Iran is today it was already in the fifth century, a harsh and aggressive country not yet Mohammedanized, but dedicated to the pagan religion called Mazdaism or (after its leader Zoroaster – Zoroasterianism). Its followers were sun-worshipers.

The Persians had been rather tolerant of Christians up to the mid-third century. Then the Persian rulers renewed their war against the Roman Empire. Sapor II (310-381) made it part of his anti-Roman policy to persecute Christians cruelly. So, just when the Roman emperors stopped persecuting the Church, the Persians began. As a matter of fact, the kings of Persia executed far more Christians than the Roman rulers had. It is said that 16,000 died under Sapor II alone!

In 399 King Yezdegerd mounted the Persian throne. Bishop Maruthas, already an experienced shepherd, traveled to Constantinople to counsel Emperor Arcadius to persuade the new king to go easy on the Christians.

(An odd story is told of Maruthas during his stay in Constantinople. At a meeting of the area bishops, the Bishop of Maiferkat, being a very fat and heavy man, accidentally stepped on the foot of a bishop Cyrinus. The wound he caused festered, and Cyrinus ultimately died of the infection.)

The emperor sent Bishop Maruthas himself to Persia to plead for the Christians. The bishop happened to have some skill as a physician. When he was able to cure Yezdegerd of his violent headaches, the Persian ruler called him “the friend of God,” and listened with favor to his petitions.

The Mazdean priests of Zoroaster were on their guard, however. These “Magi” tried to trick the king into turning against the visiting saint and his religion. They hid a man underground in the temple. When the ruler came in to worship, the hidden man pretended to be an oracle crying out, “Drive from this holy place him who impiously believes a priest of the Christians!”

Yezdegerd, taken in, was about to send Maruthas out of the country. But the bishop persuaded him to return to the temple and open the floor. The king did so, and saw how he and been gulled. Thereupon, he told Maruthas he might build Christian churches whenever he wanted in Persia.

St. Maruthas then set about organizing the Persian Christians. The organization held up until around 420 AD when a foolish Catholic bishop, Abdas of Susa, in his extreme zeal, deliberately destroyed one of the temples of the Zoroastrians and refused to rebuild it. This prompted Yezdegerd to launch a new persecution of Christians. By that time, however, Maruthas was most likely dead.

St. Maruthas was reputed to be a miracle worker. He certainly had diplomatic gifts. Furthermore, the fact that he was overweight and still a saint can serve as an encouragement to Catholics who are plump in spite of themselves.

--Father Robert F. McNamara