St. Simeon of Syracuse


It is amazing how “international” many Christians were in ancient days, despite the lack of railroads, automobiles and planes. Nobody was surprised when an Irish missionary arrived in Germany, or a Greek was chosen archbishop of Canterbury, or a German or Frenchman became pope. I suppose it was in part because today’s spirit of narrow nationalism had not yet replaced the international spirit of the Roman Empire, and Latin was still the lingua franca of Europe.

St. Simeon was one of these cosmopolitan saints. Born in Syracuse (that is Siracusa in Sicily), he traveled widely before he ended up as a hermit in western Germany.

When Simeon was about seven, his Greek father, a military man, took him to Constantinople to be educated. He turned into a devout young man, who made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and while there decided to become a monk. He took the monastic habit and was ordained a deacon at Bethlehem. Then he was received by the monastery at Mount Sinai in Arabia. However, he was a hermit by disposition, so he eventually got permission from the abbot of his monastery to live, for a certain period, in a hermitage on top of Mount Sinai.

When he ended his period as a hermit, the abbot deputed him to go with another monk to Rouen in France. Duke Richard II of Normandy lived there. He had promised support for the Mount Sinai monastery, but had not yet paid it. Simeon was told to collect the fund and bring it back home.

Simeon accepted the mission (although reluctantly, as too “commercial” for his taste). Now he set out on an amazing adventure that would make a good movie scenario. His ship was captured by pirates while in the eastern Mediterranean. The invaders murdered all aboard but Simeon, who escaped death by swimming to shore. Then he walked to Antioch.

At Antioch, he had the good fortune to meet two abbots who were bound for their homes in France and Germany after a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He and another monk, Cosmas, whom he had also met in Antioch, decided to travel to France with them.

But Simeon’s misadventures were not yet over. While they were crossing the Balkans by land, the governor of Belgrade arrested him and Cosmas. Fortunately, they were not detained, so they made for the Adriatic seashore across a dangerous, brigand-ridden countryside. Sailing for Italy, they went to Rome and thence to southern France. Cosmas fell ill there and died. Simeon finally did get to Rouen, but he found, to his chagrin, that Duke Richard, his monastery’s would-be benefactor, had also died.

Simeon now paid visits to the two abbots who had befriended him in Antioch. One of them. Eberwin of Trier, Germany, introduced the Greek monk to Trier’s Archbishop Poppo. Poppo invited Simeon to accompany him on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land as companion and guide. So back he went to the Near East. When they returned to Trier, however, the monk decided to stay there as a hermit. Poppo granted his request to use as a cell the tower next to Trier’s old Roman gate, the Porta Nigra, and there he ceremoniously enclosed Simeon in his recluse cell.

The hermit from Syracuse spent the rest of his life in this cell. It was no easy life. The devil beset him with many temptations. At one point, some of the townsfolk, thinking him a magician, stoned his hermitage. But he finally became regarded as a living saint and wonder-worker. The whole population of Trier attended his funeral. Abbot Eberwin wrote about his adventurous life, and in 1042, Pope Benedict IX canonized him.

Thus it was that a Sicilian ascetic living in Asia, after surviving many unsought journeyings, ended up a venerated German citizen on the banks of the Moselle. An unusual “pilgrim’s progress!”

--Father Robert F. McNamara