Looking around today, you’ll see churches most everywhere you go, especially throughout the western world. In the U.S.A., it’s common for a town to have Catholic, Protestant, and Lutheran churches, all within walking distance of each other. Travel along the Bible Belt, and you’ll see many evangelical Protestant churches, like Baptist, Penticostal, and Methodist.
Church sightings today are extremely common, but this was not always so. At its founding, the Christian movement was heavily resisted in both Jewish and Gentile communities, which led to persecutions. Early persecutions were sporadic, often locally driven events. As Jesus’ apostles went out preaching the Gospel across the known world, many early christian leaders were put to death, often in barbaric ways. This included stonings, burnings, and beheadings. Jewish Pharisees were said to have thrown James, The Just, off a Temple tower. When the fall didn’t kill him, they proceeded to beat him to death with a club.
As monotheistic Christianity spread across the polytheistic Roman Empire, persecutions continued. Despite oppression, more followers came to accept the tenets of Christianity, however, Roman officials found Christians to be useful scapegoats:
“On the contrary, they deserve the name of faction who conspire to bring odium on good men and virtuous, who cry out against innocent blood, offering as the justification of their enmity the baseless plea, that they think the Christians the cause of every public disaster, of every affliction with which the people are visited. If the Tiber rises as high as the city walls, if the Nile does not send its waters up over the fields, if the heavens give no rain, if there is an earthquake, if there is famine or pestilence, straightaway the cry is, “Away with the Christians to the lion!” What! shall you give such multitudes to a single beast? Pray, tell me how many calamities befell the world and particular cities before Tiberius reigned—before the coming, that is, of Christ?”—Tertullian (155-220 AD), Apology XL.
These attacks were not reserved for church’s leaders, or even adults. Many children who chose not to abandon their belief in Christ were also killed.
A martyr is someone who chooses death rather than give up their religious beliefs. Their sacrifice is believed to bring them eternal glory in the afterlife, reserving them a special place in heaven. The Catholic faith reveres martyrs as saints.
Such faith by anyone is asstounding, especially a child. I encountered one such child saint on my walk along the Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage to the shrine of another James–the apostle Saint James, the Greater.
My journey started in Le Puy en Velay, an ancient town in central France. After walking westward 125 mi (200 km), I arrived in Conques, a beautiful, tucked-away village in the high hills of Aveyron, where Sainte Foy’s relics have remained for over a millennium.
Way back at the beginning of the fourth century, Emperor Diocletian ordered all Christians to return to Paganism (a period that became known as the Great Persecution). As investigations revved up throughout the empire, Foy’s name was given up. She was just twelve years old. When young Foy refused to renounce her faith, she was tortured, burned, and eventually beheaded.
The Codex Calixtinus–the oldest travel guide about the Camino de Santiago (or any place for that matter)–mentions Sainte Foy:
“Likewise the Burgundians and the Teutons who are going to Santiago on the Le Puy route should visit the sainted remains of St Foy, virgin and martyr, whose most holy soul, after she was beheaded by the executioners on the mountain of the city of Agen, was taken to heaven in the form of a dove by angels, and the victory laurels of immortality distinguished it.”
The passage continues:
“At last the precious body of St Foy, virgin and martyr, was buried with honour by Christians in a valley commonly known as Conques. The Christians built a magnificent basilica above the tomb in which for God’s glory the rule of St Benedict is carefully kept to this day. Many blessings are given to both healthy and sick; in front of the doors is a superb fountain, more extraordinary than it is right to tell. Her feast is on the 6th October.”
The Codex Calixtinus was written back in the twelfth century. It doesn’t explain how her remains left Agen and were brought to Conques (they were stolen).
The book mentions Sainte Foy’s miracles, but not what kind to expect (they were unique).
The miracles attributed to Sainte Foy were anything but ordinary. Along with stories of her intercession restoring eyesight and protecting pilgrims, she was known to replace body parts and even revive animals.
She showed a special affinity toward freeing prisoners. Helping one such prisoner escape a fortress built alongside a cliff, Sainte Foy’s spirit led the prisoner to a window within a high tower. She then told him he’d have to jump to freedom. With guards in pursuit, the prisoner said he leapt out the window, and rather than fall to his death, he glided, landing softly upon the ground.
Other stories coming out of Conques showed Sainte Foy never lost her playfulness. As her devoted guards kept watch over her shrine, her candles would suddenly blow out, yet when a guard went to retrieve fire, upon their return they’d often find her candles miraculously relit.
Peculiar tales coming out of Conques made her one of the most beloved saints in all of Europe. Even today, thousands upon thousands visit Conques every year. Some come to stroll through this beautiful village; others may come for a chance to witness Sainte Foy’s mischief; others still come in hope of being on the receiving end of one of her many miracles.
Today Conques’ history stretches over a thousand years, all tied to this child saint. Sainte Foy’s legacy of faith and courage lives on at Conques. Next time you pass by a church, think of her and the many other child saints through the ages. Their sacrifice, standing up for freedom of expression, led us to a world where church worship could become commonplace.
Learn more about Sainte Foy, the holy heist that brought her to Conques, and about early Christianity in my debut book, A Thousand Miles to Santiago [available for pre-order today]!
Saint Foy’s image was found on Wiki Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:St._Fides.jpg