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St Phocas the Gardener
Martyr (entered heaven around 303)
I’m afraid I can’t take enough time to write you a proper email on your birthday today – I have just been notified that some special interrogations will be required of me… I only have a few minutes. (I’m actually looking forward to this session of questions – I have a hunch that they will be taking me out of this building into another one, which means I may get a quick glimpse of sunlight and a few breaths of fresh air. But I’m not going to set my hopes too high. I’ll let you know how it went.)
Though I have little time, I wanted at least to let you know the gift I would like to give you if I could: it’s the virtue that most characterizes today’s saint.
We know very little about Phocas. We can guess by the name that he lived in the Eastern part of the Roman Empire, but we don’t know where exactly. We know that he was a victim of the persecutions undertaken by the Emperor Diocletian and continued by his successors at the start of the 300s. We also know that he was an innkeeper and gardener and that he used his own produce to feed the poor. It was his kindness, generosity, and simple hard work that made his Christian witness authentic.
It was so authentic, in fact, that he was one of the first victims when the decree to eliminate Christians reached his part of the world. It seems that a band of soldiers was dispatched to apprehend him, and he welcomed them as heartily and sincerely as he welcomed all the guests who came to his Inn. He fed them, gave them shelter and supplies. He even dug his own grave to save the soldiers some trouble. In the end, though, the Romans did their duty, and Phocas lost his head for keeping his faith.
That, my bright young nephew, is Christian charity: complete selfless concern for the good of others, regardless of whether you like them or not, and regardless of what you will get in return. If I could give you one thing on this your birthday, it would be a huge dose of charity, without which nothing else in the Christian life is worth dirt.
Your loving uncle,