No matter our age, we can make a difference and learn from the example of young Saint Vitus.
St. Vitus was the only son of a Sicilian senator named Hylas. St. Vitus was converted to Christianity by his tutor, St. Modestus, and St. Modestus’ wife, St. Crescentia, who was St. Vitus’ nanny. Some accounts say that St. Vitus was seven years old at the time, but most state he was born around 290 AD, which makes him 12 years old at the time of his death. Christianity was prohibited in the Roman Empire, and Hylas had all three of them arrested and scourged.
St. Vitus is widely venerated as the patron saint of epilepsy. He is also the patron saint of dancers, actors, comedians, oversleeping, boilermakers, Sydenham’s chorea (Saint Vitus’ Dance), and several cities including Prague and Rijeka. Here are the 13 most interesting facts about the young and courageous St. Vitus.
#1 Saint Vitus Died in 303 AD After Being Stretched on a Rack and Tortured
After St. Vitus, St. Modestus, and St. Crescentia were arrested by Hylas, the three of them escaped and fled to Lucania (now called Basilicata, Italy). St. Vitus, along with St. Modestus and St. Crescentia, were taken to Rome to exorcise a demon (which was actually epilepsy) from the son of Emperor Diocletian, which he did. Because the three Saints would not renounce their faith, Emperor Diocletian arrested them and boiled them in a cauldron full of liquid tar and lead, but this did not harm them. So the Emperor had them thrown to wild lions, but the lions just licked their feet. Finally, the Emperor stretched the three Saints on racks and had them tortured. St. Vitus, St. Modestus, and St. Crescentia died shortly thereafter.
#2 Saint Vitus Was “Canonized” Around 500 AD
The earliest record of St. Vitus becoming a saint was when Pope Saint Gelasius I dedicated a shrine to St. Vitus, between 492 AD and 496 AD, and possibly removed his remains from the grave to the shrine. This is considered to be equivalent to today’s canonization. He was never formally canonized, as he lived in a time called “pre-congregation,” which was before the creation of today’s formal process of canonization where the Catholic Church decides whether someone is worthy of universal veneration.
#3 Saint Vitus’ Veneration Is on Vidovdan
Vidovdan, or St. Vitus’ Day, is the most important Serbian national and religious holiday. In addition to commemorating St. Vitus, it commemorates the day when Serbians lost their independence to the invading Ottoman Empire in the 1389 Battle of Kosovo. Serbian folklore is that rivers turn red and flow upstream at midnight on the eve of Vidovdan. It is a working day and there are church services for all victims of war. People do not celebrate joyously by dancing or singing.
#4 Saint Vitus’ Symbol and Iconography Is of Being Boiled Alive
St. Vitus is often depicted as a teenager or young man sitting in a cauldron or standing holding a rooster. The Romans considered the rooster a sacred bird and had one thrown into the cauldron when they boiled St. Vitus. As roosters crow at dawn, St. Vitus is invoked by people who are likely to oversleep.
St. Vitus is also portrayed as holding a small cross or a palm leaf. He might also be accompanied by a lion because he was thrown to the lions who only licked his feet, or by a lamp symbolizing the light of faith.
#5 St. Vitus’ Feast Day Celebration Is on June 15th
His feast day is June 15, the date of his martyrdom. He shares this feast day with Saint Modestus and Saint Crescentia, who were martyred on the same day. It is observed in the Czech Republic, Italy, Germany, Serbia, and other places where he is venerated. In Serbia, the day is celebrated on June 28 and is called Vidovdan, where it is celebrated as a national holiday.
#6 Saint Vitus’ Arm Bones Are Separated from the Rest of His Remains
The remains of St. Vitus are interred in two places. One of his arms is in a crypt under the St. Vitus, Wenceslas and Adalbert Cathedral in Prague, the Czech Republic. These bones are enclosed in a golden reliquary in the shape of an arm. The rest of his remains are in Princely Abbey of Corvey in Germany.
#7 The Location of Saint Vitus’ Major Shrines Are in Rome, Germany, and the Czech Republic
St. Vitus has several shrines, which include the Rijeka Cathedral in Croatia, the Church of Saints Vitus and Modestus in Rome, and the Parish Church of St. Stephen and Vitus in Höxter, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany. In Prague, St. Vitus’ Church is a National Cultural Monument and has a statue of St. Vitus by the altar and a fresco illustration of the legend of St. Vitus on one of the walls. There are many churches named for St. Vitus in the Republic of Serbia and the United States, where many Germans and Eastern Europeans emigrated.
#8 Saint Vitus Was Venerated as One of the Fourteen Holy Helpers
St. Vitus was venerated as one of the “Fourteen Holy Helpers.” The “Fourteen Holy Helpers” are fourteen ancient saints believed to be effective when prayed to for common ailments and pains. Within this group, St. Vitus is invoked for epilepsy. Some of the other Fourteen Holy Helpers include familiar names such as Saint Barbara, Saint Christopher, Saint George and Saint Catherine, each of which are invoked for a different ailment. These saints started to be invoked as a group during the Black Plague in Europe beginning in 1346.
#9 A King Gave Saint Vitus’ Arm Bones to a Duke as a Gift
King Henry I of Germany, who had all of the remains of St. Vitus at the Princely Abbey of Corvey, gave the bones from one of St. Vitus’ arms to the Czech Duke Wenceslas (Saint). Wenceslas then built the St. Vitus, Wenceslas and Adalbert Cathedral, where those arm bones are currently interred.
#10 Saint Vitus Has His Own Dance: the “Saint Vitus’ Dance”
It is said that Germans believed they could receive good health for one year if they danced before St. Vitus’ statue on his feast day. There was also a dance mania that afflicted large groups of people in Europe between the 14th and 17th centuries. This affliction caused people to have epilepsy-like movements until they collapsed from exhaustion. The cause of this disorder has never been explained. These dancing episodes often occurred around the feast of St. Vitus. People thought St. Vitus had cursed these dancers and named the dance the “St. Vitus’s Dance.” In the 17th century, this disorder was named Sydenham’s chorea.
In 1278 some people were dancing on a bridge when it collapsed. The survivors went to a nearby chapel dedicated to St. Vitus and were healed. These dances finally ended in the 18th century.
#11 Saint Vitus Has His Own Rain Rhyme
St. Vitus has his own rhyme: “If St. Vitus’ Day be rainy weather, it shall rain for thirty days together.” It is of British origin and appears in the Farmers’ Almanac, which has been published since 1818.
#12 People Believed You Could Be Cursed with Saint Vitus’ Dance
The peasants in Tyrol, Austria, used to believe that anyone who ate a sparrow would be afflicted by the Saint Vitus’ Dance.
#13 Saint Vitus Was Removed from the Catholic Calendar
After the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church revised its calendar of saints and removed St. Vitus and several other saints from its calendar. The justification for the removal was that very little is known about him. The Catholic Church continues to recognize St. Vitus as a saint and permits churches and places dedicated to him to continue to celebrate the Mass of Saint Vitus on his feast day.
St. Vitus was a great warrior of the faith, who despite his youth, gave his life for the love of Christ. We are pressed by challenges to our faith just as the early martyrs were, and though we will probably not be invited to die for Christ, we should be encouraged by the example and intercession of Saint Vitus.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Masters Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.