December 15 – Stephen of Surozh; Virginia Centurione Bracelli

Stephen of Surozh (VIII cent.) was born in Cappadocia (“docile cap”) to Christian parents. From an early age he shunned the pastimes of your ordinary, not-destined-to-become-a-saint lads (football, motocross, Dragon Ball-Z marathons), preferring instead to read Scripture. At fifteen he ran away to Constantinople to pursue an education in philosophy. Patriarch (Saint) Germanus took him under his wing and taught him asceticism. Then Stephen ran away again, this time to a monastery, where he was tonsured and learned even more asceticism. Then he ran away again squared, to nobody-knew-where.

When the Bishop of Surrentium (aka Surozh, somewhere in Crimea) died, the residents asked Germanus for a new one. A shining angel appeared to Gerry in a dream, telling him that God wanted Stephen for the job. Germanus replied, and I quote my source directly lest you think I’m saucing this up, “And how, my lord, am I to know where God’s favorite has his dwelling? Hmm?” (Okay, I added the “Hmm.”) The angel, clearly having read his Dickens, silently took Germanus to somewhere across from Stephen’s hermitage, and pointed. The next day the same angel appeared to Stephen, telling him to submit to bishopification lest God be displeased. Stephen didn’t sass back, and was soon bishop.

Then Leo the Isaurian became emperor. Leo had this hang-up about icons, for values of “hang up” equal to “murderous rampage.” He commanded all the bishops to destroy their icons on pain of death, and while I can’t say what every bishop did, there’s no need to tell you what Stephen didn’t do, because you’ve doubtless worked it out. What Stephen did do is sail to Constantinople and appear before the Emperor. “There’s a prophecy about an emperor who burns icons,” Stephen said ominously. “Hope it’s not you.” Leo asked the name of the emperor in the dream; it was “Conon.” “That’s my birth name!” said the emp. “I really hope it’s a different Conon,” Stephen said, “because the Conon in the prophecy is the forerunner to Antichrist.”

Not liking this response, Leo had Stephen tied behind a horse and dragged to prison, but Stephen sang praises to God all along the way. After Leo met a timely end, his son-and-successor freed Stephen, who went back to Surozh and was a good bishop for a long time. After his death, a blind man to whom Stephen used to give alms wept, saying, “Take me to him, that I may kiss his feet.” The messengers shrugged and took him to the body, and when he kissed the saint’s feet, he received his sight. A century later, a Russian prince named Bravlin Bravlin (also known as Bravlin²) accepted baptism after his paralysis was healed at Stephen’s crypt.

Virginia Centurione Bracelli (1587–1651), daughter of the Doge of Genoa, wanted to become a nun, but was forcibly married to Gaspare Bracelli, a wealthy nobleman. After siring two daughters, Gaspare gasped his last. Virginia then began a life of chastity and charity, refusing her father’s next marriage arrangement, and working to help the needy and sick.

After her daughters were safely married off, Virginia opened the Centro Signore della Misericordia Protettrici dei Poveri di Gesù Cristo, which despite its unwieldy name came to serve as many as 300 people at one time, and grew into the twin orders The Sisters of Our Lady of Refuge on Mount Calvary and The Daughters of Our Lady on Mount Calvary (which still exists). They provided food, medical care, religious instruction, and vocational training for the poor of the entire region. Things went very well for some time, until the rich and middle-class donors started to fear and despise the poor, and withdrew their funding. Virginia nevertheless spent the remainder of her life caring for the poor, as well as acting as a diplomat between various political factions. She was canonized in 2003 by Pope John Paul II.