Tuesday, 23 September 2008

St Thecla

It's the Year of St Paul - and yet I wonder how many people remembered that today is the feast of St Thecla. Perhaps a few of the locals in Milan, Tarragona and other towns where she is patron (the above picture, by Tiepolo, depicts the saint freeing Este from the plague). But since disappearing from the liturgical calendars in 1969 and not even being mentioned in the most recent edition of the Roman Martyrology, she has largely been forgotten and consigned to the dustbin of 'myths and legends.'

St Thecla, of course, was St Paul's most famous female disciple. According to some early sources she was even deemed ‘equal to the apostles.’ The main account for her life is found in the apocryphal Acts of SS Paul and Thecla. This text states that St Thecla was a noble lady from Iconium who, on the eve of her wedding, sat at her window mesmerized by the preaching of St Paul, who happened to be passing through the city.

From that moment Christ won over her heart and she was soon brought before the Governor, who condemned her to death by burning. She was saved by a miraculous hailstorm, which put the fire out, and she ran to St Paul and asked for baptism. The Apostle wanted to test her and delayed her baptism, taking her with him to Antioch, where once again she was captured and, this time, thrown to the wild beasts. Luckily the saint was protected by a she-lion and (rather unusually) baptized herself by diving into a pool of water in the amphitheatre. I suppose the point was that her willingness to face death was itself baptism by blood, although she survived both of her martyrdoms. Because of her sufferings, however, she is called ‘Apostle and protomartyr among women’.

St Thecla then made her escape to the Apostle dressed as a man. For many years, she lived as an ascetic in a cave (rather like St Mary Magdalen) and a monastery was later built on the site. St Ambrose later presented the saint as a model for virgins and women religious. Another tradition says that she travelled with St Paul to Spain, where (as mentioned above) she is patron of Tarragona.

Not surprisingly, St Thecla has on occasion been hijacked by feminists; even Tertullian, writing in the second century, complained that some Christians were using the saint’s story to legitimize women preaching and baptizing. The saint, though, is a reminder that women had an active involvement in the early Church and were closely linked to the Pauline mission. I for one see no reason to doubt that St Paul had a zealous female disciple called Thecla, who may very well have come from Iconium and faced persecution.



Blogger William Newton said...

You might be surprised to learn that Santa Tecla is a big celebration in Catalonia, actually, though of course now all of the medieval pageantry has more of a cultural than a spiritual connection, unfortunately.

2:20 am  
Blogger Pastor in Valle said...

I think she was mentioned in the traditional rite of Extreme Unction: something about asking God to save the sick person as he freed St Thecla from her seven torments. I haven't got my ritual handy right now……

7:09 am  

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