In our day and in our country, we are accustomed to seeing religious leaders act as advisors to the President. Protestant ministers such as Billy Graham and Jessie Jackson are familiar figures at the White House, especially during times of national or personal crisis. In a country which prides itself on the separation of Church and State, it is still considered essential to every head of state to have a semi-official cleric who can be called on in times of need.
This phenomenon has existed in every age and place that Christianity has been known and accepted by the ruling powers. There have always been bishops, priests and monks who helped their people by guiding their kings and emperors. Sometimes their counsel was rejected and they paid in exile or even death. But there are also numerous accounts of rulers noted for their benevolent and fruitful reigns because they listened to their religious advisors.
St. Germanus, the 6th century Bishop of Paris, was an advisor to kings and his life shows us the qualities that are necessary for one who would truly speak for Christ to a temporal ruler: his own life must be holy and above reproach; he must not seek power for himself; and he must be willing to speak the truth, however unwelcome and whatever the consequence.
Germanus was born in the territory of Autun and spent much of his youth under the tutelage of a cousin, the priest Scapilion. From a very early age, Germanus showed an intense love of God and a desire to worship him in the services of the Church, walking a mile to the church in the middle of the night to attend Matins.
Bishop (St.) Agrippinus of Autun ordained Germanus to the priesthood at age 34 and appointed him Abbot of the St. Symphorian monastery outside the city, whose inhabitants followed the Rule of St. Basil. Abbot Germanus led his monks in austerity of living and alms-giving. He was so generous in giving of the resources of the monastery to the poor that the monks rebelled against him for fear that they would be left to starve!
Among other miraculous gifts, Germanus was given prophetic visions and dreams. Once, as he prayed in the church at night, he saw an old man giving him the keys to the city of Paris and telling him that God wished him to save the inhabitants of the city from perishing. Four years later, in 554, the vision became reality. Germanus was called to Paris on some business for the monastery and while he was there, Eusebius, the bishop, died. Childebert, the king, knowing the reputation of the saintly abbot, detained him in the city until he could be chosen as the next bishop. Despite Germanus’ pleadings to be spared this responsibility, the people insisted, he was consecrated as the 20th bishop of Paris, and he became an advisor to the kings of Paris as well.
King Childebert, the son of Clovis, the first of the Frankish kings to embrace Catholic Christianity, was still closely attached to the pagan ways of his ancestors, but under the influence of Bishop Germanus, he tried to put an end to the constant fighting and violence among the people and also passed edicts banning the idols formerly worshiped and the licentious revelry that the people engaged in on Christian holy days.
When the king became ill and could not be cured by doctors, St. Germanus spent a night in prayer over him, laid his hands upon him, and through his gift of healing, brought Childebert back to health. In his gratitude, the king presented Germanus with the palace in which this miracle had occurred, that of Celles, and here the saint founded another monastery.
King Childebert died in 558 and was buried by Germanus in the Church of St. Vincent, a church which the bishop had just consecrated. This church had been built to hold a relic of St. Vincent (his stole), given to King Childebert by the bishop of Saragossa in thanksgiving for ending a siege against his city.
Childebert was succeeded by his brother, Clotaire, the last son of King Clovis. Clotaire was not inclined to seek out Bp. Germanus until an illness reminded him of the saint’s miraculous healing powers. When the bishop came to the king, Clotaire grabbed his clothing and held it close to the painful areas of his body and was immediately healed. Afterward, he was very happy to have the bishop as an advisor.
Upon Clotaire’s death in 561, the French kingdom was divided among his four sons, Charibert being given Paris to govern. This man did not share the wisdom of his father and uncle. He obstinately led a very public sinful life, reverting back to many of the pagan practices that his family had given up. Tiring of his wife, he left her in favor of one of her servants and when this woman died soon after, he took her sister. Bishop Germanus tried to convince the king to live a more godly life, but when he refused, the bishop excommunicated him.
King Charibert died in 570 and his three brothers began a long period of plottings and intrigue against each other over territory. The people of Paris were caught up in this turmoil and their bishop pleaded for peace. When one of the brothers, Sigebert, set out to kill his brother Chilperic at Tournay, he was met by Bishop Germanus, who told him that if he would forgive his brother, peace would be made between them, but he prophesied that if he persisted in his intention to kill his brother, his own death would occur instead. Sigebert ignored the counsel of the bishop and was assassinated at the instigation of his own wife.
This violence and instability continued until after St. Germanus had passed through this life to the next. He died on May 28, the day the Church keeps as his feast day, in the year 576 around the age of 80.
St. Germanus was a faithful father to his flock, always giving special care and attention to the needs of the poor. As the shepherd of the Church in Paris and its environs, he presided over several local Councils and was responsible for building churches and establishing monasteries.
Through all his years as a devout child, a simple monk and abbot, a bishop, and an advisor to kings, St. Germanus always manifested the same qualities of piety and devotion, humility and truthfulness. We would do well to order our lives by his counsel. St. Germanus, pray for us.