The early life of Germanus was the ordinary one expected of the son of prominent Romano-Gallican parents in the fifth century. He studied law, married, and was appointed governor of Amorica (Brittany), a border province of the Empire. But his life changed completely when, in 418, the Bishop of Auxerre died, and Germanus was elected by the people to be his successor (showing us that, at that time, bishops could be chosen from among the laity and there were still married bishops). Germanus brought all his training and skills and the experience of his professional life to his new office as well as his love of God and the Church.
Across the Channel in Britain, the Pelagian heresy was spreading rapidly and threatening to destroy the orthodoxy of the Church in Britain. This heresey asserted that man, by his own effort, apart from Divine Grace, could initiate his own salvation. Alarmed by the effects of this heresy, the British bishops requested aid from those of Gaul (revealing a close relationship between the church in the two lands) and so Germanus, along with Lupus, Bishop of Troyes, went to their aid around the year 429. At a synod held at Verulamium, the two Gallican bishops successfully argued against the heretics (the people acting as judges), helping to restore the British church to Orthodoxy.
While there, the two bishops paid a visit to the tomb of St. Alban, bringing relics of apostles and martyrs in exchange for some of the earth from the grave, which they took back with them to Gaul. By this, we know that Britain’s first saint was already widely known and venerated in the fifth century and perhaps earlier.
Around the year 447, the Pelagian heresy reared its head again and, at the same time, the Britons were being attacked by Saxons and Picts who had joined forces for a more effective invasian. St. Germanus and St. Lupus returned to Britain and were able to help in more ways than one. They again helped to quell the heresy (this time ordering the expulsion of the heretical leaders) and they aided the people in escaping invasion. Called the “Alleluia victory”, this event is described by St. Bede the Venerable in his History of the English Church and People:
They came at once as they had promised, and put such heart into the timid people that their presence was worth a large army. Under these apostolic leaders, Christ himself commanded in the camp. It also happened that the holy season of Lent was beginning, and was so reverently kept under the bishops’ direction that the people came each day for instruction and flocked to receive the grace of Baptism. Most of the army sought Holy Baptism, and in readiness for the Feast of our Lord’s Resurrection a church was constructed of interlaced boughs and set up in that armed camp as though it were a city…
After the Feast of Easter, when the greater part of the British forces, fresh from the font, were preparing to arm and embark on the struggle, Germanus promised to direct the battle in person. He…observed a valley among the hills lying in the direction from which he expected the enemy to approach. Here he stationed the untried forces under his own orders. By now the main body of their remoreseless enemies was approaching… Suddenly Germanus, raising the standard, called upon them all to join him in a mighty shout. While the enemy advanced confidently, expecting to take the Britons unawares, the bishops three times shouted, “Alleluia!” The whole army joined in this shout, until the surrounding hills echoed with the sound. The enemy column panicked, thinking that the very rocks and sky were falling on them, and were so terrified that they could not run fast enough… So the the bishops overcame the enemy without bloodshed, winning a victory by faith and not by force.
Bede also tells us of miracles, especially of healing, by St. Germanus. Some historians believe that Germanus was the teacher of St. Patrick and the one who ordained him for his missionary venture into Ireland and so his influence was felt in the British Isles in yet another way.
In 448, St. Germanus had to come to the aid of his own people and travelled to Ravenna to plead for peace. There he fell asleep in the Lord on July 31. His body was returned to Auxerre for burial and very soon the tomb became a place of pilgrimage for the faithful seeking the intercession of the holy bishop. In the year 480, a priest of Lyons, Constantius, wrote the first Life (or biography) of the saint.
By his life, St. Germanus reminds us that unity among Christians in all parts of the world is essential for combatting heresy, and he reminds us that even the violence of the world can be overcome by the fearless praise of baptized Christians. May we, with St. Germanus, always sing “Alleluia” to the risen Christ and hold fast to the Orthodox Catholic faith.