Being a Christian does not exempt one from the difficulties of life – illness, loss of fortune, betrayal by friends (a fact that seems to escape most televangelists and radio preachers!). What devotion to Christ and his Church does is provide comfort in adversity, hope for a better future (in this life or the next) and courage to face the difficulties. One of the marks of sanctity is how one uses these aids in facing the inevitable crises of life.
St. Panteleon, or Panteleimon, is an example. Born in Nicomedia around the year 275 to Eubula, his Christian mother, and Eustorgius, a pagan (how common these mixed marriages seem to have been!), the boy was named Pantoleonta by his parents. His early signs of great intelligence led them to seek the best education available for their son. He eventually began medical studies with Euphrosinos, the most famous physician in the area. By this time, Eubula had died and, although she had taught her son the Christian faith, he had fallen away from the church after her death.
Pantoleonta excelled in his studies and was noticed by the Emperor Maximian, who wanted him to become a doctor to the royal household. Eustorgius encouraged his son to aspire to this kind of worldly and professional success.
But God planned a different kind of success for the young doctor. As he walked to his studies each day, he was observed by Hermolaos, the priest of the Christian community in Nicomedia. This man befriended Pantoleonta, and through sound reasoning and by reminding him of the stories of Jesus’ healing miracles which he had heard from his mother in childhood, he gradually coaxed him back into the arms of the Church. Hermolaos baptized Pantoleonta and continued to pray, counsel and talk with him regularly as the young man continued his medical studies.
Soon the miracles began. It became apparent that the young doctor had very special healing gifts. Pantoleonta discovered that, if he prayed with his patients, asked them to believe in Jesus and they agreed, he was able to heal them, no matter how severe their illness or handicap. The news spread that Pantoleonta could cure blindness and heal paralysis, and that he did not charge money for his services!
Observing his son’s great gift and discovering his return to Christianity, Eustorgius became a Christian also, as did many in the city who witnessed these healing miracles. But for those who refused to see the work of the true God in the miracles, only hatred developed. The pagan priests were angered that their gods did not have this power, and the other physicians were jealous that patients flocked to this renegade doctor.
When the persecution of Christians began in 303, under orders of the Emperor Diocletian, Pantoleonta was reported to the authorities by his colleagues. He was taken before the civil court and ordered to make sacrifices to the pagan idols. In refusing, Panteleonta requested a series of “trials” in which the power of the Triune God was tested against that of the lifeless idols. When the doctor’s God was proved to be all-powerful, may more people believed, but the authorities were even more determined to get rid of Pantoleonta.
Like many others during the years of persecution, the saint was subjected to horrible tortures in an effort to break his will and get him to deny his Savior. But through the prayers of the priest Hermolaos, Pantoleonta received comfort, hope, and courage from God to withstand these torments, surviving each one alive. Some intended tortures backfired for his tormenters: as he was being burned by the soldiers’ torches, his wounds were healed and the torches extinguished; and when he was thrown into the arena of the wild beasts, the animals came gently to him and licked his feet, as if to venerate the saint.
Eventually, however, on July 27, 304, Pantoleonta was beheaded. (Eyewitnesses said that his blood flowed white like milk at his execution, a phenomenon often reported of the saints). Although the soldiers had been ordered to burn the body, they allowed the Christians to bury it properly. From this time onward, the saint has been called “Panteleimon”, which means “all-merciful.”
News of Panteleimon’s remarkable life and martyrdom spread rapidly throughout the Christian world. His name was invoked for healing and many miracles were reported. Churches were named for him in Constantinople, in Rome, and on Mt. Athos. (Sadly, St. Panteleimon’s relics were stolen by Crusaders, taken to France, and eventually some were dispersed as art objects, such as the arm reliquary which was bought for the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore.)
Devotion to St. Panteleimon continued in both East and West. In Germanic countries, he became associated with other saints known for healing called the Fourteen Holy Helpers. In the East, St. Panteleimon is invoked at the blessing of water and oil.
May our all-merciful God, who is the great healer of all, grant us, through the prayers of the physician St. Panteleimon, healing for our infirmities, both spiritual and physical.
[Sources: For the Glory of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit: A History of Eastern Orthodox Saints by Michael James Fochios; Lives of the Saints and Major Feast Days by Rev. Fr. George Poulos; The Oxford Dictionary of the Saints by David Hugh Farmer.; The Prologue from Ochrid by Bishop Nikolai Velimiroviċ.]