My dear friend, Andrea Vuocolo, is my hagiography maven. She knows more about saints and their stories than anybody of my acquaintance.
I can’t recall why, many years ago, I learned about her saint savvy. I must have been writing something and needed clarification about an odd name. She pulled out her book of saints and we spent a while laughing and grimacing over some of the names and the reasons why they were (posthumously) awarded sainthood. (Torture, it almost always has to do with torture. And until I read this article about St. Corona, I hadn’t known and wish I still didn’t that there’s an encompassing scholastic-ish term for it: “martyrology.”)
So I wasn’t surprised when Andrea sent me a link to an online journal from an organization called Aleteia, which seems to be a Catholic publication with an affection for contemporary life (there’s a story about Dolly Parton). I’m not digging into it very deeply. No, I’m not afraid of being converted. I just don’t have the time or interest.
But St. Corona, she’s got temporal relevance. Here’s the story with a warning: it’s ugly.
Little is known about St. Corona, but she and the man she prayed for, St. Victor, are listed in the Roman martyrology and the Hagiography of the Church. There is ambiguity surrounding the dates and locations of St. Victor’s and St. Corona’s martyrdom. Most sources say it was in Syria, which was under Roman rule. Some say Damascus; others, Antioch. Most agree they were put to death in the year 170 A.D. Most historians agree they died during the reign of Marcus Aurelius and that they were put to death by order of a Roman judge named Sebastian.
The story (legend) tells the tale of a Roman soldier named Victor. The Romans discovered that Victor was a Christian. The soldiers brought Victor before a judge, named Sebastian, who despised Christians. He decided to make an example out of Victor. He was bound to a pillar and summarily whipped until his skin was hanging from his body, and then Sebastian had his eyes gouged out. Through it all, Victor never denied Christ.
Nearby was a 16-year-old girl name Corona. She was the wife of one of the soldiers, and she was also a Christian. (Corona’s husband did not know his wife was a Christian). As Victor was being brutalized, Corona decided she needed to help the slowly dying man. She chose to announce her Christianity to all present and hurried over to where they were torturing Victor. She knelt and began to pray for him, letting him know she was there for him. It did not take very long for the soldiers to bring her too before Sebastian.
Sebastian was livid that this young woman had so disrespected his authority. He immediately had her put in the prison and tortured. Then, he ordered her tied to the tops of two palm trees, which had been pulled down to the ground. At his signal, the ropes holding the trees bent were cut. The trees sprang back away from each other to an upright position. The force was so great that Corona’s body was ripped apart. Then Sebastian ordered Victor beheaded.
Note: I’m somewhat distressed that Marcus Aurelius’ name has been dragged into this, given how much I appreciated his Meditations.