Today is the feast day – or in England the Solemnity – of one of the most popular Christian saints, St George. He is the patron of England and numerous other countries, in fact he seems to have more patronages than any other saint. And yet very little is known about him, and the most famous stories about him have no factual basis whatever.
Some people are rather sniffy about our patron Saint, and wish that England had someone else as heavenly protector; after all, George, a native of Palestine of Macedonian stock, never came to England. His cult is supposed to have come to England late in the day, at the time of the crusades. Being a soldier saint (that much we do know about him) it seems that he had great appeal to the English crusaders who then brought him back, so to speak, from the Holy Land. His tomb is to be found in Lod, formerly Lydda, the rather unattractive town near Tel Aviv airport, and which was once visited by St Peter, as the Acts of the Apostles relate in the ninth chapter.
While the cult of St George might seem to be narrowly nationalistic to some, the very international nature of our Saint should be a protection against this. It is nice to know, surely, that we share St George with the town of Victoria, Gozo (where there is a beautiful small baroque basilica dedicated to him) and the town of Qormi in Malta, home to another beautiful church dedicated to him, as well as places such as Beirut, and countries as diverse as India and Egypt. In fact George is not just Catholic, but also catholic in the widest sense: he is also revered by the Orthodox. He is even honoured by some Muslims.
Some years ago I was in Turkey, and I visited a tiny church dedicated to St George. Attached to the church was a monastery, but as is so often the case with Greek churches in Turkey, there was no congregation, and no stable community of monks. There was one monk from Mount Athos there, who was on a three month visa (the Turkish government is wary about letting people, especially priests, in); various monks from Athos would take turns to reside in this monastery. Like some of the Orthodox, this monk was anti-Catholic, but he spoke good English, and was happy to talk.
We were Franks, he told us, and they, the Orthodox, were the real Romans. No one ever came to the monastery except for tourists, but, he said, on the feast of St George some 60,000 people came on pilgrimage – and all those odd bits of cloth tied to the trees on the way up were prayer symbols left by the pilgrims.
I pointed out that there were not 60,000 Christians in all Turkey, let alone in that part of Turkey. He nodded and told me that these people who came on pilgrimage were Muslims, but Muslims in name only. They were in fact secret Christians, whose ancestors had converted to Islam in order to avoid deportation in 1923, during the so called exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey. The monk claimed that up to ten per cent of the population of Turkey was secretly Christian.
Of course, there is no way of knowing what the secret Christian population is, as it is secret. But I would love to be there on St George’s Day and see the secret Christians temporarily abandon their anonymity and make their pilgrimage to see their Saint and Protector. As for us, here in England, perhaps we can invoke the aid of our Patron not just on this land, but on all Christians, particularly those of the Middle East?