St. Leonides, the Father of Origen

I was online, poking through Butler’s Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs and Other Principal Saints (that’s the 12-volume original edition of Butler’s Lives of the Saints), when I found an interesting guy.

As you may know, Origen was a great Biblical scholar and commentator, as well as a great theologian. But in later times, it was questioned whether his theological speculations were evidence of personal heresy; and there were also questions about his life (ie, obedience problems, not any crimes). Also, some of his students became saints (notably, St. Gregory Thaumaturgus), but some did become heretics. In fact, many heretical ideas were claimed to be from Origen when they were not, and there was tons of unrest and schism and such.

So later generations decided that it was safer to call Origen a famous guy than a saint, and he is considered an “ecclesiastical writer” rather than one of the Fathers. Every so often, fans of Origen complain about this and want to give him saintly honors. Unfortunately, some of his fans espouse heretical beliefs, or pull stupid things. (For example, one US Catholic hymnbook included an arrangement of the Litany of the Saints that included Origen… which is a no-no as well as being inaccurate to the song.)

However… Origen’s dad Leonides (or Leonidas) was a martyr. His feast day is April 22.

St. Leonides was one of the many Greek philosophers living in Alexandria. He was a Christian too, which was increasingly common. He had seven sons; Origen was his eldest and his heir. He was very proud of Origen’s smarts and piety, and Origen’s fatherly care for his own students suggests that Leonides was a very good dad.

When Origen was 17, and in the 10th year of Emperor Septimius Severus’ reign, St. Leonides was arrested for the crime of being a Christian. Origen visited him in prison, and was crazy to get martyred along with his dad. His mom, who was obviously a match for her men, decided that the only way to stop Origen from doing anything stupid was to lock up his clothes. She did let Origen write his dad letters, and we have one that has come down to us, where Origen encourages his dad to have courage and joy in contemplating the crown of martyrdom that was being offered to him.

There is some evidence that St. Leonides was made a bishop at some point, but we don’t know much about it.

St. Leonides was beheaded in AD 202.

As refusing to worship the Emperor’s Genius was a capital crime, his estates and goods were all confiscated and became government property. Origen became the head of the family and the protector of his widowed mom. At first the family got along mostly by charity, with Origen receiving special help from a rich “church lady.” But when Origen refused to receive communion together with a heretical guy whom this lady also supported, things seem to have gotten uncomfortable. So Origen opened his own grammar school and took in pupils for money.

A year after that, he served in his church as a catechist to catechumens (but he didn’t get money for that). His catechetical skills impressed everybody so much that he was appointed by the bishop to work full time at Alexandria’s catechetical school, even though he was still only 18. (Yeah, a lot of stuff can happen in a year, if you’re somebody with the energy of an Origen.)

When Origen became a full-time catechist, he sold all his secular books to a benefactor, who paid him in installments of 4 obols a day. (That’s about five cents.) Origen lived very simply off this, and slept on the ground. But since he wouldn’t accept charity or pay, a lot of his rich friends sent their scribes to take his dictation. At one point, Origen was dictating seven books at once, one to each amanuensis. (St. Thomas Aquinas and a fair number of other prolific guys have had the same habit; they could talk and think a lot faster than they could write.) His family was also taken care of, in various ways.

Origen never managed to achieve martyrdom. He followed his pupil St. Plutarch to the execution ground, and was almost attacked by one of those Alexandrian mobs — but his friends got him away. Other martyred students of Origen included St. Serenus (Plutarch’s brother), the other St. Serenus, St. Heraclides, St. Heron, St. Herias (a female catechumen who was executed by burning, and thus was literally baptized by fire), St. Marcella of Alexandria (a slave who took Origen’s catechism classes), St. Potamioena the Elder (her young daughter who was also catechized by Origen, and who was reported as a Christian by her slavemaster, who wanted to have sex with her; this led to Marcella’s arrest too. She’s “elder” to a later Potamioena from Hermopolis.), and St. Basilides (a pagan soldier who served as a friendly guard at the martyrs’ prison, and who was converted by dreams of St. Potamioena for three nights after her death, in which she put a crown on his head and told him that she was praying for him from Heaven). Tons of his students also survived, of course!

Origen also ended up traveling and teaching other places, such as Antioch, Caesarea in Palestine, and Berytus (Beirut). He got into trouble for being ordained a priest in Caesarea, without consulting his home bishop in Alexandria. He also got into trouble for a brief period of teaching that maybe Hell’s torments wouldn’t last forever (he changed his mind) and that the Devil could repent. (Actually, this was inserted into copies of one of his books by heretics — what he actually taught was that, if the Devil could repent, then he could be saved. But demons can’t, so he wouldn’t.) But he was also a great one for bringing people out of heresy, both by his good explanations and his kindly, humble personality. He was actually sent to the Arabian bishop of Bostra to stop a new heresy about the divinity of Christ, and we have the bishop’s letters to Origen thanking him for bringing him out of heresy.

Origen was tortured and imprisoned for the faith under the reign of Decius, in the city of Tyre. He died soon after his release from prison, from the after-effects of the torture; so he really did achieve martyrdom in a way. He was 69, and the year was 253. His tomb could long be visited in Tyre’s cathedral.

There’s a lot more to say about Origen… but anyway, his humility is probably pleased by his dad having a saint’s day, and him not having one at all.

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One response to “St. Leonides, the Father of Origen

  1. Pingback: Here and There » The Curt Jester

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