Reunion An Expeditious Saint

27/11/2012 18:35

Some believe he does really existed, as evidence proves. Some believe he is fake; he didn’t exist and is just a myth, a sort of urban legend. Some believe maybe he existed even though hagiographic transcription could be wrong or mistakenly written. Some do not believe anything at all. What is really true is Saint Expédit cult of is one of the most widespread in the French department of Reunion in the Indian Ocean.

Extended and expeditious. Saint Expédit is reputed to be effective and readily responding to prayers and requests raised before his altars. Resolving to merchants, sailors and particularly for students on the eve of their exams, so prayers are particularly dedicated to this purpose:

O Saint Expédit, toi qui le patron des écoliers is,
plein de confiance in ta fidèle intercession,
je viens m'obtenir you demander of the grâce
of Réussir je dans l'redoute examination.

(Oh Saint Expédit, you who are the students patron,
with full confidence in your faithful intercession
I come to ask a favour
if passing the test I’m afraid.)

But does P'tit Bon Dieu really exist? According Martyrologium Hieronymianum, a sixth century hagiographic compendium, Saint Expédit was a Roman commander who converted to Christianity in the fourth century in Armenia. This was the reason why, in 303 AD, Roman Emperor Gaius Aurelius Valerius Diocletianus, along the Christians Great Persecution, ordered expeditiously that his head must to be detached from his body. He was beheaded with his fellows Caius, Aristonicus, Rufus and Galatas, in the town of Melitene, nowadays Eskimalatya in Eastern Anatolia, where Roman Legion XII, called the Fulminant,  was established. The same compendium, however, repeat his name for 18 and 19 April.

Who argue this hagiography’s sources provides it was a transcription mistake. The saint would not be called Expédit, he would be rather Elpidius or Saint Helpidius, who as mentioned in the Codex Justinianeus was prefect under the orders of Constantine the Great, founder of Constantinople. This fact could  lengthen the life of the Saint a few years, considering that Constantine was the first Christian emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire and the end of prosecutions after the 313 AD Milan’s Edict.

The Annales Ecclesiastici, by sixteenth century ‘s Cardinal and Italian historian Caesar Baronius, identifies the prefect with a martyr. This association was argued one century later by Louis-Sébastien de Tillemont another church historian, in his Histoire des empereurs et autres princes qui ont régné pendant les six premiers siècles de l'Église. According this latter  Helpidius may be punished under the command of Flavius ​​Claudius Iulianus, Julian the Apostate, so this fact would derive in an alleged martyrdom.

The fact that any relics of the saint have been preserved has fueled the legends and raised suspicions. It is said that in the mid-nineteenth century Parisian nuns received in their convent a box containing some remains, shipped from Rome. The packaging refers was written simply in Italian: Spedito. Ignoring its meaning, just submitted, the nuns took the contents in the belief to be the Saint Expédit relics.

The doubt about the real existence of the Saint went so far that Pope Pius XI, erased, in 1905, the name of the martyrologies, requesting its withdrawal from the altars and unsuccessfully banned his worship.

The first statue was installed in the church of Notre Dame de la Déliverance, in Saint Denis, capital of the Reunion Island. The church’s name also got same postal echoes. In  honour of the Saint two chapels were erected in the towns of Saint Philippe and Saint Benoît. Since then even more than three hundred altars have spread all over the island.  Their preservation state denotes they are regularly visited.

Saint Expédit dresses as a Roman official and holds a palm leaf in his right hand, a symbol of Christian martyrdom. With one foot crushes a raven, representing the devil bearing the legend cras meaning tomorrow in Latin. Besides the rood the palm leaf shows the inscription hodie, meaning today. All comes to say: Never left until tomorrow whatever you can do today. And that is what is expected of him.

This way San Expédit rests in the many small shrines scattered on the road around the whole island. And not so small. The one that stands In La Plaine des Cafres, almost in the centre of La Reunion, is life-size. Its top is two dozen steps distant to the ground. Altars are recognized from afar by its red colour, symbolizing blood, life and death. His cult surpasses Christianity and has become a devotion with certain connotations that syncretises with Hindu and pagan rites. Aside the image of the Saint, votives, flowers, candles, coins, pieces of red scarf, small notes, often ceramic, thanks for the wishes requested and granted favours: Merci à Saint Expédit

Some times a Saint’s beheaded representation may be seen, and is probably not a reference to the way he trespassed, but it could be ought to some not enough satisfied devotee.

Another Mascarena island particular cult, no less curious indeed, is the to the Vierge au Parasol, the Umbrella Virgin devotion. At the beginning of the last century, in Bois Blanc, in the southeast, halfway between Saint Philippe and Sainte Rose, a farmer decided to raise a Virgin Mary statue among his crops to protect them. More than pests their crops were threatened by the proximity of volcano Piton de la Fournaise. To safeguard the Virgin from the weather rather than lava, he put an iron umbrella. One day a lava flow coming down the volcano burned their crops but respect the image of the Virgin. A new eruption, in 1961, was less pious. Virgin was replaced anyway.

© J.L.Nicolas


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