(Welcome to our Saint of the Day series! Each weekday, we present you with an excerpt from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints series, published by Holy Cross Orthodox Press. Today we commemorate St. Aquilina, whose account is found in Volume 2 of the series.)
When the Prophet Isaiah said, “And a little child shall lead them,” he could not have prophesied that in the third century his words would have a literal meaning when a
wisp of a girl came upon the Christian scene with such an impact that she became the youngest person to become a saint. The name of the precocious child, whose influence
on Christianity was greater than that of all the children put together in the Children’s Crusade a thousand years later, was Aquilina – almost from infancy obviously destined for service to Jesus Christ and mankind.
In the years from five to twelve, when most children are expected to cavort in fun and games, Aquilina showed an intellect and devotion far beyond her years. She concerned herself with the far more serious and deadly game of assuring the permanence of the Christian Church at a time when its enemies were doing their worst. Born in the ancient city of Biblos, the daughter of a man named Eutolmios – a nobleman held in high regard by the Emperor Diocletian – the astounding Aquilina was exceedingly well-schooled in Christian doctrine by her father. He himself was a devout Christian at a time when the nobility were the last to be expected to follow Christ.
Aquilina amazed not only her father, but Christian teachers and scholars as well. They saw no reason why the child’s desire to serve the Lord should be denied simply because of her tender years. She showed a genius for oratory, as well as the written rhetoric one would expect from a senior citizen. Encouraged by those about her in a carefully guarded plan to allow her full rein in God’s work, she was not much past the age of five when she was permitted to address crowds who marveled at the child’s wisdom and the authority with which she presented the case for Jesus Christ. The crowd’s initial reaction was that of curiosity at the sight of this girl child on a podium, but their curiosity soon gave way to respect. They went away all the more convinced of the truth of the Messiah, especially having heard it so wondrously expressed by a girl so young that she had to have a spark of the divine in her.
Beginning at the age of five, when she put away childish things, Aquilina spent the next seven years as a missionary of the Lord. She was accompanied by men old enough to be her grandfathers who did not look down on this child, but looked up to her and in so doing got a closer look at the divine grace that lay within her. The years passed without serious threat, primarily because the pagan enemies looked at this tiny female preacher and went away laughing that anyone would be so foolhardy as to listen to her meaningless denunciation of the gods.
There was one man, however, who came to see Aquilina in the true light in which she was beheld by Christians. This one man was to prove the undoing of a fantastic child whom he considered to be a dwarf or an adult in a child’s body. The man’s name was Nikodemos, an honorable name he did not deserve, who was a lackey of local officials, taking special delight in exposing Christians and thereafter even greater delight in seeing them tortured to death.
The vile Nikodemos finally convinced Ulasianus, the Proconsul of Biblos, that this youngster was a real menace to the Roman state, perhaps more so because her innocent appearance carried an appeal that was lacking in the mature preachers. Bringing a twelve-year-old to justice was quite another matter, because even the diehard pagans could not believe that any harm could come from a girl who, to them, might just as well be reading mythical tales like any other schoolgirl. But Nikodemos persisted, and when he had won enough to his side, the girl was brought in for trial.
At first even Ulasianus could not bring himself to believe that there was any real danger to the state from this child. Although he had witnessed entire Christian families wiped out in a wave of persecution, he had never sentenced a solitary twelve-year-old to death as an enemy of the state. There was always the chance of rehabilitation in one so young, but he realized at last that there stood before him nearly three hundred years of Christianity. Perhaps the youngest martyr in Christendom, Aquilina was tortured and then beheaded on June 13, 298.