From Dom Guéranger's The Liturgical Year.
The protomartyr of the Benedictine Order stands before us to-day in his strength and in his beauty. The empire had fallen, and the yoke of the Arian Goths lay heavy upon Italy. Rome was no longer in the hands of the glorious races which had made her greatness; these, nevertheless, kept up their honourable traditions. They offered a great lesson, for future times of revolution, to other descendants of not less noble families: in lieu of the ensign of civic honour once committed to their fathers, the survivors of the old patrician ranks made it their duty to raise still higher the standard of true heroism, of those virtues which alone are everlasting. Thus Benedict of Nursia, fleeing into the desert, had rendered greater service than any mighty conqueror to Rome and her immortal destinies. The world soon discovered this fact; and then began, as St. Gregory tells us, the concourse of Roman nobles, bringing their children to the patriarch of monks, to be educated by him for almighty God.
Placid was the eldest son of the patrician Tertullus. The excellent qualities early discovered in the child led his worthy father to offer to God, without delay, this dear first-fruit of his paternity. In those days, parents loved their children not for this passing world, but for eternity; not for themselves, but for our Lord. The faith of Tertullus was well rewarded when, twenty years later, not only his first-born, but also his two other sons and their sister, were crowned with martydom. This was not the first holocaust of the kind in that heroic family, if it be true that they were relatives by blood, and heirs of the goods as well as of the virtues, of the holy martyr Eustace, who had been immolated four centuries earlier with his wife and sons.
Among the children of promise enlisted by the vanquished nobles of the ancient empire in the new militia of the holy valley, Equitius brought to Subiaco his son Maurus, a boy some years older than Placid. Henceforth the names of Maurus and Placid became inseparable from that of Benedict; and the patriarch acquired a new glory from his two sons, so united and yet so different.
Equal in their love of their master and father, and themselves equally loved by him for their equal fidelity in good works, they experienced to the full that delight in virtue which makes its practice a second nature. However similar their zeal in using ‘the most strong and bright armour of obedience,’ in the service of Christ the King, it was wonderful to see the master accommodating himself to the age of his disciples; so adapting himself to their differences of character, that there was nothing precipitate, nothing forced, in his education. It disciplined nature without crushing it, and followed the Holy Ghost without endeavouring to take the lead. In Maurus was especially reproduced Benedict's austere gravity; in Placid his simplicity and sweetness. Benedict took Maurus to witness the chastisement inflicted on the wandering monk, who could not stay at prayer; but Placid accompanied him to the mountain-top, where his prayer obtained a spring of water to deliver from danger and fatigue the brethren dwelling on the rocks above the Anio. But when, walking along the river-side, holding Placid by the hand and leaning upon Maurus, the legislator of monks explained to them the code of perfection they were afterwards to propagate, the angels knew not which most to admire: the candour of the one, winning the father's tenderest affection; or the precocious maturity of the other, meriting the holy patriarch's confidence, and already sharing his burden.
Who does not recollect the admirable scene of Maurus walking on the water and saving Placid from drowning? Monastic traditions never weary of extolling the obedience of Maurus, Benedict's humility, and the sagacious simplicity of the child pronouncing sentence as judge of the prodigy. Of such children the master could say from experience: ‘The Lord oftentimes revealeth that which is best, to him that is the younger.’ And we may well believe that the recollections of the holy valley prompted him, later on, to lay down in his rule this prescription: ‘In all places whatsoever, let not age be taken into account as regardeth order, neither let it be to the prejudice of anyone; for Samuel and Daniel, while yet children, were judges over the elders.’
The following lessons, taken from the monastic breviary, will complete the account of Placid’s life, and relate the manner of his death. In 1588, the discovery of the martyrs’ relics at Messina confirmed the truth of their Acts. On this occasion, Pope Sixtus V extended the celebration of their feast, under the rite of a simple, to the universal Church.
Placidus Romanus, Tertulio patre, ex nobilissima Aniciorum familia natus, puer Deo oblatus, et sancto Benedicto tradi tus, tanta morum integritate, et monasticæ vitæ institutis profecit, ut inter præcipuos ejus discipulos numeraretur. In solitudine Sublacensi eidem sancto Benedicto fontem divinitus impetrandi adfuit. Adolescentulus ad hauriendam aquam egressus, et in lacum prolapsus, ejusdem sancti patris imperio per Maurum monachum super aquas sicco pede currentem salvus mirabiliter extractus fuit. In Cassinum montem cum illo deinde veniens, annum agens alterum et vigesimum mittitur in Siciliani, ut bona, et possessiones, quas pater ipsius monasterio Cassinensi donaverat, ab improba quorumdam cupiditate defenderet. Quo in itinere cum plurima, maximaque miracula fecisset, sanctitatis fama percelebris Messanam venit, constructoque non longe a portu in paterna possessione cœnobio, monachis triginta congregatis, monasticam disciplinarm primus ea in insula propagavit.
Nihil eo placidius, nihil humilius erat: prudentia, gravitate, misericordia, animique perpetua tranquillitate superabat omnes. In divinarum rerum contemplatione sæpissime pernoctabat, paululum sedens cum eum necessarius somnus oppressisset. Silentii præcipua cura: ubi autem loquendum esset, sermo omnis ad mundi despicientiam, Christique imitationem accommodatus. Jejunium vero ita coluit, ut carne, omnique opere lactario, totis annis abstineret; per Quadragesimam autem tertia, quintaque feria, et Dominica pane dumtaxat, frigidaque aqua contentus, cæteros dies sine ullo cibo traduceret. Vinum bibit numquam, cilicium perpetuo gestavit. Tot autem, tantisque Placidus miraculis coruscabat, ut non solum ex vicinis locis, sed ex Etruria et Africa ægroti ad eum sanitatis causa confluerent; quamquam is ab insigni quadam animi humilitate, miraculis quæfaceret omnibus, sancti Benedicti nomen, meritaque prætendere solitus erat.
Cum igitur sanctitatis exemplo et miraculorum magnitudine rem christianam augeret, quinto anno postquam in Siciliam venit, subita Sarracenorum irruptione cum Eutychio et Victorino fratribus, Flaviaque sorore virgine (qui forte per eos dies ad fratrem visendum Roma eo usque contenderant), nec non Donato, Fausto, Firmatoque diacono, monachisque triginta noctu psallens in ecclesia opprimitur. Ex quibus Donatus capite illico cæsus est: reliqui ante Manucham archipiratam ducti, cum se idolis cultum ullum adhibere constanter negarent, cæsi virgis, manibus pedibusque vincti sine ullo cibo contruduntur in carcerem, ac insuper quotidie flagellis conciduntur. Sed divinitus sustentati, post multos dies rursus ad tyrannum adducuntur, atque in eadem fide constantes, iterum ac sæpius affecti verberibus, nudi, capite demisso suspenduntur, ingentique fumo os eorum obruitur. Qui cum omnium opinione mortui relicti fuissent, pos tridie vivi,sanatis mirabiliter vulneribus reperti sunt.
Deinde Flaviam virginem separatim tyrannus aggressus, cum nihil aut terrendo, aut pollicendo proficeret, jubet illam nudam pedibus alta ex trabe suspendi. Cui cum tyrannus insultans nuditatis turpitudinem exprobaret: Unus est, inquit virgo, maris feminæque auctor conditorque Deua; quare neque sexus, neque nuditas hæc fraudi mihi apud illum futura est, quippe quam pro illius amore sustineo, qui mea causa non nudari solum, sed cruci etiam affigi voluit. Quo responso Manucha incitus, virginem fustibus cæsam, subjectoque fumo excruciatam lenonibua constuprandam tradidit. Virgine autem Deum deprecante, divinitua factum est, ut quotquot eam attingere vellent, subito membrorum omnium dolore, stuporeque corriperentur. Postea Placidum Virginis fratrem tyrannus invadit, eique idolorum vanitatem arguenti os dentesque lapidibus contundi, linguamque radicitua abscindi jubet. Sed cum nihilominus ille avulsa lingua dare et expedite loqueretur, ipso miraculo magia furens barbarus, Placidum cum sorore, ac fratribus, immanibus anchorarum molarumque ponderibus obrui resupinos imperat. Cumque ex iis etiam tormentis integri evasissent, ad extremum ex una Placidi familia sex et triginta in portus Mamertini littore, capitibus abscissis martyrii palmam cum duce suo, et aliis etiam pluribus retulere, tertio nonas Octobris, anno salutis humanæ quingentesimo trigesimo nono. Horum omnium corpora post aliquot deinde dies, Gordianus monachus ex eodem monasterio fuga elapsus, intacta cum reperisset, cum lacrymis sepelivit. Tyranni autem non multo post ultricibus maris undis absorpti crudelitatis suæ pœnas dederunt.
Placid, a Roman by birth and son of Tertullus, belonged to the noble family of the Anicii. Offered to God while still a child, he was entrusted to St. Benedict, and made such progress in sanctity and in the monastic life, as to become one of his principal disciples. He was present when the holy father obtained from God by prayer a fountain of water in the solitude of Subiaco. While still a boy, being sent one day to draw water, he fell into the lake, but was miraculously saved by the monk Maurus, who at the command of the holy father ran dry-shod over the water. Later on he accompanied St. Benedict to Monte Cassino. At the age of twenty-one, he was sent into Sicily, to defend, against certain covetous persons, the goods and lands which his father had given to Monte Cassino. On the way he performed so many great miracles, that he arrived at Messina with a reputation for sanctity. He built a monastery on his paternal estate, not far from the harbour, and gathered together thirty monks; being thus the first to introduce the monastic life into the island.
Nothing could be more placid or more humble than his behaviour; while he surpassed everyone in prudence, gravity, kindness, and unruffled tranquillity of mind. He often spent whole nights in the contemplation of heavenly things, only sitting down for a short time when overpowered by the necessity of sleep. He was most zealous in observing silence; and when it was necessary to speak, the subjects of his conversation were the contempt of the world and the imitation of Christ. His fasts were most severe, and he abstained all the year round from flesh and every kind of milk-meat. In Lent he took only bread and water on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays; the rest of the week he passed without any food. He never drank wine, and always wore a hairshirt. So numerous and so remarkable were the miracles he worked, that the sick came to him in crowds to be cured, not only from the neighbourhood, but also from Etruria and Africa. But Placid, in his great humility, worked all his miracles in the name of St. Benedict, attributing them to his merits.
His holy example and the wonders he wrought caused the Christian faith to spread rapidly. In the fifth year after his arrival in Sicily, the Saracens made a sudden incursion, and seized upon Placid and his thirty monks while they were singing the night Office in the church. At the same time were taken Eutychius and Victorinus, Placid’s brothers, and his sister the virgin Flavia, who had all come from Rome to visit him; and also Donatus, Faustus, and the deacon Firmatus. Donatus was beheaded on the spot. The rest were taken before Manucha, the chief of the pirates; and as they firmly refused to adore his idols, they were beaten with rods, and cast, bound hand and foot, into prison, without food. Every day they were beaten afresh, but God supported them. After many days, they were again led before the tyrant; and as they still stood firm in the faith, they were again repeatedly beaten, then stript of their clothes, and hung, head downwards, over thick smoke to suffocate. They were left for dead, but the next day were found alive. and miraculously healed of their wounds.
The tyrant then addressed himself to the virgin Flavia apart. But finding he could gain nothing by threats or promises, he ordered her to be stript, and hung by the feet from a high beam, insulting her meanwhile upon her nakedness. But the virgin answered: Man and woman have the same author and Creator, God; hence neither my sex, nor this nakedness which I endure for love of him will be any disadvantage to me in his eyes, who for my sake chose not only to be stript, but also to be nailed to a cross. Manucha enraged at this reply ordered her to be beaten, and tortured with the smoke, and then handed her over to be dishonoured. At the virgin’s prayer, God struck all who attempted to approach her, with sudden stiffness and pain in all their limbs. The tyrant next attacked Placid, the virgin’s brother, who tried to convince him of the vanity of his idols; Manucha thereupon commanded his mouth and teeth to be broken with stones, and his tongue to be cut out by the root; but the martyr spoke as clearly and easily as before. The barbarian grew more furious at this miracle, and commanded that Placid, with his sister and brethren should be crushed under an enormous weight of anchors and millstones; but even this torture was powerless to hurt them. Finally, thirty-six of Placid’s family, with their leader, and several others, were beheaded on the shore near Messina, and gained the palm of martyrdom on the third of the Nones of October, in the year of salvation five hundred and thirty-nine. Gordian, a monk of that monastery, who had escaped by flight, found all their bodies entire after several days, and buried them with tears. Not long afterwards the barbarians, in punishment of their crime, were swallowed up by the avenging waves of the sea.
‘Placid, my beloved son, why should I weep for thee? Thou art taken from me, only that thou mayst belong to all men. I will give thanks for this sacrifice of the fruit of my heart, offered to almighty God.’ Thus, on hearing of this day’s triumph, spoke Benedict, thy spiritual father, mingling tears with his joy. He did not survive thee long; yet long enough to complete, of his own accord, the sacrifice of separations, by sending into far-off France the companion of thy childhood, Maurus, who was destined not to rejoin thee in heaven for so many long years. Charity seeketh not her own interests; she finds them by forgetting self, and losing self in God. Placid had disappeared; Maurus had been sent away; Benedict was about to die: human prudence would have believed the holy patriarch’s work in danger of perishing; whereas, at this critical moment, it strengthened its roots and extended its branches over the whole world. Unless the grain of wheat falling into the ground die, itself remaineth alone; but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit. As heretofore the blood of martyrs was the seed of Christians, it now produced a rich harvest of monks.
Blessed be thou, O Placid, far beyond thy native Italy, and Sicily the scene of thy combat. Blessed be thou for the numberless ears of corn, for the abundant harvest sprung from the choice grain that fell to the earth on this day: faith bids us see in thy immolation the secret of the success granted to the monastic mission of Maurus. Thus, despite the great diversity and the unequal length of your paths in life, you are ever united in the heart of your master and father. At the appointed hour he did not hesitate before the holocaust our Lord required of him; wherefore, he now in heaven beholds the fulfilment of the hopes he had centred in his two beloved sons.
Deign, O Placid, to continue thy interest in the extension of Christ’s reign upon earth, in the progress of the perfect life in the Church, in the diffusion throughout the world of the monastic family, whereof thou art the glory. Noviciates especially are confided to thee: remembering the blessed education thou wast privileged to receive, watch over the aspirants to the ‘better part’. To them above all is applied the Gospel saying: Unless you become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven, that kingdom of heaven, which consists in the anticipated possession of God here on earth, in the life of union attained by the way of the counsels. May they reproduce before the angels thy humble and sweet simplicity; and show their gratitude for the maternal solicitude of their holy Order by the same filial docility wherewith thou didst respond, to the holy legislator’s special tenderness. May they, in spite of the world’s opposition, increase in numbers and in merit, for the honour of God!
The trials of the present must prepare the monastic Order, and indeed the whole religious state, for the trials of the future. It is around the monks that the martyrs of the last days will gather, as around thee assembled the Christians of Messina, and thy two brothers, and the heroic Flavia, so truly worthy to be doubly thy sister. May the chosen flock increase, and be ever united; so as to be able to say with one voice to the persecutors both present and future:. ‘Do what you mean to do; for we are all of one mind, one faith, one manner of life.’
 Gregor. Dialog, lib. ii. cap. 3.
 See above, Sept. 20.
 Gregor. Dialog. lib. ii.
 S. Benedict. Reg. cap. iii.
 S. Benedict. Reg. cap. lxiii.
 Acta S. Placidi et soc. cap. vii.
 St. John xii. 24, 25.
 St. Matt. xviii. 3.
 Acta S. Placidi et soc. cap. v