I’ve been hearing the names of Saints Cosmas and Damien at Holy Mass for years, but I only just learned their full story.
Like all stories of the saints, it’s fascinating, inspiring, and remarkable. Like many, it contains both historical detail and elements of legend.
Who were these saintly brothers, and what can they teach us today?
Brothers and Healers
Cosmas and Damian were two brothers living in Saudi Arabia during the reign of Diocletian (284–305 A.D.) and the persecution of the early Christians. They studied medicine in Syria and practiced it together. One may have been a pharmacist and the other a doctor, according to accounts in the early Church.
They were supernaturally skilled, and developed an outstanding reputation for the use of their gifts. Practicing medicine free of charge, they became known as the “Moneyless Ones,” or Anargyroi, in the Eastern Church.
Desiring to heal more than just bodies, they shared their belief in Christ with their patients while ministering to their needs. They also prayed for, and with, their patients.
Martyred for the Faith
Cooperating with God’s grace, they brought about healings many considered miraculous. Renowned for their work together healing both bodies and souls, the twin brothers caught the attention of Lysias, the Roman Governor. Lysias forced their capture and condemned them to death.
Ancient Church histories record that they were first cast into the sea with their three brothers, Anthimus, Euprepius, and Leonitis. An angel is said to have saved them by delivering them safely to shore. Later burned, stoned, and shot with arrows, they remained unscathed. Executioners beheaded Cosmas and Damian when they realized they could not force the faithful brothers to apostatize.
Eventually Christians constructed a church over their burial site in Cyrrhus.
When the Roman Emperor Justinian, a Christian, became ill, he prayed to the brothers for a cure. Upon receiving this favor, he enlarged the city of Cyr and the church in their honor.
Their Cult of Devotion
As stories of their intercession and heroic faith spread among the faithful, many churches were dedicated to Cosmas and Damian in Constantinople and Rome.
A pagan temple in the Roman Forum was converted to the Basilica of Sts. Cosmas and Damian during the 6th Century, with the pope transferring their relics from Syria to this basilica.
The apse of the basilica shows Saints Peter and Paul presenting the brothers to Jesus in a vibrant mosaic.
Devotion to Sts. Cosmas and Damian spread widely throughout Christian Europe, particularly in the Eastern Church. Most of the miracles attributed to these holy brothers involved healing, in keeping with their gifts and apostolic mission.
Because of their heroic martyrdom and healing miracles, they joined the ranks of martyrs, saints, and holy virgins named in the Roman Canon, or Eucharistic Prayer I, where you and I still hear of them today.
As doctors serving the Lord and their fellow men, these martyred brothers understood a great paradox of our humanity: that the human body is both miraculous and frail.
As Christians, they recognized the resplendent, eternal nature of the soul. They used their gifts as completely as few others have, honoring both body and soul for the glory of God.
The twin brothers healed others through the power of Jesus. Professing His name without fear, they remind us that we are both corporal and spiritual beings, created to glorify our Lord and Master.
Sts. Cosmas and Damian inspire us to integrate both of our natures courageously, so that we can recognize and do battle against challenges of the spirit and the flesh with faith and courage. As with many saints in their elite company, their lives are a reminder not to fear the destruction of the body for the eternal glory of the soul.
No miracle saved Saints Cosmas and Damian from their deaths. It was their calling to give witness to Christ with their lives, and to enter into heavenly joy with Him right away.
Their heroic example is honored today.
Innumerable numbers of Catholics recite their names in the Roman Canon and seek their intercession. They are among the beloved Patrons of Pharmacists, Physicians, Surgeons, Dentists, Nurses and the Blind.
Sts. Cosmas and Damian, pray for us!