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A Brief Biography of St. Theotonius

Co-Founder of the Order of Canons Regular of the Holy Cross

Early life and education

St. Theotonius, (1082-1162), co-founder of the Order of Canons Regular of the Holy Cross, was the first Saint of the Order and of Portugal. He was born in Ganfei (northern Portugal) around the year 1082 into a wealthy and pious family. His father, Oveca (James), and his mother, Eugênia, were the first to instruct him in the faith. His uncle Dom Crescónio, Abbot of the Benedictine monastery near Tuy, was his first teacher. (The title "Dom" was used for both nobility and clerics.) When Dom Crescónio became bishop of Coimbra in 1092, he took the ten year old Theotonius (literally, Godly) with him and entrusted his further education to the care of a young seminarian, Tello, who was later to be the principle founder of the Order.

After the death of Bishop Crescónio in 1098, Theotonius went to Viseu, where another uncle of his named Teodorico was Prior of the Cathedral Chapter of Sancta Maria. During the time of preparation for the priesthood, Theotonius exercised the lower ministries with great diligence and piety. It is mentioned expressly that he did not intrude himself into the priestly ministry, but let himself be called by the Church. Holy Orders were conferred upon him sometime before the year 1109, by the Bishop of Coimbra. The young priest was appointed a canon of the Cathedral Chapter of Viseu, which was a college of clerics who served as advisors to the Bishop.

Priesthood

As a priest, St. Theotonius fulfilled his duties with admirable fidelity. In Viseu, he dedicated himself principally to the ordinary care of souls. He avoided luxury, pride, ambition and the pleasures of the world. He even denied himself things that were permissible, such as a bed, a bench, or even a footstool in his room upon which he might rest or sit down. His conduct with women was especially discreet, avoiding any imprudent familiarity. His holiness, especially his moral purity, was universally acknowledged by all the populace of Viseu, both noble and common, both men and women.

After the death of his uncle around the year 1112, the young priest, now thirty years old, accepted – though not without reluctance – the office of the Prior (Superior) of the Cathedral Chapter of Viseu at the request of the people of Viseu and of the Bishop of Coimbra. Queen Teresa of Portugal and her husband, a Count of Portugal, with the consent of the clergy and at the urging of the people, often sought to restore the episcopal See of Viseu and have Dom Theotonius appointed Bishop, but he always refused. Being a more contemplative soul, the office of superior was already a great burden to him, and a bishopric would have been even more onerous.

Hence, after only a short time, in an effort to flee such honors he resigned his office as Prior of the Cathedral Chapter and embarked on his first pilgrimage to the Holy Land in around the year 1116. After he returned to Portugal, he resumed his work as a priest and Chapter member in Viseu, but refused to take up again the office of Prior. His priestly life was distinguished by a great love for the Mother of God, in whose honor he celebrated the Holy Mass every Saturday. He also was generous towards both the poor and the Poor Souls in Purgatory. Every Friday he celebrated a Holy Mass for the Poor Souls at the chapel of St. Michael followed by a procession to the cemetery; many noble families also participated and donated very large sums to the priest, which Theotonius quietly distributed to the poor.

Having no human respect, Theotonius was fearless in rebuking sinful behavior. In one instance, the now widowed queen was attending Holy Mass celebrated by Dom Theotonius. She was accompanied by Count Ferdinand, and the nature of their scandalous relationship had become well-known. Theotonius' sermon, though not naming them, was unmistakably directed at their conduct. They got the message and left in shame. On another occasion, Dom Theotonius was about to begin Holy Mass when the queen had a message sent asking him to say the Mass quickly. He replied simply that there was another Queen in heaven, far more noble, for whom he ought to say the Mass with the greatest reverence and devotion. If the queen did not wish to stay, she was free to leave, but he would not rush. Upon receiving this response, Dona Teresa stayed for the Holy Mass and afterwards with sincere contrition acknowledged her fault, asking Theotonius for a penance.

Second Pilgrimage to Jerusalem

St. Theotonius made a second pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1126. Throughout his stay, especially at Calvary, he meditated, prayed and wept. He relived the mysteries of the life of Jesus from His birth to His Passion, death and Resurrection, visiting the principal holy places. His great devotion to the Passion would later be a great influence on the Order of the Holy Cross. While in Jerusalem, he stayed with the fervent young community of the Canons Regular of the Holy Sepulchre. The religious there, edified by his piety, asked him to join their Order. Theotonius responded: "Brothers, I would gladly stay here, but I have commitments in my own land. I shall go back to Portugal, but I hope, by the grace of God, to return again to Jerusalem to finish my days of pilgrimage here on earth." The return was never to be, for God had a great mission awaiting His humble servant in Portugal.

Founding of the Order of Canons Regular of the Holy Cross

On his return to Portugal, Dom Theotonius first went to Coimbra where he met his former teacher, the now Archdeacon Tello. Dom Tello had gathered ten other men with the intention of founding a new monastery. They needed only one more to complete the number of the twelve Apostles. Though he was reluctant to abandon his plans to enter the Canons Regular of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, Dom Tello argued that he was needed more in the West, where religious life was degenerating. After praying and reflecting, Theotonius saw in this invitation the will of God. Therefore he disposed of his inheritance, giving one third to the poor, one third to the diocese, and one third for the needs of the new monastery.

The cornerstone of the Holy Cross Monastery was laid on the vigil of Saints Peter and Paul, June 28, 1131. Work advanced quickly being subsidized by the king, the bishop of Coimbra and the most distinguished families of the city. On Ash Wednesday, February 24, 1132 (then also the feast of St. Matthias), in the presence of the king and a great multitude of people, the bishop gave the habit of St. Augustine to the new Canons Regular. They were now a total of seventy-two, for sixty candidates had since joined the original twelve founders. That same day, the chapter for electing the Prior took place.

While Dom Theotonius suggested Dom Tello would be the natural choice for Prior, Dom Tello in a serene, but inflamed discourse proposed Dom Theotonius for election. The assembly approved the latter proposal with enthusiasm and unanimity, against the will of Theotonius, who at first refused, claiming to have neither the human qualities nor the virtues required for such an important office. In the end, seeing God's own will in the will of his brothers, he accepted in obedience the task confided to him. Nevertheless, Dom Tello continued to play the more active role of Martha, administering most of the practical, material concerns of the monastery, whereas Dom Theotonius became the contemplative, spiritual leader and guide of his brethren. In his humility, he never accepted the title of Abbot nor the episcopal insignia which went with his office.

His first biographer, a contemporary religious of the community, says that while others praise many things in him, such as his humility, his sanctity, and the ardor of his faith, the one virtue which most impressed him was the strong bond of charity that united Theotonius with the brethren. Like the Good Shepherd he treated his flock with kindness, honor, and respect. He ruled without pride and corrected with moderation, paternal affection and good judgment. If he saw that one of his religious was overly distraught over some correction, the Prior made it a point to soothe him with words of friendship before the day was over. Like a wise superior he did not limit himself solely to a negative approach, but by word and example led his community to the practice of virtue. He urged his brothers that inasmuch as they had left the world in body, they should leave it also in spirit and devote themselves to the pursuit of virtue. He was solicitous and gentle towards the sick, but accepted no special treatment when he himself was sick. He became also renowned for his insistence that the Divine Office be reverently and precisely prayed, refusing to allow it to be hurried.

During the period following the establishment of the first monastery, the first king of Portugal, Dom Alfonso Henriques, was at this same time militarily reclaiming the territory of Portugal from the Moors. The Order of the Holy Cross was entrusted with the mission of re-evangelizing the territories. In some parts the evangelization was entirely new because they had been cut off from Christianity for so long. To accomplish this task, the Order was given churches and properties to establish monasteries. St. Theotonius sent groups of Canons to preach and instruct the people. In 1140, the Moors attacked the Castle of Leiria. The Canons who were there to evangelize were captured and martyred for their faith. This was but one incident among many where the Canons gave their lives for the faith. During this same year, St. Theotonius consecrated the entire country of Portugal to St. Michael the Archangel.

King Alfonso held St. Theotonius in profound veneration for his virtues and was also keenly aware of how much the Order and its Prior could contribute toward the unity of the new-born nation. This royal affection for the "Cruzios" (Holy Cross priests) would never be lacking. The king himself became a member of the Third Order and publicly received the linen surplice of the Canons Regular from the hands of Dom Theotonius. Dom Alfonso chose him as his confessor and spiritual director, confiding to him all the difficult endeavors he undertook, with absolute certainty that they would be successful if they had the support and prayers of the holy Prior. The biographer asserts, "Every time the king undertook great things, he would always come to the servant of God and very intently recommended his person and soul to the prayers of the Saint. Theotonius, for his part, loved the king with such tenderness that he seemed more solicitous for the king than for himself."
But Theotonius was not blind to the faults of the king and was quick to correct him. When Dom Alfonso took the city of Seville from the Moors, his soldiers in the midst of a vast plunder took captive as well a race of Christians called "Mozarabs" who were subjected under the Muslims, more than a thousand men, not counting their wives and children. According to the rules of war, Dom Alfonso took them as slaves.

As soon as he heard this, Theotonius was moved with deep compassion and he, who never departed from the cloister, burning in the zeal of faith, went out to meet the King and the whole army and said, "O King and all noble men who are sons of Holy Mother Church, do you subject your brothers to the condition of slaves and servant girls? By doing this you sin against the Lord your God!" Hearing these words, everyone received them with a contrite heart and they came down from their horses and reverently kissed Dom Theotonius' hand as they promised to free the captives. Many of those freed stayed close to the monastery, adding themselves to the number of the poor who were daily helped by the Holy Cross fathers. He further founded, within the monastery, a hospice to receive pilgrims and the sick, whom he himself along with the other brothers served.

Gifts of healing and expelling demons

Already during Dom Theotonius' life, many miracles and extraordinary facts were attributed to him. When the queen Dona Mafalda's life was in danger during childbirth, he was called to her bedside, and with a blessing saved both her and the life of the child. King Alfonso was also cured from a persistent and life-threatening fever through the blessing of the Saint.

Several episodes of exorcism are also mentioned in the life of St. Theotonius. One instance concerned a lay brother of the monastery who claimed to see a black figure continuously shooting arrows at him. The man would point to its shadow on the wall, but no other brother could see it. When Theotonius came to visit him, he was relieved so long as the Prior remained with him. Finally, St. Theotonius told the man to repent of the sin of adultery into which he had fallen, for this was the reason why the devil tormented him.

On another occasion, a pious Canon was grievously tried by the devil. One day while St. Theotonius was seated in the Church, he saw the brother being tormented by the demon. He went to his aid, held his right hand and addressed the devil saying, "Depart, unclean spirit, in the Name of Jesus Christ, and by the power of the Holy Spirit I command you to disturb the servant of God no longer." And so it was. The contemporary biographer adds that very often he had seen sick brethren restored to health through the intercession and prayers of Theotonius.

Preparing for Death

When Dom Theotonius had been Prior of the monastery of the Holy Cross for twenty years, his strength began to fail. He was seventy years old and felt the need to prepare for his final departure, no longer for the earthly Jerusalem, but for the heavenly. He called the members of the community together and informed them of the weaknesses that affected him and his great desire to prepare himself better for the final encounter with God. His wish was respected and his nephew, Dom John Theotonius, was chosen as his successor. He was to rely frequently on the wise counsels of his uncle. Free from the duties of prior, Dom Theotonius spent his time in continual prayer and reading. Besides the normal prayers of the community, he prayed the entire Psalter (150 Psalms) every day. When he was not praying, he occupied himself with the simplest chores, such as sweeping the corridors. During this period, he intensified correspondence with St. Bernard of Clairvaux who, as a token of great friendship, offered him his own staff which became miraculous. It is said that many who suffered from headaches or any other infirmity were healed if they had the honor of touching it.

Final Passing and Glory

On his deathbed, he gave his final counsel to his brothers. "My children," he said, "consider it as if you had embraced the religious life and state this very day." All the brothers were gathered about him filled with grief, and he consoled the mournful assembly. His first biographer recounts, "As he gave us his abundant blessing…he joyfully beheld the approach of death. We saw him rise up for the encounter with a joyful countenance. So it was that we did not doubt, on account of the joy of his smiling countenance, that the holy angels were there present. His face did not grow pallid, but was filled with a dignity and gravity that made us clearly understand that he was not dying, but going away; changing his friends, as it were, but not forsaking them."

Just before his death "there appeared a great circle of stars which filled the cloister, and the rays of the stars fell about him to the admiration of all." It was Friday, February 18th, 1162, when he gave up his spirit; he was in his eightieth year. The brothers took his body to the church where he lay for two days, with a large, continuous flow of people accompanying him with prayers, psalms and spiritual hymns. The whole city of Coimbra concurred that he was one of the blessed and had gone straight to heaven. The King was taken by such a great grief that his face lost its color. It is told that he said, "His soul will be in Heaven before his body is in the tomb."

St. Theotonius was held in such great veneration and so many were the graces obtained by his intercession that many, beginning with the king himself, urged for his canonization. The process was one of the fastest in the history of the Church. On the first anniversary of his death, February 18, 1163, he was canonized by the Provincial Council of Portuguese bishops in Coimbra. The canonization was approved and confirmed shortly thereafter by Pope Alexander III. More than 360 years after his death, the body of St. Theotonius was exhumed and found to be intact. Fifty years later it was again exhumed and showed signs of decay, though it still exuded a sweet fragrance.