FEW CHRISTIANS HAVE NOT HEARD of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. After living in India for twenty years, teaching in a (middle class) girls high school, she received what she termed “a call within a call” to devote the rest of her life to caring for the sick poor while living among them. At her death there were over 4500 sisters in the religious community she founded.
Mother Teresa is a modern example of what our Tradition calls “Unmercenary Healers,” people – usually physicians – who cared for the sick without pay, offering their skills back to God as their sacrifice of praise. The troparion usually sung in honor of these Unmercenaries speaks of them living out the command of Christ to the Twelve, “Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out demons. Freely you have received, freely give” (Matthew 10:8).
Then, as now, physicians were respected members of society and expected to be remunerated for their services, which is why the sick poor were often ignored in the ancient world. The Unmercenary Healers were the exception to this rule.
The Eastern Churches have, for centuries, honored a number of Unmercenaries, several of whom were also martyrs in the early persecutions. A few of them (and their feast days) are:
- Ss. Cosmas and Damian of Asia Minor (November 1)
- Ss. Cosmas and Damian of Rome (July 1)
- Ss. Cyrus and John in Egypt (January 31)
- St Julian in Homs, Syria (February 6)
- teenaged medical student St Thallaios (May 20)
Some Unmercenaries were not trained physicians but rather native healers, usually associated with rural areas and practicing what we might call “alternative medicine” today. Among them we venerate St Tryphon (February 1) who healed livestock as well as people in his village, Lampsacos.
Not a few of these Unmercenaries were women. Among them the Church honors Ss. Zenaida and Philonella (October 11), who operated a clinic at a healing spring in Thessaly, and the precursors of Mother Teresa, Ss. Hermione and Eukhidia (September 4), who established the first hostel for the homeless poor in Ephesus. These and others are also remembered in a collective feasts of the Holy Unmercenaries in the calendars of some local Churches, generally in October or November.
The Great Martyr St. Panteleimon
One of the most revered Unmercenaries in both East and West is the Great Martyr St. Panteleimon the Healer. He lived in Asia Minor from 284 to 304 and was thus a contemporary of St. George and other martyrs. Like them he suffered martyrdom in the same persecution.
Our saint was born in Nicemedia, the regional capital, about the year 284 to a pagan father, Eusturgios, and a Christian mother, Eubula. At birth he was given the name Pantaleon, which means “in all things like a lion.” His mother began teaching him the Christian faith but she died when her son was still a boy. Raised by his father, Pantaleon was taught to join him in worshiping the ancestral gods of the region.
The highly intelligent lad was entrusted as a teenager to the noted physician Euphrosinos to learn the practice of medicine. As was the custom, he accompanied his master everywhere to study his methods. Since Euphrosinos was occasionally called to the imperial court Pantaleon attracted the attention of the Eastern emperor, Maximian. He successfully completed his studies and began the practice of medicine himself.
The young physician often passed a house where three priests – Hermolaos, Hermippos and Hermocrates – were living in seclusion. They had survived a notorious massacre in 303 when thousands of Christians, who had taken refuge in the principal church in Nicomedia, were slaughtered. Hermolaos noticed him and invited him in. In the course of what became frequent conversations, Hermolaos praised Pantaleon for his skills, but also challenged him: “But, my friend, of what use are all your acquisitions in this art, since you are ignorant of the science of salvation?”
Pantaleon was well disposed to Hermolaos’ teaching, but was only convinced to accept baptism through the following event. The young physician once happened to see a child stricken on the street, bitten by a poisonous snake. Pantaleon began to pray to our Lord Jesus Christ that the dead child might be revived and that the poisonous reptile might die. He firmly resolved that, should his prayers be answered, he would become a follower of Christ and would accept baptism. Pantaleon saw the child come back to life and the great viper burst into pieces. Pantaleon was then baptized be Hermolaos and was given the name Pantaleimon (“all-compassionate”).
Pantaleimon began urging his father, Eustorgios, to accept Christ. When Eustorgios saw his son heal a blind man by invoking the name of Christ, he came to believe and was baptized, along with the man who had regained his sight.
After Eustorgios’ death, Pantaleimon dedicated his life to the suffering, sick, needy and indigent. Everyone who came to him he treated without charge, healing them by invoking Jesus Christ. He would visit those in prison, especially Christians, whose numbers were filling the prisons, and treat their wounds, thus living up to his Christian name. This naturally attracted the attention of people and they abandoned their other physicians to be treated by Panteleimon.
The other physicians reacted by denouncing Panteleimon as a Christian. Maximian urged Panteleimon to refute the charge by offering sacrifice to the Roman gods, but he refused. On the contrary, Panteleimon healed a paralyzed man in the emperor’s presence by invoking Christ. Maximian dismissed this as some kind of trick and condemned Pantaleimon to death. He suffered martyrdom, along with the three priests who had befriended him, on July 27, 304.