Among the earliest saints to be venerated as Carmelites, we find the story of the Sicilian hermit Angelus. Like his contemporaries Albert of Trapani and Simon Stock, who also lived in the 13th century, Angelus is somewhat difficult to profile, since the story of his life is clouded by legends and tall tales meant to edify the devout and teach lessons of piety, but in fact make it more difficult for us to discover the real person underneath the fables. But let’s try to uncover what we can.
The real Angelus was probably a hermit of great holiness who may have been a native of Sicily. One story tells that he was born in Jerusalem, the son of converted Jewish parents, but this seems unlikely, since the story has too many factual errors. The legend says that he spent time in the Holy Land with the community on Mount Carmel, and that he was known for his prayer, fasting, good spiritual advice, and various miracles. If we are to believe the reported dates, Angelus may have been early enough to participate in the formation of the Carmelite Rule. He may have been one of the first hermits who immigrated to Sicily, and then crisscrossed the island preaching and proclaiming the good news of the Gospel. If the legend is accurate, his arrival in Sicily was in 1219, which means that there were still no Carmelite houses in Europe. Angelus would have traveled far and wide as an itinerant preacher with no fixed abode.
Another account describes his travels to Rome, where he was said to have met with both St. Francis and St. Dominic. The location of this encounter is in some dispute: some accounts say that it took place at the Dominican church of Santa Sabina, others at the cathedral of St. John Lateran, still others at Benedict’s early foundation of Subiaco. Although the disagreements on detail are real enough, it is safe to say that Angelus would have been about the same age as the other saints, and lived early enough in the century to have made a meeting possible. The meeting between these three saintly figures became a popular subject for artists in later times, with each one identified by his distinctive habit. The credibility of the story is far from clear, but still has some weight because of parallel accounts in shadowy Benedictine and Dominican sources.
Angelus is reported to have ended his life as a martyr. As he continued his preaching throughout Sicily, he reached the small port of Licata on the southern coast. Here he spoke out boldly against the actions of a nobleman named Berengarius, who was living in a sinful union with his sister. The sister was converted by Angelus’ preaching, and the angry Berengarius swore to punish him. While he was preaching to a large crowd, he was attacked by a group of ruffians. He died later from several stab wounds, while praying for his attackers. The date is said to have been May 5, 1220.
Angelus became an instant folk-hero for the local people, and a church housing his body was built on the site of his martyrdom. The relics were much later (1662) moved to a Carmelite church in the same town. Almost overnight, he became a favorite saint throughout Sicily, and many other lands, all of which helped to make the Carmelites better known. His name became a popular choice as a baptismal patron and a protector of towns and villages, especially Licata. Even today, many places in Sicily hold processions and popular festivals in his honor.
In our own time, people like the details of a biography to be precise and supported by evidence. In the case of Angelus, such standards simply do not work. A medieval chronicler liked to describe the personality and qualities of his subjects by ascribing all sorts of signs and wonders which remind the readers of other holy figures from the Bible or lives of the saints. In the case of Angelus, the Holy Land miracles and activities which were attributed to him (curing the sick, calling down fire, making an ax head float, raising the dead) are echoes of Elijah and Elisha, the legendary inspirational figures of the original Carmelite hermits. In his heroic death because of his reproach of a powerful figure, Angelus serves as a flashback to John the Baptist, another popular role model for the early Carmelites. Medieval writers and readers had no difficulty waiving aside errors in detail as long as the broad strokes of the person’s holiness came through. As we consider such shadowy figures in our own time, that may also be our best reaction.