Saint Ildefonsus of Toledo

Feast day January 23

Saints Stories for All Ages

Spanish Catholics esteem St. Ildefonsus as one of their greatest saints, second only to Isidore of Seville. As archbishop of Toledo, he led the Spanish church from 658 to 667. Like Isidore, Ildefonsus contributed to the creation of the collaborative union of church and state that came to typify medieval Europe. For example, he presided over a council in 653 that granted secular leaders the right to participate in ecclesiastical decisions. But at the same time, bishops participated in the election of kings and joined with state officials in publishing secular laws and pardoning traitors. Thus the saint helped forge medieval political relationships well ahead of their time.

Pastorally, Ildefonsus aimed to raise the faith level of the laypeople in Toledo, so he set about to educate them in Christian truth. For example, he wrote On Understanding Baptism to elevate their ideals. Here is a quote from that popular book:

We come to the font as to the Red Sea. Moses was the leader in saving Israel; Christ was the leader in redeeming man. The former left Egypt; the latter left the world. The Egyptians pursued the Israelites; sin pursued man. The sea is colored by the red of its shore; baptism is consecrated with the blood of Christ. The vast sea is divided by a rod; the entrance to the font is opened with the sign of the cross. Israel enters the sea; man is washed in the font. Israel passes on a dry path between the waters without hindrance; through the waters man journeys the way of salvation. The pursuing Egyptians are drowned with Pharaoh; sins are destroyed in baptism together with the devil in a destruction not of life but of power. The children of Israel left Egypt in the spring of the year and passed through the sea; in the same season we celebrate the Pasch of our Lord Jesus Christ. In baptism, souls cross from vices to virtues. They pass from the lusts of the flesh to grace and sobriety of spirit. And they escape from the leaven of malice and wickedness to truth and sincerity. Thus we say to those born again: “This month shall be to you the beginning of months: it shall be the first of the months of the year” (see Exodus 12:2). For he who is washed abandons Pharaoh, the leader of this world, with all its works.

Veneration of the Virgin Mary runs deep in the Hispanic Catholic tradition. That stream of Marian devotion can trace its roots in part to Ildefonsus. He loved Mary and honored her in his landmark book, On the Perpetual Virginity of Holy Mary. Its themes inspired the Marian “breastplate” songs of Irish monks in Europe, and through many centuries copyists placed quotes from it in books of hours. Ildefonsus’s work may have influenced the long-standing practice of celebrating mass on Saturdays in honor of Mary.

El Greco and Velásquez have memorialized in paintings a story about Ildefonsus that became popular around the 12th century. Once when he was seated in his episcopal chair, Mary is reported to have appeared and presented him with a chasuble as a token of gratitude for his devotion. Ildefonsus died on January 23, 667.

from Voices of the Saints by Bert Ghezzi