Saint Ephrem the Syrian, Deacon and Doctor of the Church

Praying Through Song

Icon of Saint Ephrem the Syrian, from Meryemana Kilesesi, Diyarbakr, Turkey. (Public Domain)

Saint Ephrem the Syrian was born sometime around the year 306 in Nibisis, a Syrian town located in modern-day Turkey. The Church was suffering under the persecution of the Roman Emperor Diocletian. It was long believed that Ephrem's father was a pagan priest, but evidence from his own writings suggests that both of his parents may have been Christians, so his father may have converted later in life.

Quick Facts

  • Feast Day: June 9
  • Type of Feast: Optional Memorial
  • Dates: c. 306 (Nisibis, in modern-day Turkey)-June 9, 373 (Edessa)
  • Patron of: spiritual directors; spiritual leaders
  • Canonization: by acclamation, very soon after his death; proclaimed a Doctor of the Church by Pope Benedict XV on October 5, 1920
  • Prayers: The Prayer of Saint Ephrem the Syrian, Prayer of Praise to the Blessed Virgin Mary (written by Saint Ephrem)

The Life of Saint Ephrem

Born around 306, Saint Ephrem lived through some of the most tumultuous times in the early Church. Heresies, especially Arianism, were rampant; the Church faced persecution; and without Christ's promise that the gates of Hell would not prevail against it, the Church might not have survived.

Ephrem was baptized around the age of 18, and he may have been ordained a deacon at the same time. As a deacon, Saint Ephrem assisted priests in providing food and other aid to the poor and preaching the Gospel, and his most effective tools for helping Christians understand the true faith were the hundreds of deeply theological hymns and biblical commentaries that he composed.

Not all Christians have the time or the opportunity to study theology in any depth, but they all join in worship, and even children can easily memorize theologically rich hymns. In his lifetime, he may have written as many as three million lines, and 400 of his hymns still survive. His hymnography earned him the title "Harp of the Spirit."

Spreading the Faith Through Song

Fleeing westward from the Persians, who were ravaging Turkey, Ephrem settled in Edessa, in southern Turkey, in 363. There, he continued to write hymns, especially defending the teaching of the Council of Nicea against the Arian heretics, who were influential in Edessa. He died tending plague victims in 373.

In recognition of Saint Ephrem's accomplishment of spreading the faith through song, Pope Benedict XV in 1920 declared him a Doctor of the Church, a title reserved to a small number of men and women whose writings have advanced the Christian Faith.