Thursday, June 30, 2011

First Martyrs of the Church of Rome

Jean-Leon Gerome, The Christian Martyrs Last Prayer
French, 1883
Baltimore, Walters Art Gallery

Today, June 30, we honor the memory of the First Martyrs of the Church of Rome. These are the mostly nameless men and women who were killed during the first organized persecution of the early church, under the Emperor Nero.

As the Roman historian, Tacitus, tells it, a fire broke out in the city of Rome during July 64. The extent of the fire is not known for certain. But it is known that it destroyed much of the area of what is now the Coliseum.

The Emperor made an effort to relieve the sufferings of those whose homes and businesses were destroyed. However, as people do, the Roman plebs began to blame him for the fire, once it became known that he intended to build a palace for himself in the burned area. In an attempt to divert suspicion from himself he looked for a scapegoat. And he found one among the strange new sect of Jews who were known as Christians. Known Christians were rounded up and tortured. Then others were also picked up, based on information extracted from the first group. They were condemned to death in several of the gruesome ways in which Rome punished criminals – as part of the entertainment in the arena, for example.

Not too many images of this episode in early Church history have been produced. Certainly none were produced at the time. Indeed, it doesn’t seem to have been memorialized artistically until the 19th century. One such is the painting by Jean-Leon Gerome. His painting of Christian Martyrs at Prayer in the Arena shows a group of Christians kneeling together in the center of the Coliseum, surrounded not only by the spectators, but also by other Christians who have been crucified and some who have, as Tacitus suggests, been burned alive to provide light in the evening. Gerome was a late 19th-century academic painter, with a fondness for the exotic and for imaginative reconstructions of historical events. In this case, imagination is certainly in play. For one thing, the Coliseum wasn’t built until after the death of Nero.  The lion is not a figment of his imagination, however.  The use of lions and other wild animals in the Roman amphitheatres is well attested.  They were used to entertain by fighting with each other, or with gladiators or as punishment of criminals, who were sentenced to "damnatio ad bestias".1

Henryk Siemiradski,  Nero's Torches
Polish, 1876
Krakow, National Museum
Another artist who took the deaths of the early Christians as a theme was the Polish painter, Henryk Siemiradski.  His paintings, "Nero's Torches" and "The Christian Dirce"2 were quite famous.  It is interesting that his contemporary and fellow Pole, Henryk Sienkiewicz, wrote what is undoubtedly the most famous novel about those first persecutions, Quo Vadis (1895).

Henryk Siemiradzki, Christian Dirce
Polish, 1897
Krakow, National Museum
However, whatever the reality of the settings in which the first martyrs met their deaths, or how many of them there were, they stand, nobly, at the head of a long and still growing list of martyrs for the faith and at the head of the Litany of the Saints, one of the great treasures of the Catholic faith.

In 2005, in the days between the death of Pope John Paul II and the inauguration of his successor, Pope Benedict XVI, we heard the invocation of the saints in the repetition of the Litany of the Saints several times. Pope Benedict even mentioned it in the homily he delivered at the Inaugural Mass. And, what he said on that occasion is worth repeating.

On each occasion, in a particular way, I found great consolation in listening to this prayerful chant. How alone we all felt after the passing of John Paul II …….He crossed the threshold of the next life, entering into the mystery of God. But he did not take this step alone. Those who believe are never alone – neither in life nor in death. At that moment, we could call upon the Saints from every age – his friends, his brothers and sisters in the faith – knowing that they would form a living procession to accompany him into the next world, into the glory of God. We knew that his arrival was awaited. Now we know that he is among his own and is truly at home. We were also consoled as we made our solemn entrance into Conclave, to elect the one whom the Lord had chosen. How would we be able to discern his name? How could 115 Bishops, from every culture and every country, discover the one on whom the Lord wished to confer the mission of binding and loosing? Once again, we knew that we were not alone, we knew that we were surrounded, led and guided by the friends of God. And now, at this moment, weak servant of God that I am, I must assume this enormous task, which truly exceeds all human capacity. How can I do this? How will I be able to do it? All of you, my dear friends, have just invoked the entire host of Saints, represented by some of the great names in the history of God’s dealings with mankind. In this way, I too can say with renewed conviction: I am not alone. I do not have to carry alone what in truth I could never carry alone. All the Saints of God are there to protect me, to sustain me and to carry me. And your prayers, my dear friends, your indulgence, your love, your faith and your hope accompany me. Indeed, the communion of Saints consists not only of the great men and women who went before us and whose names we know. All of us belong to the communion of Saints, we who have been baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, we who draw life from the gift of Christ’s Body and Blood, through which he transforms us and makes us like himself."

The Litany reminds us of our heritage as Christians. It is our collective memory, our family history. As I listened to the Litany during those days of the funeral for Pope John Paul II I was deeply moved by the list of names. Here were great men and women going back and back through time. There were the apostles and the other disciples: Mary, Peter, John, Paul, Mary Magdalene. There were the great early bishops and doctors of the Church, east and west: Ambrose, Augustine, Athanasius, John Crysostom. And the great medieval saints who still influence our world: Catherine of Siena, Francis and Dominic and other great names: Ignatius Loyola, Thomas Aquinas, Teresa de Jesus. But most moving in the context of those days were the names of the martyrs of the early church in Rome and its empire: Lawrence, Tarsicius, Clement,  Agnes, Perpetua and Felicity, Cecilia, and the "Proto-Martiri Romani" some of whom may have died right on the site of the Vatican, in the Roman circus that once stood there, or nearby in Trastevere or just across the short span of the Tiber in the Colosseum or the Campus Martius and whose bodies repose all over Rome. By their lives and by their deaths these men and women showed all future generations the meaning of love for Christ and for the Church – and the price that may have to be paid for that love.
Procession of Female Martyrs
Byzantine Mosaic, second half of 6th century
Ravenna, Basilica of Sant'Appollinare Nuovo

The Litany is endlessly repeatable and endlessly powerful. As it moves forward in time and globally in space, names can be added to its list to honor newly recognized saints or those of particularly local significance.

In the ordinary life of a Catholic Christian the Litany is seldom heard. It occurs annually during the Easter Vigil. Otherwise, it is confined to special events such as confirmations and ordinations. In some ways, this is sad, because it restricts the hearing of this listing of the names of the “cloud of witnesses” to these events. On the other hand, perhaps hearing it more often would somewhat diminish its impact when heard.
Jacques de Besançon, Court of Heaven, the Martyrs
from Golden Legend by Jacobus de Voragine
French (Paris), 1480-1490
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Français 244, fol. 156

For it does have impact. As one friend, a convert from a non-religious, vaguely Evangelical, upbringing said to me about her memories of the Easter Vigil on which she entered into full Communion with the Catholic Church, “The Litany of the Saints really packed a wallop for me. Here was something my Evangelical upbringing had no room for, here was my family history as a Christian. The knowledge that all these people of the past were alive and were praying for me, along with the people in the church that night was overwhelming.”

Moreover, when we pray the Litany of he Saints we are reminded that we are joined in the fellowship of prayer with those thousands of years of living faith. As Pope Benedict said, “We are not alone.” All of us are united in an eternal ‘now’ of God that destroys the barriers of time and space.

© M. Duffy, 2011

1,   Jacob Coley, Roman Games: Playing with Animals, Department of Greek and Roman Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York at Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

2.   Dirce is a woman from Greek mythology who was cruel.  As punishment, she was tied to the horns of a bull to be gored to death.  In the Roman amphitheatre "amusements" often included using the deaths contained in the mythical stories to put real people to death.   In his "Letter to the Corinthians", Saint Clement of Rome alluded to the recent deaths of Saints Peter and Paul and alluded to an additional
 "great multitude of the elect, who, having through envy endured many indignities and tortures, furnished us with a most excellent example. Through envy, those women, the Danaids and Dircæ, being persecuted, after they had suffered terrible and unspeakable torments, finished the course of their faith with steadfastness, and though weak in body, received a noble reward."
Chapters 5 and 6 of Letter to the Corinthians by Saint Clement of Rome. See: Translated by John Keith. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 9. Edited by Allan Menzies. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1896.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <>.