The First Martyrs of the Holy Roman Church

June 26, 2020

The Pastor's Page

The memorial of the First Martyrs of the Holy Roman Church comes one day after the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul. The first day, June 29, is the remembrance of the two most famous martyrs who died during the persecution of Nero, St. Peter crucified upside down in 64 AD and St. Paul beheaded in 67 AD. The second day, June 30, is the remembrance of the countless other nameless saints who died during the same persecution.

The great fire of Rome began in mid-July, 64 AD. It started in the vicinity of the Circus Maximus, a place densely packed with shops, merchants, and pedestrians. The wooden partitions and furnishings, the clothes and many other highly combustible materials made the area a tinder box, and once the fire began, it spread rapidly, consuming not only the shops but also public buildings, temples, monuments, and homes. It raged for a week. Two-thirds of the city was destroyed. Some historians believe that the emperor Nero, a demented and rage-filled person, ordered the fire set. Others believe that he ordered that it be allowed to burn.

Nero reigned as emperor from 54 to 68 AD. He despised Christians because they steadfastly refused to participate in the worship of the wide array of Roman gods. He did not need an excuse to begin a persecution against Christians, but the devastating fire provided one. He made the Christians the scapegoats and initiated a massive persecution.

The emperor and the residents of Rome took sadistic pleasure in grotesque displays of violence and suffering, usually satisfied by gladiators fighting to the death and savage beasts brutally devouring humans or other animals. This time Christians would provide the spectacle. Roman soldiers combed the city. Christians were torn from their homes, apprehended, and forcibly taken either to Nero’s palace gardens on the Vatican Hill or to various arenas.

The public tortures and executions were horrific. At nightfall Christians were tied to stakes, covered with wax, set aflame, and burned alive – human torches. Others were crucified. Neither method fully satisfied the crowd’s cruel and sadistic appetites, one getting over too fast, the other taking too long. Most of the Christian martyrs were mauled and devoured by wild animals. The victims were either smeared with animal scent or covered with animal hides and then placed in an enclosure at the palace or the center of the arena. Then raging wild beasts that had been deprived of food were released as the emperor, his entourage, and the crowds beheld the gruesome sight. Many Christians were put to death from 64 AD until the end of the persecution four years later.

The First Martyrs “loved Christ in this life and imitated him in their death; and so they will rejoice with him for ever” (Antiphon, Evening Prayer). God “sanctified the Church of Rome with the blood of its first martyrs. May we find strength from their courage and rejoice in their triumph” (Prayer, Liturgy of the Hours).

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About Father Michael Van Sloun

Father Michael A. Van Sloun is the pastor of Saint Bartholomew of Wayzata, MN. Ministerial interests include weekly Bible study, articles on theological topics, religious photography, retreats on Cross spirituality, and pilgrimages to the Holy Land, Italy, Greece and Turkey.

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