Tag Archives: Martyrs

St. Sixtus II, Pope, and Companions, Martyrs

August 7, 2020

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Pope St. Sixtus II was elected to the papacy on August 30, 257, and he served as pope for less than one year, until his martyrdom on August 6, 258. For centuries, his memorial was celebrated on his death anniversary, August 6, but when the liturgical calendar was revised in 1969 it was transferred to August 7 because of the Feast of the Transfiguration. His name is familiar because it is included on the first list of martyrs in the Roman Canon or Eucharistic Prayer I. His name comes after Linus, Cletus, and Clement, and before Cornelius and Cyprian. During the early Church he was venerated as the most important martyred pope after St. Peter.

Botticelli, Sandro. Pope Sixtus II. 1480. Sistine Chapel, Vatican City.

Pope St. Sixtus II succeeded Pope St. Stephen I. During his short eleven months he was faced was a controversy regarding the rebaptism of heretics and schismatics who wished to join the Church. His predecessor had been in a dispute with St. Cyprian, the bishop in Carthage in North Africa, who held that the baptisms conferred by heretics or schismatics were invalid because they were not in communion with the Church, while Stephen held that they were valid. He, with the help of Dionysius, the bishop of Alexandria, Egypt, was able to forge a reconciliation with Cyprian and the churches of North Africa and Asia Minor, by accepting both approaches.

His entire pontificate was during the reign of the Roman Emperor Valerian who ruled from 253 until 260. Initially, Valerian tolerated Christians, but he reversed his position, issued a decree that insisted that all Roman citizens, Christians included, worship Roman gods and take part in their cultic worship, and he banned the celebration of Mass or the assembly for prayer at cemeteries. With that, a savage persecution began. Pope St. Sixtus II escaped detection for a short while. Valerian made a second declaration to the Senate, more stringent than the first, that any clergy, bishops, priests, or deacons, should be hunted down and executed immediately; and that high-ranking lay Christians should be demoted, their privileges taken away, their wealth forfeited, and if they would not renounce their faith, that they should also be put to death. Christian women of status were to have their property confiscated and be exiled, while Christian common folk were to have their homes and possessions seized and be forced into slavery.

On August 6, 258, Pope St. Sixtus II was celebrating Mass, presumably in secrecy of the underground catacombs, at the cemetery of Praetextatus which is located a short distance outside of Rome. Roman soldiers stormed the cemetery, captured him while he was seated and preaching to the congregation, and immediately beheaded him by the sword along with four deacons who were with him: Sts. Januarius, Vincent, Magnus, and Stephen. Two other deacons, Sts. Agapitus and Felicissimus, were beheaded later the same day. St. Lawrence, also a deacon, was beheaded four days later. Pope St. Sixtus II was buried in the catacombs of St. Callistus, across the road from the cemetery of Praetextatus, along the Appian Way.

Pope St. Sixtus II exemplified everything that St. Cyprian recommended to those oppressed by Valerian’s persecution. He did not have his mind fixed on death but on immortality, he committed himself to the Lord in complete faith and with unflinching courage, and he made his confession of faith with joy rather than fear. As a soldier for God and Christ, he was crowned with sainthood and eternal life.

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Saints Perpetua and Felicity, Martyrs

February 28, 2018

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Saints Perpetua and Felicity

March 7 is the memorial of Saints Perpetua and Felicity, two courageous women who were martyred, along with three heroic men, Saturus, Saturninus, and Revocatus, as part of the persecution of Septimus Severus, the Roman emperor from 193 to 211 AD. Their deaths took place on March 7, 203, in Carthage, a city in North Africa located in the modern country of Tunisia. Perpetua and Felicity are held in such high esteem that they are two of only seven women on the second list of saints in the Roman Canon or Eucharistic Prayer I.

Perpetua was born in approximately 180 AD. She came from a family of nobility, was a catechumen, and at the age of twenty-two, was married and recently had given birth to a baby boy. Felicity, also a catechumen, was Perpetua’s servant. She was also married and late in her pregnancy. Perpetua and Felicity were apprehended because of their Christian faith and held under guard in a private home. Perpetua’s elderly pagan father came to the place and tried to convince her to repudiate her Christian faith, but she flatly refused. The two catechumens were baptized, and shortly thereafter they were transferred to prison.

Perpetua prayed for a vision to see if she would suffer or be released, and she was shown a golden ladder of great length that reached up to heaven. There was a huge dragon at the bottom which tried to frighten anyone from making the ascent, and there were dangerous weapons on the side that would mangle those who climbed carelessly or without looking upward. The vision confirmed her upcoming martyrdom, but also her final glorious destination.

Felicity gave birth to a girl in prison. The guard tried to persuade her to avoid martyrdom and save her life so she could take care of her newborn child by renouncing her faith. The guard’s plea fell on deaf ears. Her child was adopted by a fellow Christian.

All five were brought before Hilarion, the procurator of the province, interrogated, convicted as Christians, and sentenced to a gruesome death, to be killed by wild animals before a large crowd of spectators during the games in the amphitheater. As they were led to the arena, they went joyfully with cheerful looks and a graceful bearing, as if they were going to heaven.

The three men were mauled by ravenous leopards, bears, and wild boars. Saturus perished almost instantly, while Saturninus and Revocatus, both bleeding profusely, still were breathing. Meanwhile, Perpetua and Felicity were attacked by a savage cow with sharp, curved horns. The heifer charged them, gored Perpetua, and crushed Felicity. Perpetua was in a state of spiritual ecstasy, and although wounded, she was oblivious to her pain. Seeing the others covered in blood, she exhorted them, “Stand firm in faith, love one another and do not be tempted to do anything wrong because of our sufferings.”

The sadistic and bloodthirsty crowd shrieked for more. The four were led to the middle of the amphitheater where they gave each other the kiss of peace. Gladiators advanced toward them, drew their blades, and thrust them through, to the crowd’s frenzied delight. Perpetua’s gladiator was inexperienced and his blow missed the mark, so she guided his knife to her throat herself. They “defied their persecutors and overcame the torment of death” (Collect). Saints Perpetua and Felicity are both buried in the basilica in Carthage.

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Saints and angels

October 29, 2015

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Mary and Joseph in Nazareth - Stained glass window at St. John the Baptist, Vermillion, MN

Mary and Joseph in Nazareth – Stained glass window at St. John the Baptist, Vermillion, MN

A Special Feast Day.  November 1 is the Solemnity of All Saints, not “All Angels” nor “All Saints and Angels.”  In fact, the Archangels have a separate feast day on September 29 and the Guardian Angels on October 2.  If the saints and angels are both together in heaven gathered around God’s throne forever singing God’s praises, are they the same or different?

Angels.  An angel is a spiritual being without a body that has existed across the ages, dwells in heaven, has been and continues to be totally loyal to God, serves God in a variety of capacities, and may be dispatched as a messenger or representative of God to earth or to a specific person to carry out a special function.  There are many references to angels in Sacred Scripture.

Saints.  A saint was a human being that had a physical body, lived in a specific time and place, has died and gone to heaven, and lived an exceptionally good and virtuous life.  The saints were guided by Sacred Scripture on the path of holiness.

Special Classes of Angels.  The classes of angels are the Angels and Archangels, the Thrones and Dominations (Dominions), the Principalities and the Powers, and the Virtues, as well as the Cherubim and Seraphim, and the Guardian Angels.

Special Classes of Saints.  The classes of saints are the apostles, the foundation of the Church, its first shepherds and teachers, who watch over it and protect it still; the martyrs, those who have died for the faith and given heroic witness; pastors, great preachers and teachers; virgins and religious, those who have consecrated their life to Christ for the sake of the Kingdom; and holy men and women.

The Purpose of Angels.  The angels serve as God’s messengers and they bring God’s call to individuals; God’s instructions, commands or announcements; and they speak God’s Word.  The angels also convey God’s divine presence and companionship; lead the People of God on the journey; bring comfort and consolation in times of sadness; act as guardians and protectors; provide divine assistance throughout life, particularly in times of trial or hardship; give strength in the battle against sin and temptation; sing God’s praises in choir around God’s throne in heaven; and will assist the Son of God on Judgment Day.

The Purpose of Saints.  The saints are examples of holiness, and their virtuous lives teach us how to live in a virtuous manner.  The saints, particularly the martyrs, were heroic, and they show us how to live with courage and conviction.  The saints are proof that it is possible to live a good and holy life; if they can do it, we can do it.  The saints offer hope; if they have gone to heaven, they show us that heaven is reachable and that we can follow them there.  The saints are intercessors; they are in heaven, near God, and enjoy God’s favor, and they are in an excellent position to present our prayers to God on our behalf.

Famous Angels.  The best known angels are the Archangels:  Michael, the mighty warrior that led the heavenly host against Lucifer and the bad angels and expelled them from heaven; Gabriel, God’s messenger to Mary and Zechariah; and Raphael, the companion and protector of Tobiah on his journey.

Famous Saints.  The best known saints are Mary, the Mother of God, and her husband Joseph; John the Baptist, the prophet who announced the arrival of the Messiah; Peter, the first of the Apostles, and Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles; Benedict, the father of western monasticism, and Francis of Assisi, the saint regarded by many as the one who best patterned himself on the life of Jesus.

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January 21, the Memorial of St. Agnes

January 18, 2012

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St. Agnes stained glass at St. Nicholas in Belle River, MN.

St. Agnes (292-304 AD) is one of the most revered and famous saints of the early Church.  Her courageous martyrdom was so inspiring to early Christians that her name was inserted into numerous litanies of saints, and she is included on the list of apostles and martyrs in the Roman Canon, today known as Eucharistic Prayer I.

Agnes was born in Rome into a wealthy family sometime around 292 AD during the reign of the emperor Diocletian (284-305 AD).  Christianity was not legal.  Undeterred, she became a devout believer already as a young girl.  She had a deep, abiding love for God and considered herself espoused to Jesus alone, and she steadfastly upheld her purity and maintained her virginity.  She died a cruel martyr’s death at the age of twelve or thirteen.  The details of her life are clouded in history, more legend than fact.

As the story goes, Agnes was a beautiful young lady who consecrated herself exclusively to God.  She attracted a great deal of attention from many young men, all competing to court her.  She rebuffed them one by one.  Infuriated by her refusals, her prospective suitors, all pagans, in retaliation revealed her identity as a Christian to the governor.  He interrogated her, and she replied, “I have no spouse but Jesus Christ.”  He threatened her with fire, iron hooks, and the rack, but she scoffed at them all.  She was ordered to offer incense to pagan gods, but she made the Sign of the Cross instead.

Enraged by her defiant attitude, the governor commanded that Agnes be sent to a house of prostitution where lust-filled men could violate her, but his plan was foiled.  When she arrived, those who intended to accost her were overcome with her aura of holiness and decided to respect her, all except one.  When this solitary individual advanced toward her, filled with wicked desires, he was struck blind.  The sightless man’s companions, awestruck by Agnes’ courage and faith, brought their friend to Agnes who offered a prayer and healed him.

Because of the cure, Agnes was accused of witchcraft and returned to the governor who, fuming with rage, condemned her to death by beheading.  She was taken to the Stadium of Domitian; the same location as today’s popular tourist attraction, the Piazza Navona.  St. Ambrose later wrote, “She went to her place of execution more cheerfully than others go to their wedding.”  It was there that she was beheaded by the sword.

St. Agnes has two symbols:  a palm branch, the symbol of martyrdom, and a lamb, because her name is so similar to the Latin word agnus which means “lamb.”  She is the patron saint of young girls, the Girl Scouts, purity, and Christian virtue.

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