by Fr Benedict Kiely
That the Church continues to canonize men, women, and children of “heroic virtue,” and to encourage their public veneration by the faithful, is not, however it may seem, the secular equivalent of The X Factor. They are not, in that sense, winners of a spiritual talent show, although we could say with Saint Paul that they have certainly won the “great prize.” They are canonized for three very simple and yet profound reasons. In the first place, they teach the truth of the unity of the Church, both militant on earth, expectant in purgatory, and triumphant in heaven. They are alive, and hence the second reason is their intercessory prayer for us who are striving to win the crown of glory. Just as we ask our family and friends on earth to pray for us, so we seek the help of our exalted brothers and sisters in heaven. It is the last reason which should strengthen and encourage us, especially in times of persecution, plague, or crisis: most significantly, it is their fidelity and the example they give us that both fidelity and holiness are possible.
In the year 303, the Emperor Diocletian issued a decree prohibiting Christians from coming together to worship. It was the first dramatic experience, it could be said, of both governmental interference in the liturgical life of the Church and enforced lockdown for Christians. A wave of persecution followed with, unsurprisingly, acts of apostasy and cowardice, notably from the clergy, the shepherds charged with the care of the flock.
Yet fidelity and holiness were also present alongside the stories of failure. The story of the forty-nine martyrs of Abintenae should be well-known, especially in these times. Pope Benedict XVI used their example at the Eucharistic Congress in Bari in 2005, but the lesson that they give, and the witness of their eucharistic devotion, is a much-needed source of comfort and inspiration.
Abitenae, in what is now Tunisia, was part of the North African Roman Empire. A year after the decree of Diocletian prohibiting Christian worship, forty-nine Christian men, women, and several small children were gathered on a Sunday to celebrate Mass, in the house of one Octavius Felix. They were celebrating with their priest Saturninus, breaking lockdown, and defying the law.
They were arrested and brought before the Roman proconsul, Anullinus. In his homily at Bari, Pope Benedict drew particular attention to the words of one of the congregation when asked why he had broken the law when that would mean certain death. The congregant, Emeritus, replied, Sine dominica non possumus—“Without Sunday it is not possible.” He continued that, as Christians, they would not have the strength to live for the rest of the week without gathering for the Eucharist on a Sunday, the Lord’s day and the day of re-creation.
All were executed and are included in the Roman Martyrology. Reading the list of their names, including the four children of Saint Saturninus, one cannot help getting the sense of looking at a list of parishioners from an average Catholic parish even though very few had what we would call “Christian names,” implying several at least were converts. There is Ampelius and his infant son, Benignus, Telica and Quintus, and Prima and Eva—ordinary people, with heroic fidelity and fortitude, who could not “live without Sunday.”
The local bishop, Fundanus, had willingly obeyed the edict of Diocletian, even going so far as voluntarily to hand over the copy of the Scriptures to the authorities, making him a suitable role model for supine episcopal acquiescence to illegal governmental edicts. Luckily such things do not happen today.
Saint Saturninus the priest, his family, and several of his parishioners—canonized saints because of their fidelity and the ultimate witness of martyrdom—are not telling the Church how to respond in a time of pandemic. It is certainly true that necessary measures needed to be taken in an attempt to ensure that an easily communicable virus was impeded from spreading. It is quite possible that certain precautionary measures will have to continue for some time. The edict of Diocletian is not the same as most of the governmental decrees restricting access to churches or banning public worship; as of this moment, the death penalty is not being applied for breaches of the rules. Many bishops in particular appear to have been somewhat blindsided by the legal restrictions, and responded perhaps with more zeal for Caesar than for the Kingdom.
The holy Martyrs of Abintenae, the faithful forty-nine, are, however, teaching us profoundly by their lives, recorded words, the trial, and their deaths. A Christian, of the one, holy, Catholic and apostolic faith, cannot “live without Sunday.” While the preservation of our earthly lives and that of our families is certainly a good, it is not the highest good. Justice and charity would demand that we do not willingly put others in danger of catching a potentially deadly disease, consequently personal responsibility is of the essence. However, when the secular state prohibits worship, locks churches, and even, as some governments have attempted to do, decrees what may or may not happen within the liturgy itself, the martyrs of Abintenae tell us what must be resisted. It has caused great distress that while certain businesses were described as essential, including in many states here in the U.S., liquor stores and abortion facilities, churches were considered non-essential. In Britain, the “Conservative” government rushed in a provision to allow women to abort their babies at home, thereby deeming it another “essential” service.
Meanwhile, like Bishop Fundanus, many tasked with the leadership of their flocks have, if not actually volunteered to cooperate with the forced closure of their churches, been consistently and shockingly silent and for much too long. In England, there are disturbing reports that the bishops themselves requested the locking of the churches. Zeal for the Kingdom has, it seems, been replaced by fear and a belief that the primary duty of a shepherd is to ensure that churches are following “health and safety” practices, rather than the salvation of souls. An impression has been given, possibly untrue yet nevertheless palpable, that, when “Sunday” has been locked, closed, prohibited or filmed in rectory kitchens, life will return to normal when restrictions are lifted. Diocesan annual appeals are up and running while, at the same time, certain bishops who expect the faithful to keep the money flowing are banning their priests from visiting the dying or hearing confessions.
The martyrs of Abitenae, rather like the modern martyrs of Iraq, Syria ,or Nigeria, speak to us of what is truly essential, of what endures, and what must never be compromised. Their example is an inspiration, and their intercessory prayer for us is both a necessity and a gift.