First Martyrs of the Church of Rome
A madman burns Christians like human torches
Many countries have memorials marking the mass graves of the victims of plane crashes, sunken ships, war atrocities, or natural disasters.
Many countries also have a memorial to an unknown soldier. That unknown fighter represents all those drowned at sea, lost in the jungle canopy, eviscerated by enemy fire, or simply never recovered in the heat and sweat of battle. On civic feast days, presidents, governors, and mayors lay wreaths and flowers at the graves of the unknown. In honouring him, they honour all. A nation’s official remembering—in stone, statue, speech, or ceremony—preserves the past. A nation’s common memory is preserved by its government, which guards against national forgetting through official acts of national remembering.
The Church’s liturgical calendar is a continual, public remembering of saints, feasts, and theology, by mankind’s most ancient source and carrier of institutional memory—the Catholic Church. Today’s feast day commemorating the First Martyrs of the Church of Rome did not exist prior to the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council. Instead, the sanctoral calendar was crowded with various feast days to particular martyrs from this early Roman persecution. Apart from their centuries on the calendar, however, little else supported these particular martyrs’ existence.
Today’s feast is a liturgical expression of the wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier or the flowers left at a mass grave marker. This feast commemorates those unknown and unnamed men and women who were cruelly tortured and executed in the city of Rome in 64 A.D. But instead of meeting in a park to sing a patriotic hymn and to see an official lay a wreath, we do what Christians do to remember these martyrs. We meet as the faithful in a church, in front of an altar, to participate in the holy sacrifice of the Mass and to remember our remote ancestors in the faith who died so that the true faith would not.
In 64 A.D. a huge fire of suspicious origins consumed large sections of Rome. A deranged emperor named The Black (Nero) blamed Christians for the conflagration and executed large numbers of them in retribution for their supposed treachery. A vivid description of the persecution survives from a Roman historian named Tacitus, who relates that some Christians were sewn into the skins of animals to be attacked and consumed by beasts. Other Christians were slathered with wax, tied to posts, and then burned alive, human torches whose glow illuminated Nero’s garden parties. Still others were crucified. This was not the barbarous hacking off of limbs and splitting of skulls later suffered by missionaries in the forests of Northern Europe. Nero’s madness was highly refined evil. Today, we commemorate these Christians in the same fashion in which they would have commemorated the Lord’s own death—by prayer and sacrifice. We are separated from 64 A.D. by many centuries, but we are united to 64 A.D. by our common faith. We remember because the Church remembers.
Tertullian, one of the Early Church Fathers of the second century, famously stated: “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.”
Tertullian knew full well that the desired effect the Romans wanted to see from the Christian persecution was not happening. The Romans wanted the Christians to be “good citizens” and offer tribute to the false gods. So, by their logic, they thought making an example of Christians by executing them would dissuade others from becoming Christian. But as Tertullian pointed out, the number only increased. The witness of the martyrs made people wonder why the Christians would put their lives on the line, all for not offering a pinch of salt to Zeus. So we can truly say that the blood of those that died for Christ gave birth to even more Christians. For every person the Romans killed, at least two would be converted. This is why Christianity was able to rise so steadily during the first four centuries A.D.
Anonymous first martyrs of Rome, your blood is still wet, and your sufferings still felt, in the same Church of Christ to which you belonged through baptism. Through your intercession, help the baptized of today be as courageous as you in all things.