Today we celebrate the feast of the First Martyrs of the Church of Rome, which officially commemorates the martyrs killed under the Emperor Nero (54-68). Fittingly, their feast is celebrated the day after the two most famous martyrs killed during that time, Peter and Paul.
While no one knows for sure why or how the famous burning of Rome took place, we know that Nero need a scapegoat. And he found that scapegoat in the new mysterious sect that had been growing steadily in Rome.
The historian Tacitus gives an account of the persecutions under Nero:
“Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judæa, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.”
It is believed that Christians were also killed before the time of Nero, during the reign of emperor Claudius (41-54). Claudius probably expelled the Jews from Rome for a time because of disturbances caused by a certain “Chrestus,” and he was famously opposed to the proselytizing of any religion.
Saint Prisca was a thirteen year-old girl killed during reign of Claudius. She was of a noble family and was baptized by Saint Peter. When the emperor tried to kill her in the amphitheater with a fierce lion, the lion licked her feet and did not hurt her. Later she was beheaded. She’s remembered as the “protomartyr of the West,” killed more than ten years before Peter and Paul.
Whether or not there was a girl named Prisca – modern historians doubt her existence – we know her story was repeated again and again, as the persecutions against Christians raged throughout the Roman Empire for almost three hundred years. Lions, arrows, beheadings, fires — the martyrdoms were varied, but the witness the same: these people, regardless of age or sex or wealth, were willing to die at the hands of their emperor before denying their Lord.
The stories of the early Church martyrs also remind us that their witness did not begin with their deaths. There must have been something that set them apart. How did the emperors know about a thirteen-year old girl’s religion? Why were there disturbances because of “Chrestus,” why was their “superstition” known by Tacitus, and why were they punished for “hatred against mankind”?
Their faith did not remain in the catacombs, hidden from view. Their faith spurred them onward — to preach to their neighbors, to bring the good news to others, to live their lives differently. Secular sociologists note that Christians were more likely to survive the diseases that plagued the city of Rome precisely because they were cared for by other Christians. The Christians were known for their generosity to the poor and their service to the widows and orphans. They didn’t just worship on Sundays — they served Christ every day of the week. And it was obvious to those around them.
Someone once rhetorically asked me a thought-provoking question. If I was arrested for being a Christian, would a jury find me guilty? Or would I be acquitted for lack of evidence?
We know how the Christians went to their deaths singing songs of joy, their deaths prompting even more conversions. “Martyr” is from the Greek word for “witness.” But in order for them to be rounded up and thrown in jail, their witness must have been visible in the world before their deaths. And so must ours.
When “freedom of religion” becomes “freedom of worship,” we must take notice. What threats against religious liberty mean for Christians in this country is that we cannot live our faith outside the catacombs. It is fine to go to Mass and worship, but our beliefs cannot influence our daily lives. We cannot live as Catholic Christians in our workplace, in our hospitals, or in our schools.
May the martyrs of the early Church be witnesses and reminders to us, in 2016, that our faith sends us out into the world. And may their intercession give us the strength to be witnesses ourselves.