Today we commemorate the early martyrs Nereus and Achilleus, eunuchs and chamberlains of the court, and eventual converts to Christianity, put to death under Emperor Domitian in the late 1st century, about the time of the death of Saint John the Apostle. (Saint Paul mentions a ‘Nereus’ in Romans 16:15), and buried in the catacombs of Domitilla. (Other sources, however, claim they were martyrs under Diocletian in the third century). Whoever they may have been, a great devotion built up around them – the great Saint Philip Neri, founder of the Oratory named after him in the sixteenth century, certainly adopted them as his patrons, and would hold processions in their honour every year, begging their intercession. We should as well. At least beg their intercession.
We also celebrate their fellow soldier-convert-saint-and-martyr Pancras, one of the most popular saints and place names in Britain – think of the great train terminal named after him. He was put to death likely under the persecution of aforementioned Diocletian, who was so impressed with the young lad’s determination in the face of imminent death for his Faith, he promised him wealth, riches and honour if he would apostatize – but Pancras refused, seeing a far greater reward in heaven. And thither he went, decapitated, one of those commemorated in the Office of Readings from the final chapters of the Book of the Apocalypse:
I saw the souls of all who had been beheaded for having witnessed for Jesus and for having preached God’s word, and those who refused to worship the beast or his statue and would not have the brand-mark on their foreheads or hands
What the glorious martyrs signify, shrouded in their legends, is that from the very beginning of the Church’s life Christians have faced persecution for the truth, as Christ said they would. There is nothing the world, the flesh or the devil – or any of his minions – can do to us that should cause us to lose hope. Veritas liberabit vos: The Son of God not only preached the truth, but claimed to be the Truth Himself, the Way to peace, freedom and eternal life in heaven. But, like those embarking at Saint Pancras station, we all have to make that choice which way we want to go, deep in our hearts, mind and conscience – where we are all ‘alone with God’:
The sea gave up all the dead who were in it; Death and Hades were emptied of the dead that were in them; and every one was judged according to the way in which he had lived.
Whatever strums und drangs this life offers, we may have hope, holding our heads high, even laughing and dancing on the way, for ’tis only in that true and abiding life we will find true rest, peace and fulfillment, where we all may meet merrily one day, Deo volente.
Sancti Nereus et Achileus, orate pro nobis!