Historians count ten traditional persecutions of Christians in the early Church – up until the Edict of Milan in 313 under Emperor Constantine, who converted to Catholicism; well, sort of, for, knowing he would do any number of dubious deeds in running the Empire, he waited until his deathbed to be baptized, and then by the semi-Arian trimmer Eusebius of Caesarea.
Until that time, Christians never really knew when the next wave of punitive laws would come down from the princes of this world, and two of the worst and most severe were the decrees of Decius in 250 and Valerian in 258. Here is what Saint Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, wrote at that time just before his own martyrdom in the maelstrom that was to come:
Valerian sent a rescript to the Senate, saying that bishops, presbyters, and deacons should all receive immediate punishment; that senators, knights, and other men of importance should lose their rank and their property, and if they still persisted in being Christians, they should lose their heads; and that matrons should be deprived of their property and be sent into exile. Members of Caesar’s own household, whether they had confessed their faith before or were only confessing it now, should be deprived of their property, bound in chains, and sent as slaves to his estates.
The Pope at this time, Sixtus II – by tradition a philosopher, who helped heal the Novatian schism by propounding the orthodox teaching on the sacramental efficacy of baptism, independent of the holiness of the minister – was himself bound, with six of his deacons. Refusing to apostatize, they were all beheaded on this day, in 258. Lawrence, his most prominent deacon, begged to go with them to glory, but Sixtus replied that he would follow soon enough.
Ah, the days when bishops would die for the truth, rather than sell it – or at least hide it under a bushel basket – for a bowl of politically correct pottage. We all must pray and cultivate that original parrhesia, the courage and boldness to witness to the truth of our Faith, even to the loss of our own heads.