Historians count ten traditional persecutions of Christians in the early Church – from the first, under Nero, beginning in 63 A.D. through a series of anti-Christian emperors of various stripes and intensities, all of which ended with the Edict of Milan in 313 issued by Emperor Constantine, who sort of converted to Catholicism, and made the religion legal (it would not become the religion of the Roman state until 381, under Emperor Theodosius). I say ‘sort of’, because Constantine, knowing he would do any number of nefarious deeds in running a still-pagan Empire, waited until his deathbed to be baptized, and then by the Arian Eusebius of Nicomedia.
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.
(As a providential aside, Valerian sent this rescript while in campaign against the Persians. Soon after it was went, the Roman Legionaries were stricken with plague, lost a crucial battle and, for the first time in the history of the Empire, the Emperor himself was captured. One story relates that Shapur, the Persian king, treated Valerian as an ignominious slave, using his back to mount his horse, before eventually flaying him, and stuffing his skin with straw as a taxidermic trophy. We may hope that this humiliation may have somehow saved Valerian in the end).
Anon, back to the Church: The Pope at this time, Sixtus II was by tradition a philosopher, who helped heal the Novatian schism by defining and enforcing the orthodox teaching on the sacramental efficacy of baptism and confession independent of the holiness of the priest or the sins of the recipient, even if they had lapsed from the Faith under persecution.
The Pope had to put his head where his mouth was – for soon enough, he himself was captured, with six of his deacons. Refusing to apostatize, they were all beheaded on this day, in 258 – their Pontiff promptly volunteering to go first, as befits a pastor. Lawrence, his most prominent deacon, begged to go with them to glory, but Sixtus replied that he would follow soon enough, and he did, a few days later, on the tenth.
The days may soon be upon us when bishops must once again be willing to die for the truth, and we along with them. The secular powers will try to whittle down our resistance, to hide our Faith under a bushel basket, to sell our eternal treasure 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.
Saint Sixtus and Companion Martyrs, orate pro nobis!