The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church – Tertullian (+240 A.D.)
The first, or proto-, martyrs of the Church of Rome commemorate the untold number of Christians put to death under the reign of Nero, in the very first days of the Church, when to be a Christian meant more or less either to be a martyr, or prepare for that swift and noble path to heaven. They preceded not long before the deaths of the first Pope, Saint Peter, and the great missionary and Apostle, Paul, so their feast follows theirs. Hence, along with the two pillars of the Church, we have the legions of incogniti, martyrs whose names are unknown to history, but known to God, who rewarded their witness with an eternity of ineffable happiness.
Nero’s persecution was the beginning of many in the years and centuries to follow: Domitian, Trajan, Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius, Decius, Valerian, Galerius, Diocletian, then, when Rome as it was known collapsed, there was the rise of the pagan religion from the Arabic deserts, Islam, as well as the northern pagan persecutors, the Norse and Vikings, which leads us into the Middle Ages, and the division on the Church into Protestantism, with its own persecution of Catholics, before the rise of neo-paganism in the modern era, the French Revolution, before we get into the era of atheistic Communism under its various guises, which has produced more martyrs than all the rest combined, and counting…
It has never really been ‘safe’ to practise Catholicism, and one wonders what some current members of our hierarchy would have said to those early Christians. Stay at home? Shelter in place? Even bow to the emperor, and go along with his diktats?
Kings and potentates who seek unbridled power have seen and will always see Christ as a rival to their absolute authority over ‘their’ citizens, soul and body, a secular totalitarianism that brooks no opposition. Constantine legalized the Christian religion in 313, but persecution persisted, into our own day in subtler and more insidious ways, and will until the end of time. There have been many ‘types’ of anti-Christ from Nero, to Henry VIII, Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin, all attempting either to destroy, or at least dominate and absorb, the Church that Christ had founded, one that no earthly power could subdue.
As Pope Saint John Paul II would make clear two thousand years after Nero’s reign had perished in the fires of Rome:
The culture and praxis of totalitarianism also involve a rejection of the Church. The State or the party which claims to be able to lead history towards perfect goodness, and which sets itself above all values, cannot tolerate the affirmation of an objective criterion of good and evil beyond the will of those in power, since such a criterion, in given circumstances, could be used to judge their actions. This explains why totalitarianism attempts to destroy the Church, or at least to reduce her to submission, making her an instrument of its own ideological apparatus. (Centesimus Annus, #45)
The tyrants have all failed. Little did Nero know that in slaughtering Christians he was in fact undermining his own power, for the blood of those very martyrs, as Tertullian would write a century and half later, would be the seed of the Church, whose spiritual and transcendent authority would supersede and defy the rights of tyrants to dominate and rule ‘like gods’.
Absolute power and authority corrupted Nero, already predisposed thereto, as it has gone to the heads of greater and lesser rulers in the intervening Christian centuries (peruse, if you will, contemporary accounts of his deviancies, which make for intriguing, if disturbing, reading).
In his fevered soul, which may have been possessed, Nero wanted to enlarge his palace, build ‘bigger barns’ so to speak, and in the process started a fire, whether accidentally or not, one which quickly spread through the city, constructed as in these early years largely of wood. For whatever reason, fear of backlash, or out of spite, or as an excuse to begin his barbarous persecution, Nero blamed the new sect of the ‘Christians’, whom he proceeded to put to death in horrific, even satanic, ways. As the Roman historian Tacitus, not a Christian, but one who saw the injustice of it all, describes their torments (which are also recounted by Saint Clement, the third Pope, in his letters).
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. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man’s cruelty, that they were being destroyed.
Vita brevis, aeternitas longa. Life is short, along with the sorrows thereof, but eternity is long, and Saint Paul, as he was about to pour out his life, saw clearly that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.
We will have our own persecutions, perhaps not like those Nero offered, but there is more than one way to be thrown to the lions, and they may come upon us like a thief in the night. As Christ responds to his fearful Apostles, in the midst of the violent storm, ‘Why are you afraid, O men of little faith?” Then he rose and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a great calm. And the men marveled, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?
Yet as we trust and keep our interior peace, Christ also warns us to keep our loins girded and our lamps lit, with our eyes always on the end and purpose of all creation, the Alpha and Omega, which, after all is said and done, is all that really matters.
Holy Martyrs of Rome, orate pro nobis!