On June 30th, 2022, the feast celebrates the feast of the First Martyrs of the Church of Rome.
Their witness is important because it brings to fruition what it means to follow Jesus Christ unto death. The Christians of Rome were the addressees of St Paul’s famous letter, which he wrote in the year 57-58 AD, even if the Apostle of the Gentiles was not given the opportunity to visit them (Rom 15:20).
History tells us that at the time in Rome there was a significant Jewish population. The Emperor Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome in the year 49-50, most probably due to the controversy that was going on between these Jews and Jewish Christians. The Roman historian Suetonius held that the expulsion was the result of the many upheavals which were taking place in the city and were caused by the certain Chrestus, that is Christ. Following Emperor Claudius’ death in the year 54 may of these Jews found themselves in Rome again. Let not forget that Paul’s letter to the Romans incorporated Christians hailing from both Jewish and Gentile background.
Roman history tells us that in July 64 more than half Rome was devastated by fire. The populace blamed the Emperor Nero since he wanted to enlarge his palace. However, Nero heinously put the blame on the Christians, accusing them of putting the city in flames. Another Roman historian, Tacitus, says that many were the Christians who were executed due to their alleged hatred of the human race – the precise opposite of the truth. Among the list of these Christians we find the great apostles Peter and Paul.
However, the true culprits of the crime eventually came to light. When he felt himself surrounded by a possible army revolt, together with his condemnation to death by the Roman senate, Nero found the easiest way of escape by killing himself in the year 68 when he was still 31 years of age.
The Martyrs of Rome teach us to be strong even if the whole world condemns us because we are following Christ, our Lord and Saviour. Many are the people who consider Christians as having hatred of the human race simply because we defend life from the moment of its conception till its natural end, we promote marriage as God willed it, that is, between a man and a woman, whose love results in the children they have. The list goes on and on. What is essential for us is to remember that we are to pursue Christ’s way of life and teaching. Only in this way we can be his true disciples.
Another lesson to be learnt from the martyrs of Rome is that holiness triumphs over evil. See the bitter end Nero made because he built his empire on sheer lies and deceit. The evil a person does is the very cause which brings that person’s downfall in the end. So, better build on what is true, just and holy then on deceit, treachery and egoism. Only what is holy withstands the test of time.
In his homily of June 30, 2014, Pope Francis said: how is it that this seed of God’s word grows and becomes the Kingdom of God, it grows and becomes the Church? There are “two sources” that accomplish this task: the Holy Spirit — the power of the Holy Spirit — and Christian testimony. We know that there’s no growth without the Spirit: it’s he who builds the Church, it’s he who makes the Church grow, it’s he who summons the community of the Church. However, Christian witness is also necessary. When the testimony is finished, when historical circumstances call for strong witness, there are martyrs: the greatest witnesses!”. It is here that the Church is watered by the blood of martyrs. This is truly the beauty of martyrdom: it begins with testimony day by day, and may end with blood, like Jesus, the first martyr, the first witness, the faithful witness.
To be true, the testimony must be unconditional. We heard what the Lord said”, when a disciple asked for a condition in order to follow him: “Lord, let me first go and bury my father”. But “the Lord stopped him: ‘No’!”. Testimony is unconditional, it must be firm, it must be decisive, it must have that language, so powerful, of Jesus: ‘yes yes, no no’!”. And this is precisely the language of testimony.
Let us pray to the Lord to give us the courage to be his witnesses till the very end. Let us keep remembering that no human force could stop the halt of the Spirit unleashed upon the world. Yes, indeed, the blood of martyrs has always been, and will always be, the seed of Christians.