Saturday, 30 June 2007

Protomartyrum Sanctae Romanae Ecclesiae

Yesterday’s Feast of SS Peter and Paul, though a celebration for the whole Church, had a particularly Roman slant. One of the ancient hymns for the Feast has the lines, ‘O Roman felix…Rejoice, O Rome, this day; thy walls they once did sign/ With princely blood, who now their glory share with thee./ What city’s vesture glows with crimson deep as thine?/ What beauty else has earth that may compare with thee?’

Rome can also ‘rejoice’ in the multitudes of martyrs who suffered around the time of the two Apostles. We celebrate their witness today, particularly remembering the great persecution under the Emperor Nero, who held the Christians responsible for the great fire that engulfed the city in July AD64. The fire had raged for seven days and destroyed some two-thirds of Rome. The Emperor had been slow to react and showed great delight at the tragedy, famously taking his harp and reciting Priam’s lament over the burning of Troy. This led to the popular belief that the Emperor himself had ordered the fire for his own entertainment. However, official blame was deflected from the Emperor on to the Christians, and hundreds were seized, tortured and executed. According to the Roman historian, Tacitus:

In their very deaths they were made the subjects of sport: for they were covered with the hides of wild beasts, and worried to death by dogs, or nailed to crosses, or set fire to, and when the day waned, burned to serve for the evening lights. Nero offered his own garden players for the spectacle,…indiscriminately mingling with the common people in the dress of a charioteer, or else standing in his chariot. For this cause a feeling of compassion arose towards the sufferers,…because they were victims of the ferocity of one man.
The picture at the top of this post is a statue of St Praxedes (from her basilica of Santa Prassede) who, together with her sister, St Pudentiana, collected the bodies of the early Roman martyrs and prepared them for burial. The statue shows her squeezing a sponge, soaked with the blood of the martyrs. The two sisters (whose mother, St Claudia, is thought to have been a Briton) were friends of SS Peter and Paul, though they themselves escaped martyrdom.

We also commemorate the first Successors of Peter, all of whom were saints and martyrs, and whose names can be found in the First Eucharistic Prayer: Linus, Cletus and Clement.

Indeed, over the first centuries of the Faith, Rome produced an astonishing crop of martyrs, men, women, and children willing to pay the ultimate price. Many of them are household names, like little St Agnes (aged 13 when her throat was cut by executioners), the soldier St Sebastian (normally shown in art pierced with arrows) and St Lawrence (famously grilled to death). But there are many who are known only by name and re-discovered from the sixteenth century with the exploration of the Roman catacombs.

The blood of the martyrs certainly proved to be the seed of the Church of Rome.

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