June 5, 2015

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Early Church: The classic age of martyrs

John F. Fink(Ninth in a series of columns)

The early period of the Church is known as the “classic” age of martyrs, although more Christians were martyred during the 20th century. In the early Church, Christians were killed in various ways because they refused to worship the Roman gods or to acknowledge the emperor as divine.

This persecution wasn’t continuous, but sporadic. The emperors who were particularly ruthless in their persecution included Nero from 62 to 67, Domitian around 95, Trajan from 107 to 112, Hadrian from 117 to 138, Marcus Aurelius from 161 to 180, Septimus Severus in 203, Decius from 249 to 251, Gallus in 252, Valerian in 257 and 258, and Diocletian in 303 and 304.

St. Ignatius of Antioch, the first writer to use the expression “the Catholic Church,” was executed in Rome in 107. Emperor Trajan visited Antioch that year, and demanded that the Christians give up their religion or face death. Ignatius, the bishop, was condemned to be put to death in Rome.

On the way from Antioch to Rome, Ignatius wrote seven letters, five of them to local Churches in Asia Minor urging Christians to remain faithful to God. The sixth was to Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna in modern Turkey, and the seventh asked the Christians in Rome not to try to stop his martyrdom.

St. Polycarp, too, was martyred at age 86 in a stadium in Smyrna. He was sentenced to be burned alive, but the flames didn’t harm him, so he was finally killed with a dagger.

St. Justin was one of the most important early Christians to be martyred, by Marcus Aurelius in 165 in Rome. Justin was a philosopher and apologist, from whose writings we learn a lot about the liturgical life of the early Church.

Sts. Perpetua and Felicity were martyred in Carthage, in North Africa, in 203. Perpetua was 22, a married noblewoman and mother of an infant she was nursing. Felicity was her slave and pregnant at the time. Felicity kept a diary of her imprisonment that was completed by an eyewitness of the martyrdom. The account is read as part of the Office of Readings on March 6, their feast day.

Other women martyrs include Sts. Cecilia, Lucy, Agnes and Agatha.

St. Cyprian was another martyr in Carthage. He was involved in controversy over what should be done about Christians who lapsed from the faith during persecution (he advocated leniency), and he went into hiding during the persecution of Emperor Decius in 250. He was martyred in 257 when Emperor Valerian resumed persecution.

St. Lawrence made a lasting impression on the early Church. A deacon in charge of the Church’s material goods, he was arrested with Pope Sixtus II, who was beheaded with six other deacons in 258. Lawrence was ordered to show the prefect of the city the Church’s treasures. He gathered the lame, blind, widows and orphans, and told the prefect, “These are the treasures of the Church.” The prefect tortured Lawrence on a large gridiron. After he had suffered for a long time, legend has it he called out, “It is well done. Turn it over and eat.” †

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