Short Catechism of Church History - J. Oechtering

Persecutions by the Roman Emperors

30. Q. What did the pagan world do in order to check the rapid spread of Christianity?

R. The Roman emperors, who governed the world, decreed ten great and bloody persecutions.

31. Q. Name these persecutions.

R. First persecution, under Nero, about the year 64. He had set Rome on fire, but cast the blame on the Christians. They were killed by thousands in the streets; many were sewed in sacks, besmeared with pitch and burned alive at the nightly garden feasts of Nero. St. Peter and St. Paul died in this persecution.

Second persecution, under Domitian, about the year 95. During this persecution St. John was cast into a caldron of boiling oil, but was miraculously preserved. He was then banished to the isle of Patmos, w here lie received divine revelations about the future of the Church and the glory of Heaven, and wrote the Apocalypse.

Third persecution, under Trajan, about the year 107. Pope St. Clement was one of the first victims; Simeon, second bishop of Jerusalem, was crucified; St. Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, was cast before the lions in the amphitheatre at Rome.

The Christians of Rome gathered the bones of St. Ignatius and sent them to Antioch with the message: "We have made known to you the day of his death, so that we may unite on his anniversary to celebrate his memory, hoping to share his victory." ( A.D. 110.) This proves the veneration of martyrs and relics in the ancient Church. Pliny, governor of Bithynia, sent to Emperor Trajan a remarkable report about the Christians, in which he said: "They assemble on certain days before sunrise to sing hymns of praise in honor of Christ; their God, they take an oath to abstain from certain crimes and partake of a common, but blameless meal" (i.e. holy communion).

This persecution was continued under Hadrian, who condemned St. Symphorosa and her seven sons to death. He profaned the holy places in Jerusalem and erected statues of false gods on Calvary and over the holy Sepulchre of our Lord.

Fourth persecution, under Marcus Aurelius, about the year 167. St. Polycarp, a disciple of St. John and bishop of Smyrna, suffered martyrdom at the stake in the 86th year of his life. The persecution was terrible in Lyons and Vienne, France, where St. Pothiuus, first bishop of Lyons, and Blandina, a heroic young slave, were martyred. Although the famous Christian legion called "Fulminatrix" saved the army in a miraculous manner by its prayers, the emperor remained unrelenting towards the Christians.

The influence of St. Polycarp was so great, that his pagan and Jewish accusers stated: "He is the teacher of Asia, father of the Christians and destroyer of our Gods." When asked to deny Christ, he answered: "I have served Christ for six and eighty years, and never has he done me evil. How, then, can I blaspheme my King and Saviour." His ashes were gathered by the Christians and placed in a tomb, where they annually celebrated the day of his martyrdom.

Fifth persecution, under Septimius Severus, about the year 202. This emperor had been cured by a Christian; nevertheless he turned against them. St: Clement of Alexandria said of this persecution: "We see daily many.martyrs burned and crucified before our eyes." St. Irenaeus suffered at Lyons, St. Perpetua and St. Felicitas at Carthage.

Perpetua's father, a pagan and senator of Carthage, begged her on his knees to abjure Christ for the sake of his gray hair and her own little babe, but with heroic fortitude the noble Christian lady refused. She was led with St. Felicitas into the arena, where they suffered a glorious martyrdom by the horns of a maddened bull and the sword of the executioner.

Sixth persecution, under Maximinus Thrax, about the year 236. On account of repeated earthquakes, which the heathens ascribed to the neglect of their gods, they demanded another persecution of the Christians with the cry: "The Christians to the lions." The two popes, Pontianus and Antherus, and many others suffered martyrdom.

Seventh persecution, under Decius, about the year 250. This most bloody and systematic persecution which was directed especially against the bishops and the clergy, was decreed by Decius on the plea that Christianity and the Roman Empire could never be reconciled. Among the holy vitims were the virgins St. Agatha and St. Apollonia.

St. Cyprian wrote at that time: "Emperor Decius had become so jealous of papal authority that he said: I will rather have a rival in my empire, than hear of the election of the priest of God (Pope Cornelius) in Rome."

Eighth persecution, under Valerian, about 258. In Rome, Pope Sixtus II. and his deacon St. Lawrence were martyred. When the treasures of the Church were demanded from him, St. Lawrence assembled the poor and showed them to his persecutor with the words: "Behold the treasures of the Church." He suffered death with serene fortitude, being roasted alive on a gridiron.

At Utica, Africa, 153 Christians were cast alive into pits and covered with quick-lime.

Ninth persecution was ordered by Emperor Aurelian, but soon came to an end on account of his violent death.

Tenth persecution, under Diocletian, about the year 303. It surpassed all others in violence and cruelty. St. Sebastian, tribune of the imperial guard, suffered a lingering death, being shot with arrows. St. Anastasia, the youthful St. Agnes of Rome, St. Lucia of Syracuse, and many other consecrated virgins obtained the martyr's palm. St. Catherine, a noble and learned virgin of Alexandria, who had fearlessly reproached Caesar Maxentius for his cruelty against the Christians and refuted the pagan philosophers of his court, died by the sword.

When Bishop Felix, who had refused to deliver the sacred books, was led to execution, he said: "It is better that I be cast into the fire, than the sacred volumes. I thank Thee, O Lord, for fifty-six years of my life were spent in Thy service, I have preserved sacerdotal chastity, have guarded the holy gospels, and preached Thy truth. For Thee, O Jesus, God of heaven and earth, I offer myself as victim."

So great and general was the bloodshed, that Diocletian had a coin struck: "Diocletian, emperor, who destroyed the Christian name." A vain boast. His favorite, Caesar Galerius, was attacked by a loathsome disease, and, fearing the , vengeance of God, he repealed the edict of persecution.

32. Q. How did the popes rule the Church during these persecutions?

R. The popes stood at their post and died for the faith as true shepherds of Christ's suffering flock. Although persecution rendered the ruling of Holy Church extremely difficult, the records of the time bear witness to the authority and watchfulness of these martyr pontiffs. (See list of popes, Sts. Clement, Anicetus, Victor, Cornelius, Stephen.)

33. Q. What torments did the Martyrs suffer?

R. They were scourged, put to the rack, cast before wild beasts, burnt at the stake, crucified and tortured in many other ways, according to the cruel custom of pagan times.

The acts of the martyrs furnish reliable account of the glorious confession and death of these Christian heroes. They were either copied from the records of the imperial law courts or written down according to the testimony of eye-witnesses. Pope Clement had divided Rome into seven districts, with notaries appointed to keep these sacred records. A large number perished during the persecution of Diocletian, but many have been preserved to the present time and are of great value as proofs that the faith of the early martyrs was that of the Church of to-day.

34. Q. What did these persecutions prove?

R. These persecutions proved that a religion, which for three hundred years passed safely through such trials and victoriously withstood the bloody onslaught of the world's greatest empire, must be from God.

35. Q. How did Almighty God avenge the persecutions of His Church?

R. 1) Nearly all of these persecutors died a miserable death.

2) Barbarian nations laid waste the frontiers and the distant provinces of the Roman empire.

3) Earthquakes, floods, droughts, famines, and dreadful diseases visited the nation.

Nero had to fly before the open revolt of the people and stabbed himself in despair. Domitian was assassinated. Hadrian became insane from despair. Marcus Aurelius, heart-broken over the ingratitude of his profligate and only son Commodus starved himself to death. Septimius Severus, whose life had been attempted by his own son, died in despair. Decius ended miserably in a swamp during an unlucky battle with the Goths. Valerian was taken prisoner by Sapor, king of Persia, and flayed alive. Maxentius was drowned in the Tiber, and Diocletian starved himself to death.

36. Q. What was the attitude of the first Christians during these persecutions?

R. While thousands of martyrs bore torture and death with heroic fortitude, the Christians worshipped in hidden places (catacombs) with unflagging zeal, and their learned men defended the faith in numerous writings.

Catacombs are underground passages and rooms, carved into the soft rocks, outside the gates of ancient Rome. They were used by the early Christians for burial and for the celebration of the holy mysteries. Pictures, medals, and inscriptions which were found there, proved the identity of the faith in that age with ours; f. i. prayers for the dead, invocation of the saints, and the Real Presence. Remarkable is the emblem of the fish, used during that perilous time to designate our Lord; for the Greek word "ichthys" means fish, and its composing letters are the initials of the words: Jesus Christ, God's (theou) Son (yios), Saviour (soter). To "receive the fish" meant, for the initiated, Holy Communion.

37. Q. Name some of the early writers, or apologists.

R. St. Justin, a philosopher and afterwards martyr, wrote two excellent apologies and presented them to the Emperors Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius. ( A.D. 150.)

St. Clement of Alexandria and his great disciple Origen, refuted in profound works the teachings of Celsus and other philosophers, who had assailed Christianity.

Tertullian, formerly a Roman lawyer and later a Christian, and St. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage and martyr, showed in learned works the emptiness of paganism and the just claims of the Christian religion to philosophical and political recognition.

St. Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons and disciple of Bishop Polycarp, (who was a disciple of St. John, the Apostle), wrote a famous work against the heresies of his time. ( A.D. 180.)

In order to show the importance of St. Irenaeus as a witness of divine tradition, we quote from his letter to, Florinus, an imperial courtier, written about the year 177: saw thee in thy youth with Polycarp in Asia Minor, and I remember so well, that I can describe the place in which he sat and preached, and his walk and face, and how he related his familiar intercourse with St. John and others who had seen the Lord, how he recalled what he had heard about the Lord, his miracles and teaching from those who had beheld the Word of Life with their own eyes,—all in accordance with Holy Scripture."

From the first apology, delivered by St. Justin ( A.D. 147) before the Roman Emperor, we quote the following description of h. Mass, as celebrated at that early age: "After the reading of the writings of the prophets and the apostles, followed by the bishop's address and prayers, bread and a chalice, containing wine mixed with water, are handed to the bishop. He, taking it after praise and thanksgiving to God, the Father, through the Son and the H. Ghost, and continues the sacrifice for some time.

"Then the deacons give to the faithful of this food which we call Eucharist; and nobody is admitted to partake, unless he believes our teaching and has been baptized to the forgiveness of sins and to regeneration.

"For we do not receive these things as common bread and drink, but as Jesus Christ, our Saviour was made flesh by the word of God, even so we have been taught, that this food, blessed by prayer, is the flesh and blood of the same incarnate Jesus; for the Apostles have recorded in their memoirs, which we call Gospels, that the Lord said over this food and drink: 'This is my body; this is my blood' and commanded us: 'Do this for a commemoration of Me'."

38. Q. What heresies afflicted the Church in those times?

R. 1) Gnosticism, which claimed to possess the secret of a higher knowledge and taught the eternity of matter, its formation into the world by an evil spirit, and the sinfulness of material things.

2) Manicheism, which assumed two eternal principles, light and darkness, or good and evil, and taught that all material things come from the evil principle.

NOTE.—Persecutions and martyrdom are distinguishing traits in the history of the Church and will continue as long as time will last, because Christ has said: "The servant is not greater than his Lord. If they have persecuted me, they will persecute you." (St. John XV, 20.) But from every persecution the Church has risen in new, divinely infused vigor and sanctity; and the blood of the martyrs became, as Tertullian has written, "the seed of Christians."