Roman Persecutions of Christians

On 7th August at Mass, we remembered Pope Sixtus II and his companions who were martyred whilst celebrating Mass during the persecution of the Emperor Valerian, AD 258. On the 10th we remembered Lawrence, martyred a few days later – his is one of the famous deaths, roasted over a fire.

Sad to recall those Roman persecutions but also an invitation to move from imagination to reality. There were four main persecutions – Nero, Decius, Valerian, Diocletian – but many years of relative peace. Most of the Roman emperors were cruel, especially in the 3rd century when there were twenty of them, all murderers and many murdered. Persecution of Christians was part of a horrifying culture of death.

Nero’s persecution was a consequence of his madness (absolute power seems to push people towards insanity), and the Roman populace hated him so much that after his death they filled in his house (the Golden House) with earth so that no one could live there.

Decius (245-251) wanted Christian property and wealth. That was his chief motive, as was that of Valerian a few years later. Greed, casual cruelty and certainly not love of the Roman gods and goddesses inspired those persecutions. Diocletian’s was the worst of the persecutions. He truly hated Christians in the way we see some fundamentalist do today in parts of our world. Then came the Emperor Constantine and freedom of religion throughout the empire.

Living in Rome brings the surprise that only a small numbers of martyrs are remembered there. Why so few when the persecutions seem to have been so ferocious? Because most Christians did what was asked. A simple act of worship to the Roman gods and they were given a certificate (the libellus) to prove they worshipped the Roman gods, not the Christian God.

So human. We might be the same today. Deny Christ or die. Deny Christ or you will never see your children again. Deny Christ or your children will suffer and die. Who could blame the terrified loving parents, denying Christ to save their children, knowing that God would understand and forgive. So it happened. The Christians denied Christ but the faith lived on. The Church grew, the power of Rome faded to nothing. We pray with sadness but with faith in our world of today. God’s love is invincible.

God bless us,

Fr John
(12th August 2018)


Links: St Lawrence of Rome