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Martyrs, ancient and modern: The Pope + his 7 deacons in 258; 2 Archbishops + their Deacon in 2013

August 7, 2013

Feast of Pope St Sixtus and his companions [Wednesday 7th August 2013]

‘Linus, Cletus, Clement, Sixtus, Cornelius, Cyprian, Lawrence, Chrysogonus…..’

Sound familiar? These are names of heroic saints whose memory we venerate during the mass if we use the First Eucharistic Prayer. Today I want to let you know about just two of those people: Sixtus and Lawrence.

Although Christians were cruelly persecuted in the early Church by the Roman Empire, these persecutions came and went, the intensity of persecution waxed and waned. In fact, during the early part of the third century there had been a period of 38 years when Christians were pretty much left alone. Then a man named Decius became the Roman Emperor; Decius was intent on restoring the supremacy of Roman rule and of its pagan gods. In January 250 he ordered a persecution of the Church, targeting bishops for execution, and persecuting and torturing other Christians to force them to renounce their faith. Pope Fabian was executed within days of Decius’ edict. Bishops across the Empire went into hiding, clergy were imprisoned, many priest and people lapsed. Many Christians rushed to the pagan Roman temples to sacrifice as required by the law. The persecution was horribly violent. Reading the stories people faced the most terrible dilemmas, very much akin to the Nazi terror of the last century.

This persecution and its aftermath very nearly split the Church. This was because those Christians who had succumbed to the terrific pressure to comply with the authorities afterwards wanted to return to being practicing Christians in the Church. But their behaviour during the Decian persecution meant they were considered to be heretics. There was a serious dispute in the Church over whether or not their return to the faith should involve them being re-baptised.

It is from this period of our history the Church made it absolutely clear that the rule is that once you’ve been baptised you cannot be baptised a second time. Baptism is a once-only sacrament that changes our souls forever – it cannot be undone. We take that for granted today. But when Pope Sixtus II was elected in August 257 it was a raging controversy. Divisions in the Church needed to be gently and carefully healed. Pope Sixtus, the Christian hero we celebrate today, was the man to achieve this healing. But Sixtus only survived as Pope for just one year

Shortly before being elected Pope, another Emperor, this time one called Valerian set about another period of persecuting the Church with a renewed vigour. Pope Sixtus managed to fulfil his duties in quietly leading the Church back to unity for the first 12 months of his pontificate, but then, at the beginning of August 258 Valerian ordered that all bishops, priests and deacons were to be summarily executed.

Sixtus responded by assembling his flock in secret at one of the relatively unknown cemeteries in Rome, but whilst sat in his chair they were raided by Roman soldiers. Pope Sixtus was summarily beheaded in the cemetery. Four deacons – Januarius, Vincentius, Magnus, and Stephanus were beheaded with him. A bit later that same day Deacons Felicissimus and Agapitus were martyred.

The seventh of the deacons of the Church of Rome was called Laurence. The Roman authorities didn’t catch him until four days after Pope Sixtus and the other 6 deacons had been martyred. And so, to remind us of these events in our history, it won’t be until the 10th of August (next Saturday) that the Church will celebrate the feast of Deacon Saint Lawrence.

We celebrate feast days to inspire us, to increase our resolve to uphold our faith in the face of opposition. What we suffer today in this country is nothing as compared with the horrors faced by our fellow Christians down the ages. But elsewhere in the world, it’s still going on.

For example, look at Syria. Four months ago two Syrian Archbishops, Paul Yazigi and Youhanna
 Ibrahim together with Deacon Ibrahim Ulah were intercepted while they were returning from negotiations to release captives taken by Syrian rebels. The Deacon was shot dead, and the bishops were summarily beheaded.  And in June another Syrian priest, Fr. François Murad, was shot 8 times in the Convent at Gassanieh in Northern Syria by jihadist soldiers. Fr. Murad had moved to the convent to avoid violence and to give support to the few remaining Christians. 

These are shocking martyrdoms of brave men, just as shocking, just as brutal as the martyrdom suffered by Pope Sixtus and the 6 deacons we commemorate today.

Down the centuries brave men and women have exposed themselves to danger because they refused to hide their faith and because they were leaders of the Church. They were doing their Christian duty. They trusted in God, to the point of death.

And it is the faith and example of such martyrs, ancient and modern that inspires us to persevere in our faith.

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