chapter twelve

The Blood of the Martyrs replenishes a flourishing Church: 250-300

    As we continue with the turbulent 3rd Century, we follow the Church through a time when Roman Emperors were slain by their own soldiers at a pace to match their executions of Christians and Christ's Vicars on earth, the majority of whom were martyred. This installment we deal with the second half of the century beginning with Pope Saint Cornelius, the 21st successor of Peter, who followed Pope Saint Fabian in March of 250. Three years later in 253 Cornelius was exiled to Civatavecchia where he was martyred for refusing to offer sacrifices to the pagan gods.

    Pope Saint Lucius I became the 22nd pontiff on June 25, 253 and his pontificate lasted less than a year. Yet in this short span he decreed that because of the Christian and ascetical nature, and to avoid scandal, men and women not related by blood were forbidden to live together as well as clergy be separated from deaconesses even if the lodging they were given was given in charity. Charity was not what the wicked Gaius Vibius Trebonianus Gallus, better known as the Roman Emperor Valerian, had in mind when he ordered Lucius executed on March 5, 254.

    With his martyrdom still fresh in the minds of the bishops, they met to elect Pope Saint Stephen I on May 12, 254. Three years later he was beheaded by traitors on August 2, 257 during the liturgy while sitting on his pontifical chair in the Catacombs of Pope Saint Calistus. During his papacy he had to quell the schism brought on by the followers of the antipope Novatian.

    Less than a month later Stephen was replaced by Grecian-born Pope Saint Sixtus II on August 30, 257. Sixtus, though mild and meek, he was forceful enough to settle on-going disputes that had flared up during the pontificates of his three predecessors. He also was responsible for identifying and approving the mortal remains of both Saint Peter and Saint Paul. It was during his papacy that Saint Cyprian was martyred under Valerian and at Cyprian's memorial Mass Sixtus II decreed that the exclamation "Deo Gratias" be pronounced thereafter during the Mass. Shortly after this, he also was executed by Valerian on August 6, 258. As he was being led to his death, he was confronted by Saint Lawrence who expressed dismay that he couldn't die with his beloved Pope. Sixtus prophecied to Lawrence that in three days he, too, would receive his crown of martyrdom. True to his words Lawrence was burned to death over hot coals, but not before baffling and frustrating his Roman persecutors. First because he had promised the Emperor that he could collect in three days the greatest treasures of the Church to present to the Romans. On the third day he produced the poor, the infirm and Christians proclaiming: "see the treasures of the Church." Then, while being roasted on a spittle, he mocked his persecutors with the famous words: "I am done enough on this side, turn me over."

    Because of the open persecution of the Church, it took a year before the 25th pope in the line of Peter was elected on July 22, 259. He was Pope Saint Denis or Dionysius as some lists record. He had been a Roman missionary in Gaul under the persecution of the Emperor Valerian, but the respite in persecutions was due to the fact that Valerian and his Roman legions had to divert all their attention to the gates of Rome where the Barbarian hordes were massing to attack. After the Romans successfully fended off the vandals, Gallienus succeeded the slain Valerian as Roman Emperor. Through much prayer on Denis' part and the desire to mend wounds and rally the Christians to Roman ranks for the purpose of more bodies and more revenue through taxes, Gallienus agreed to give the Christians liberty. Denis died on December 26, 268.

    He was followed by Pope Saint Felix I on January 5, 269. It was Felix who began the custom of burying martyrs under church altars and celebrating Mass on their tombs. He also quelled the heresy of Paul of Samosota, the proud Bishop of Antioch who taught that Christ was no more than a mere man, in Whom the Divine Word dwelt by its operation and as in its temple, with many other gross errors concerning the captital mysteries of the Trinity and incarnation. Felix called three councils in Antioch to examine the heresy and in the third council Paul was convicted of heresy, pride, and many scandalous crimes and Domnus was appointed Bishop of Antioch. Problems still existed with Paul because of his pride for he kept possession of the bishop's palace. But Felix appealed to the new Emperor Aurelian, who had succeeded Gallienus upon his death in 270. Though Aurelian was a pagan, he ruled that the house should belong to the Pope to whom all the bishops answer. This was a major precedent that still exists today. Paul was evicted, but Aurelian eventually turned against Felix, possibly because the latter had converted countless infidels. Thus, Aurelian renewed the persecution of the Christians, executing Felix on December 30, 274.

    Less than a week later Pope Saint Eutychian was selected as the 27th Pope, living eight more years until his martyrdom on December 7, 283. During his papacy he began the custom of blessing the crops and decreed that the "Dalmatic," a cloak similar to the one Roman Emperors wore, be placed over the remains of the slain martyrs out of respect for the dead. This evolved into the Dalmatic vestment worn by deacons during solemn liturgical functions.

    The man to succeed Eutychian was Dalmatian-born Pope Saint Caius elected on December 17, 283. Shortly after his election his uncle became the next Roman Emperor Diocletian. What different paths these two men from Dalmatia took. One followed God's call, the other followed the siren of satan, moving up through the ranks of the army to a position of power. At first everyone thought there would be harmony as Diocletian set up headquarters in Nicomedia on the straights of the Black Sea near what would become Constantinople. With these changes in government and the expansion, the Church began to share in the prosperity and many converted. However Diocletian began to resent these changes, presuming that they weakened his authority. Thus he had an arsonist set fire to the palace in Nicomedia and blamed the Christians, many of whom were tortured. He kept casting aspersions on them, blaming Christ's followers for insurrection in Armenia and Syria and ordering the leaders into prison. As if this weren't enough, he issued a decree that all Christians must offer sacrifices to the pagan gods. Needless to say, the Christians went ballistic, but answered on their knees as they were dragged away to the mines, their villages and homes burned to the ground and thousands slaughtered. The cruel persecutions of Diocletian were some of the most dastardly in all of history with such renown saints as Saint Agnes, Saint Lucy, and Saint Sebastian receiving their glorious crowns of martyrdom.

    Through their deaths and the deaths of millions of Christians their blood sowed the seeds for the Rock to swell and the Church flourished, aided especially by another Roman Emperor who would convert to Christianity and forever change the direction of Christ's Church. This we shall see in the thirteenth installment when we examine the fourth century - "In Hoc Signo Vinces" and the time of freedom.