A small congregation is gathered to assist at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. The priest offering the Mass is none other than the bishop of Rome, the Pope, assisted by all but one of his deacons. The Holy Father prays the prayers of the Mass with due solemnity, but with a noticeable quickness and in a hushed tone. Finally, he reaches the summit of the Mass, the Consecration of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.
Suddenly, just as the Holy Father elevates the Sacred Host, armed intruders burst into the holy place. The deacons move to protect the Holy Father, who swiftly consumes the Body of Christ to prevent desecration. The intruders throw the deacons to the ground and lay violent hands upon the Vicar of Christ, dragging him from the altar. Already on their knees, the congregation is easy to subdue. The intruders force the Holy Father and his deacons outside and order them to kneel. The Holy Father encourages the deacons to remain steadfast and follow the example of the deacon and Protomartyr, Saint Stephen. He then kneels, kisses the ground and thanks God. Then, before the helpless and horrified eyes of his flock, the intruders decapitate the Holy Father, followed by the deacons.
Nothing is New Under the Sun
The event described above took place in the year of Our Lord 250. During the persecution of Christians by the Roman Emperor Valerian, a squad of Roman soldiers broke into the catacombs where Pope Xystus II (Sixtus is the Latin version) was offering Mass and summarily executed him and the deacons Januarius, Vincentius, Magnus, Stephanus, Felicissimus and Agapitus.Today, in the year of Our Lord 2016, Pope Francis is unlikely to suffer the same fate. (Although if ISIS succeeds in capturing Rome, that fate may fall to his successor.)
Yet such a horrific scene is no longer relegated merely to hagiographies and history books. On the day after the feast of Saint James the Great, known as Matamoros, “Moor Slayer” in Spain, ISIS operatives burst into a church in Normandy, France and slit the throat of Fr. Jacques Hamel as he offered Mass. In response to this, apparently forgetting the history of his nation’s revolution, François Hollande stated that “To attack a church, kill a priest, is to profane the Republic.”
Nevertheless, the day after the funeral of Fr. Hamel, Parisian riot police stormed the church of St. Rita and forcibly removed parishioners who had gathered to celebrate Mass in protest of the demolition of the church, going so far as to drag the priest, by his vestments, from the altar and throw him to the ground.
Religious freedom and liberty is under siege in our own country as well. The most pro-abortion, anti-Catholic President in history has endorsed an acolyte of the Moloch worshipping death cult known as Planned Parenthood who aims to expand access to that death cult’s abominable sacrament on an unprecedented scale. There is no doubt that whatever resistance she cannot mitigate with the collaboration of heretics like her “Catholic” running mate, she will move to crush with unparalleled ferocity. Her opponent, like the Caesars of old, is the Pontifex Maximus of his own imperial cult, and while offering lip service (and a running mate) to the cause of life, will certainly move against any Catholic or other Christian who fails to offer his pinch of incense in support of his policies on account of their faith. Most recently, the candidate who many held up as the last hope for a viable alternative to two terrible candidates, recently employed reductio ad absurdum to conclude that “Religious liberty is a blackhole.” There is no major Presidential candidate upon whom Catholics can rely to defend their freedom to practice their religion.
Pope St. Damasus I
Pope St. Damasus I reigned from A.D. 366 until 384. In his lifetime, Damasus saw Christianity go from a viciously persecuted minority sect to the state religion of the Roman Empire. Damasus was born sometime between the years 304 and 306, during the Great Persecution of Diocletian.The persecution undoubtedly had a formative impact on the young Damasus. Years later, when Damasus composed the epigram for the tomb of the martyrs Marcellinus and Peter, he recalled hearing the story of their execution from the man who carried it out. “Your executioner reported your triumph to me, Damasus, when I was a boy.”
Having that personal connection to the martyrs, Damasus felt compelled to carry on the tradition of their memories. In A.D. 380, four years before the death of Damasus, Emperor Theodosius the Great (I) issued an edict from Thessalonica that decreed that the religion “which is now professed by the pontiff Damasus” i.e. Roman Catholicism, would be the official state religion of the Roman Empire.
For centuries, the Church had found her identity in her martyrs. Now, the Age of Martyrs was officially over. As those in living memory of the events of the persecutions died, the risk arose that these heroes of the faith, whose blood was the seed of the Church, might be forgotten. Damasus endeavored carry on the tradition that he had received and to ensure that these martyrs were remembered.
Damasus honored three popes who are buried in the Catacombs of Calixtus with individual inscriptions: Cornelius, Eusebius and Xystus II. Xystus is only pope honored by Damasus, other than Peter, who actually shed his blood for the faith. In the chapel in which Xystus is buried, now known as the Crypt of the Popes, Damasus included an epigram that references his martyrdom and that of his companions by saying that “they gave their necks to the soldiers.” Damasus addresses the epigram to the “crowd of the pious” buried close to Xystus in the catacombs of Calixtus. “Here, I confess Damasus wished to bury my body, but I feared to disturb the ashes of the pious saints.” In addition to the elogium Xysti, Damasus composed a separate epigram for Felicissimus and Agapitus, two deacons of Xystus.
Interestingly, the Roman Canon, known today as the First Eucharistic Prayer, was likely composed during the pontificate of Pope St. Damasus. It commemorates both Cornelius and Xystus (Sixtus) along with the first four popes (Peter, Linus, Cletus, Clement).
Return to the Age of Martyrs
For the first three centuries of Christianity, followers of Christ were generally rejected, regarded with fear and suspicion if not outright hostility. From time to time, that hostility erupted into persecution, culminating in the Empire wide Great Persecution under Diocletian. During the pontificate of Pope St. Damasus I, Christianity it initiated an ascendancy that lead to a cultural and societal dominance that continued unabated until the last century or two. Now, we find ourselves in the same position as the first Christians, with societal hostility to the faith threatening to spill over into persecution.
As men, we must ask: Would we will be willing to attend Mass if it were outlawed? If to do so would be to risk our earthly lives? Would we be willing to huddle in some secret place like the catacombs, knowing that any moment, godless men might burst in to mingle your blood, and that of your family, with the Precious Blood of your Lord and Savior, as it is offered on the altar for your sins and those of your killers?
Such questions may, sooner rather than later, cease being theoretical and became those upon which the answer determines our eternal fate and that of the succeeding generations. Let us pray that God might grant us the grace to follow the example of the glorious martyrs, whose memory Pope St. Damasus preserved so well.
Pope St. Sixtus II and Companions, ora pro nobis.