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FLAMES OF FAITH

Father Francis's picture
Protomartyrs of Rome

Around the year 58 the apostle Paul wrote an encouraging letter to the Christian community in Rome. He was looking forward to visiting them for the first time, having heard that their faith was strong. He greeted them warmly as "God’s beloved in Rome, called to be saints." (Rom. 1:7) and it is these saints whom we honour today.

Most of the members of that small church suffered martyrdom for their faith, put to death on the orders of a brutal Roman Emperor after a great fire in Rome in 64, the tenth year of the reign of Nero. It began near the Great Circus, a district crowded with shops and stalls, and quickly spread in all directions. The effect was devastating: the entire city was destroyed and it was nine days before the fire was finally brought under control. On the third day of the fire Nero went to the top of the Tower of Maecenas to have a good view of the scene. It is said that he recited poetry and played his lyre, watching the conflagration intently as if taking pleasure in it. In part because of his bizarre behaviour Nero was suspected of having started the fire.

The rumours spread almost as quickly as the flames and public feeling turned against the Emperor. To divert the anger from himself Nero accused the Christians who were rounded up and killed in a variety of cruel ways. Some were thrown to hungry dogs to be eaten, or crucified, or smeared with pitch and set on fire as part of the entertainment at a party which Nero gave in the gardens of his home. Many of the onlookers were sickened by this brutal treatment of the Christians. Tacitus, the first century Roman historian, wrote, 'There arose a feeling of compassion, for it was not for the public good but to glut one man's cruelty that they were being destroyed.'

How were the martyrs able to face such horrible torture? We know that they had faith, and they must have been strengthened by Paul's words, "We are co-heirs with Christ, sharing His sufferings … And I think that what we suffer in this life can never be compared to the glory … which is awaiting us" (Rom. 8:17-18).

The Christians in Rome were few in number and Nero probably thought that he had removed them all; but there remained the 'remnant' and from that tiny remnant the Church survived and expanded. This thought should encourage us today, when numbers appear to be dwindling and vocations are few. The Church will survive, as Jesus promised. We ask the Roman Martyrs to pray for us, and we recall the message of hope which Paul sent to them, "Do not give up if trials come; keep on praying."

The First Martyrs of the Church of Rome, pray for the Pope and for us.