There being but a simple commemoration made to day of these two glorious brethren, whose names were formerly so celebrated throughout the West, must not lessen their merit in our eyes. The Holy Spirit, whose function it is to maintain within the Bride of Jesus that divine mark of Holiness, whereby she is to be, up to the day of doom, forever recognisable both to angels and to men, ceases not in every generation to raise up new saints, who more especially attract the devout homage of that particular period to which their virtues have served as an example, and of which they are the distinctive glory. But while in thus honoring these children of hers, whose brilliant virtues add fresh jewels to her vesture, holy Church is moved by a sentiment of gratitude to the Paraclete for present benefits; these his later manifestations can never make her forgetful of those wrought within her by the same divine Spirit in her earlier days. Gervase and Protase are indeed no longer honored by a solemn feast, preceded as heretofore by a Vigil, whereof the Sacramentary of Gelasius preserves the memory; but they still occupy an important place in the Roman Litanies as representatives of the great Martyr host; which position none have been allowed to assume in their stead. To these two in preference to a vast array of Martyrs whose festivals are now of a rite superior to theirs, does Holy Church turn in the more solemn of all her supplications; whether it be in holy processions to implore the averting of scourges and the obtaining blessings of this present life; or whether the sacred assembly of the whole Christian people, prostrate together with the Pontiff, unite in imploring the grace of abundant consecration to flow upon altars and temples or upon future priests, virgins, or kings.
We learn from the historians of sacred rites, that the Introit of the Mass of our two holy Martyrs: The Lord will give peace unto his people, is a monument of the confidence of Saint Gregory the Great in their powerful succor. Filled with gratitude for results already obtained. he committed to their care, in the selection of this antiphon, the complete pacification of Italy, then a prey to Lombard invasion and to the petty vengeance of the Byzantine Court.
Two centuries previously, Saint Ambrose had a first experience of the special power of pacification which it seemed Our Lord Christ had attached to the very bones of these his glorious witnesses in return for their having given their life for Him. The empress Justina and the Arian Auxentius now for a second time directed against the Bishop of Milan a united assault of the powers of earth and of hell; and Ambrose, thus again ordered to abandon his Church, replied: “It were unseemly in a priest to deliver up the temple.” Upon the soldiers sent to lend main force to the invaders of the sacred precincts he denounced sentence of excommunication, if they passed one step farther; and they, knowing that they had been engaged to God by their baptism before being so to their prince, thereupon made fitting estimate of such a proposed act of sacrilege. To the court, terrified at the universal indignation that had ensued and now praying him to quell the popular excitement aroused by these odious measures, he replied: “It is in my power not to excite it; but to appease it, belongs only to God.” When such troops as could be assembled composed exclusively of Arians, were at length surrounding the Basilica wherein was Ambrose, his faithful people were there to be seen gathered around him in the name of the undivided and ever tranquil Trinity, sustaining by the sole force of divine psalmody and sacred hymns a novel kind of siege. But the last act of this two years’ war levied against a disarmed man, the event which completed the overthrow of heresy, was the discovery of the relics of Gervase and Protase, precious treasures unconsciously possessed by Milan and now revealed to their bishop by a heavenly inspiration.
Let us hearken to the bishop himself recounting to his sister Marcellina these facts, in all the sweet simplicity of his great soul. Long consecrated by the Supreme Pontiff himself to the Spouse of virgins, Marcellina was one of those all-powerful in humility, who are almost invariably placed by Our Lord side by side with the great historic names of holy Church, to be their stay and support before God; ignored co-operatrices in deeds the most brilliant, whose intervention by prayer and suffering must, for the most part, remain concealed until the day when eternal realities shall be revealed. Ambrose had already kept his sister informed of the details of the first campaign directed against him: “In almost every letter,” he says, “thou dost anxiously inquire about what affecteth the Church; well, then, here it is. The day after that on which thou didst send me the account of thy dreams, the weight of heavy disquietude fell upon us.”
The following letter, on the contrary, breathes already of triumph and liberty regained:
“The Brother to the Lady, his Sister, dearer to him than are his eyes and his life. It is my wont to leave thy holiness ignorant of nothing that passeth here in thine absence: know also then, that we have found Martyrs. For of a truth, when I was engaged about the dedicating of the Basilica which thou knowest, many began to call upon me with one voice, saying: Dedicate it after the manner of the Roman Basilica. I replied: I will do so, if I find relics of Martyrs. Thereupon there came upon me, as it were, the glowing heat of a presage. What shall I say? The Lord hath bestowed his grace. Despite the fears of the very clerics themselves, I ordered the earth to be dug up about the spot facing the balustrade of Saints Felix and Nabor. I found the wished-for signs. Men even came forward bringing possessed persons on whom we might impose hands; and it so fell out, that at the very first sight of the holy Martyrs, while we as yet had not broken silence, a [Urna in the Latin text, is taken for una by the best interpreters.] woman from among them was instantly seized and thrown to the ground before the holy tomb. We found therein two men of wondrous stature, as in the times of the ancients; all the bones entire, and a quantity of blood. There was a vast concourse of people during these two days. Wherefore these details? Towards evening we transported the holy bodies (in their entirety and laid out in a fitting manner) to the Basilica of Fausta; there vigil was kept all night, and imposition of hands. On the morrow, the translation to the Basilica that they call the ‘Ambrosian.’ During the transit, a blind man was cured.”
Ambrose then goes on to relate to Marcellina the discourse pronounced by him on this occasion. We can cite only one passage: “O Lord Jesus, I give thee thanks for having raised up in our midst the spirit of thy holy Martyrs, at a time in which thy Church is in need of greatest succour. Be it known unto all what kind of defenders I desire; such as can defend and yet attack not. Holy people, lo! I have gained such for you, they are useful to all, hurtful to none! Such are the guardians I ambition, such my soldiers. On their account I have no envy to fear; yea, I wish their succour to be profitable to those even who are jealous of me. So then let them come, let them behold my guards: I deny not my being surrounded by arms such as these! Even as in the case of the servant of Eliseus, when the Syrian army was besieging the prophet,—God hath opened our eyes. Behold us, Brethren, freed from no light shame: to have had defenders and not to have known it! … Behold how from an ignoble sepulchre, noble remains have been taken, trophies at last brought to light. Gaze upon this tomb still wet with blood, glorious stains marks of victory! See these relics inviolable in their hiding place, laid just in the very same order wherein they were placed the first day! Look at this head separated from the shoulders! Our old men now begin to remember having formerly heard these Martyrs named, and to have read the inscription on their tomb. Our city had lost her own Martyrs, she who had borne away those of foreign cities! Although this is God’s gift, still I cannot refuse to see therein a great grace, whereby our Lord Jesus has vouchsafed to render the time of my episcopacy illustrious. Not deserving to be myself a Martyr, I have procured these Martyrs for you. Let them be brought in then; bring hither these victorious victims, let them take their place there where Christ is the Victim; but, on the Altar be He who suffered for all, and under the Altar be they whom His Passion redeemed. I had destined this spot for myself; since fitting it is. that the Pontiff should repose there where he hath been wont to present the Oblation; but I cede my right to sacred victims: this place was due unto Martyrs.”
In fact, Ambrose did come, ten years later, to take his own place under the altar of the Ambrosian Basilica; he occupied the Epistle side, leaving that of the Gospel to the two Martyrs. In the ninth century, one of his successors, Angilbert, placed the three venerable bodies together in one same sarcophagus of porphyry, which was placed length-ways of the altar, above the two primitive tombs. There, after the lapse of a thousand years, on August the 8th in the year 1871 owing to necessary repairs being made in the Basilica, they once more reappeared; not this time amidst blood, as the fourth century had disclosed our Martyrs, but under a sheet of water, deep and limpid; a touching image of that water of Wisdom that flowed so copiously from the lips of Ambrose himself, now the principal occupant of this holy tomb. There, not far from the tomb of Saint Marcellina, itself also an altar, the pilgrim of these days, with soul brimful of by-gone memories, may still venerate these precious relics; for they are united together in one crystal shrine where, placed under the immediate protection of the Roman Pontiff, Pius IX, they await the glorious day of resurrection.
The brief legend of these two Martyrs runs as follows:
Gervasius et Protasius, Vitalis et Valeriæ filii, quorum pater Ravennæ, mater Mediolani, pro Christi Domini fide martyrium subierunt, distributo pauperibus patrimonio, domesticos servos libertate donarunt. Quo facto Gentilium sacerdotes immane in illos conceptum odium habebant. Quare, cum Astasius comes in bellum proficisci vellet, hanc occasionem perdendi pios fratres se nactos esse putaverunt. Itaque Astasio persuadent se a diis admonitos esse, nullo modo eum in bello victorem futurum, nisi Gervasio et Protasio coactis Christum negare, eosdem ad sacra diis facienda compelleret. Quod cum illi detestarentur, Astasius imperavit Gervasium tamdiu cædidum inter verbera exspiraret: Protasium fustibus contusum securi percuti jubet. Quorum corpora Philippus Christi servus clam sustulit, et in suis ædibus sepelivit: quæ postea sanctus Ambrosius, Dei monitu inventa, in loco sacro et insigni collocanda curavit. Passi sunt Mediolani decimo tertio Kalendas Julii.
Gervase and Protase were the sons of Vitalis and Valeria, who both testified even unto death, for the Lord Christ’s sake, by martyrdom,—the father at Ravenna, and the mother at Milan. After the victory of their parents, Gervase and Protase gave all their inheritance to the poor, and set free their slaves. This act of theirs stirred up against them savage hatred, on the part of the heathen priests, and when the Count Astasius was about setting forth to war, they believed they had got a good occasion for the destruction fo the two holy brethren. They persuaded Astasius that their gods had revealed to them that they had no chance of conquering in the war, unless he had first made Gervase and Protase to deny Christ, and to offer sacrifice to the gods. Being commanded so to do, they refused with horror, and Astasius then ordered Gervase to be beaten with rods until he died under the stripes, and Protase to be beaten with clubs, and his head to be struck off. A servant of Christ named Philip took away their dead bodies by stealth and buried them in his own house; and in after times, St. Ambrose, being warned of God, found them, and bestowed them in a hallowed and honorable place. They suffered at Milan, on the thirteenth of the kalends of July.
Though short is the account of your combat, O holy Martyrs, because few are the details handed down to us concerning you, still may we cry out with Saint Ambrose when he first presented you to the populace: “That eloquence is best that springs from blood; for blood is a voice of thunder, re-echoing from earth to heaven.” Oh! make us to understand its potent accents! Ever must the veins of a Christian be ready to pour forth testimony to God, our Redeemer! Say, is there no blood left in our impoverished veins? Oh! cure our generation of such a hopeless state of lingering decline; what physicians may not, Jesus Christ can always do!
Up then, glorious Brethren; teach us the royal road of devotedness and suffering! Surely not in vain have our feeble eyes been granted to contemplate you in these our days even as did Ambrose; if God, after the lapse of so many ages, has once more revealed the sight of you, he must therein have intentions not unlike those he had in by gone times! Therefore, dear Saints, may he perchance vouchsafe to raise up, through your intercession, mankind and our present society from the degradation of a fatal servility; to banish error, to save the Church who cannot indeed perish, but whom he loves to deliver by means of her Saints. Doth it not behoove you, generous Martyrs, to recognize by signal favors, the protection lavished by the successor of Peter on your relics, despite his own captivity? Be Milan worthy of you and of her Ambrose! Deign lovingly to visit the various lands both near and afar, formerly enriched with the blood found near your tomb. France was specially devout to you, placing no fewer than five of her cathedrals under your glorious invocation; may she not look for particular help at your hands? Oh! rouse up once more her piety of by-gone days; free her from false sects, from traitors! Let the day soon come when she may step forth once again the soldier of God!