Monday, July 10, 2017

The Seven Brothers, Martyrs; and SS. Rufina & Secunda, Virgins and Martyrs

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Three times within the next few days will the number seven appear in the holy Liturgy, honoring the Blessed Trinity, and proclaiming the reign of the Holy Spirit with His sevenfold grace. Felicitas, Symphorosa, and the mother of the Machabees, each in turn will lead her seven sons to the feet of Eternal Wisdom. The Church, bereaved of her Apostolic founders, pursues her course undaunted, for the teaching of Peter and Paul is defended by the testimony of martyrdom, and when persecutions have ceased, by that of holy virginity. Moreover, “the blood of martyrs, is the seed of Christians:” the heroes who in life were the strength of the Bride, give her fecundity by their death; and the family of God’s children continues to increase.

Great indeed was the faith of Abraham, when he hoped against all hope that he would become the father of nations through that same Isaac whom he was commanded to slay: but did Felicitas show less faith, when she recognized in the immolation of her seven children the triumph of life and the highest blessing that could be bestowed on her motherhood? Honor be to her, and to those who resemble her! The worldly-wise may scorn them; but they are like noble rivers transforming the desert into a paradise of God, and fertilizing the soil of the gentile world after the ravages of the first age.

Marcus Aurelius had just ascended the throne, to prove himself during a reign of nineteen year nothing but a second-rate pupil of the sectarian rhetors of the second century, whose narrow views and hatred of Christian simplicity he embraced alike in policy and in philosophy. These men, created by him prefects and proconsuls, raised the most cold-blooded persecution the Church has ever known. The skepticism of this imperial philosopher did not exempt him from the general rule that where dogma is rejected, superstition takes its place; and monarch and people were of one accord in seeking a remedy for public calamities in the rites newly brought from the East, and in the extermination of the Christians. The assertion that the massacres of those days were carried on without the prince’s sanction, not only does not excuse him, it is moreover false; it is now a proven truth that, foremost among the tyrants who destroyed the flower of the human race, stands Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, stained more than Domitian or even Nero with the blood of Martyrs.

The seven sons of St. Felicitas were the first victims offered by the prince to satisfy the philosophy of his courtiers, the superstition of the people, and, be it said, his own convictions, unless we would have him to be the most cowardly of men. It was he himself who ordered the prefect Publius to entice to apostasy this noble family whose piety angered the gods; it was he again who, after hearing the report of the cause, pronounced the sentence, and decreed that it should be executed by several judges in different places, the more publicly to make known the policy of the new reign. The arena opened at the same time in all parts not only of Rome, but of the empire; the personal interference of the sovereign intimated to the hesitating magistrates the line of conduct to pursue if they wished to court the imperial favor. Felicitas soon followed her sons; Justin the philosopher found out by experience what was the sincerity of Cæsar’s love of truth; every class yielded its contingent of victims to the tortures which this would-be wise master of the world deemed necessary for the safety of the empire. At length, that his reign might close as it had begun in blood, a rescript of the so-called mild emperor sanctioned wholesale massacres. Humanity, lowered by the unjust flattery heaped upon this wretched prince even up to our own day, was thus duly rehabilitated by the noble courage of a slave such as Blandina, or of a patrician such as Cæcilia.

Never before had the south wind swept so impetuously through the garden of the Spouse, scattering far and wide the perfume of myrrh and spices. Never before had the Church, like an army set in array, appeared, despite her weakness, to invincible as now, when she was sustaining the prolonged assault of Cæsarism and false science from without, in league with heresy within. Want of space forbids us to enter into the details of a question which is now beginning to be more carefully studied, yet is far from being thoroughly understood. Under cover of the pretended moderation of the Antonines, hell was exerting its most skillful endeavors against Christianity at the very period which opened with the martyrdom of the Seven Brothers. If the Cæsars of the third century attacked the Church with a fury and a refinement of cruelty unknown to Marcus Aurelius, it was but as a wild beast taking a fresh spring upon the prey that had well nigh escaped him.

Such being the case, no wonder that the Church has from the very beginning paid especial honor to these seven heroes, the pioneers of that decisive struggle which was to prove her impregnable to all the powers of hell. Was there ever a more sublime scene in that spectacle which the saints have to present to the world? If there was ever a combat which angels and men could equally applaud, it was surely this of the 10th July 162; when in four different suburbs of the Eternal City, these seven patrician youths, led by their heroic mother, opened the campaign which was to rescue Rome from these upstart Cæsars and restore her to her immortal destinies. After their triumph, four cemeteries shared the honor of gathering into their crypts the sacred remains of the martyrs; and the glorious tombs have in our own day furnished the Christian archæologist with matter for valuable research and learned writings. As far back as we can ascertain from the most authentic monuments, the 6th of the Ides of July was marked on the calendars of the Roman Church as a day of special solemnity, on account of the four stations where the faithful assembled round the tombs of “the Martyrs.” This name, given by excellence to the seven brothers, was preserved to them even in time of peace—an honor by so much the greater as there had been torrents of blood shed under Diocletian. Inscriptions of the fourth century, found even in those cemeteries which never possessed their relics, designate the 11th of July as the “day following the feast of the Martyrs.”

The honors of this day whereon the Church sings the praises of true fraternity, are shared by two valiant sisters. A century had passed over the empire, and the Antonines were no more. Valerian, who at first seemed, like them, desirous of obtaining a character for moderation, soon began to follow them along the path of blood. In order to strike a decisive blow, he issued a decree whereby all the principal ecclesiastics were condemned to death without distinction, and every Christian of rank was bound under the heaviest penalties to abjure his faith. It is to this edict that Rufina and Secunda owed the honor of crossing their palms with those of Sixtus and Lawrence, Cyprian and Hippolytus. They belonged to the noble family of the Turcii Asterii, whose history has been brought to light by modern discovery. According to the prescriptions of Valerian, which condemned Christian women to no more than confiscation and exile, they ought to have escaped death; but to the crime of fidelity to God they added that of holy virginity, and so the roses of martyrdom were twined into their lily-wreaths. Their sacred relics lie in St. John Lateran’s, close to the baptistery of Constantine; and the second Cardinalitial See, that of Porto, couples with this title the name of St. Rufina, thus claiming the protection of the blessed martyrs.

Let us read the short account of their martyrdom given us in today’s Liturgy, beginning with that of the Seven Brothers.

Septem Fratres, filii sanctæ Felicitatis, Romæ in persecutione Marci Aurelii Antonini a Publio præfecto primum blanditiis, deinde terroribus tentati, ut Christo renuntiantes, deos venerarentur: et sua virtute, et matre hortante, in fideo confessione perseverantes, varie necati sunt. Januarius plumbatis cæsus: Felix et Philippus fustibus contusi: Silvanus ex altissimo loco præceps dejectus est: Alexander, Vitalis, et Martialis capite plectuntur. Mater eorum quarto post mense eamdem martyrii palmam consecuta est: illi sexto Idus Julii spiritum Domino rediderunt.

At Rome, in the persecution of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, the prefect Publius tried first by fair speeches and then by threats to compel seven brothers, the sons of St. Felicitas, to renounce Christ and adore the gods. But, owing both to their own valour and to their mother’s words of encouragement, they persevered in their confession of faith, and were all put to death in various ways. Januarius was scourged to death with leaded whips, Felix and Philip were beaten with clubs, Silvanus was thrown headlong from a great height, Alexander, Vitalis, and Martial were beheaded. Their mother also gained the palm of martyrdom four months later. The brothers gave up their souls to our Lord on the 6th of the Ides of July.

Rufina et Secunda, sorores virgines Romanæ, rejecto connubio Armentarii et Verini, quibus a parentibus desponsæ fuerant, quod Jesu Christo virginitatem vovissent, Valeriano et Gallieno imperatoribus comprehenduntur. Quas cum nec promissis, nec terrore Junius præfectus a proposito posset abducere, Rufinam primum virgis cædi jubet: in quibus verberibus Secunda judicem sic interpellat: Quid est, quod sororem meam honore, me afficis ignominia? Jube ambas simul cædi, quæ simul Christum Deum confitemur. Quibus verbis incensus judex imperat utramque detrudi in tenebricosum et fœtidum carcerem. Quo loco statim clarissima luce et suavissimo odore completo, in ardente balnei solio includuntur. Et cum inde etiam integræ evasissent, mox saxo ad collum alligato in Tiberim projectæ sunt; unde ab Angelo liberatæ extra Urbem via Aurelia milliario decimo, capite plectuntur. Quarum corpora a Plautilla matrona in ejus prædio sepulta, ac postea in Urbem translata, in Basilica Constantiniana prope Baptisterium condita sunt.

Rufina and Secunda were sisters and virgins of Rome. Their parents had betrothed them to Armentarius and Verinus, but they refused to marry, saying that they had consecrated their virginity to Jesus Christ. They were, therefore, apprehended during the reign of the Emperors Valerian and Gallienus. When Junius, the prefect, saw he could not shake their resolution either by promises or by threats, he first ordered Rufina to be beaten with rods. While she was being scourged, Secunda thus addressed the judge: “Why do you treat my sister thus honorably, but me dishonorably? Order us both to be scourged, since we both confess Christ to be God.” Enraged by these words, the judge ordered them both to be cast into a dark and fetid dungeon; immediately a bright light and a most sweet odor filled the prison. They were then shut up in a bath, the floor of which was made red-hot; but from this they emerged unhurt. Next they were thrown into the Tiber with stones laid to their necks, but an angel saved them from the water, and they were finally beheaded ten miles out of the city on the Aurelian Way. Their bodies were buried by a matron named Plautilla, on her estate, and were afterwards translated into Rome, where they now repose in the Basilica of Constantine near the baptistery.

“Praise the Lord, ye children, praise the Name of the Lord: who maketh the barren woman to dwell in a house, the joyful mother of children.” Such is the opening chant of this morning’s Mass. But say, O blessed ones! was your admirable mother barren who gave seven martyrs to the earth? Fecundity according to this world counts for nothing before God; this is not the fruitfulness intended by that blessing which fell from the lips of the Lord when in the beginning he made man to his own image. “Increase and multiply” was spoken to a holy one, a son of God, bidding him propagate a divine offspring. As the first creation, so was all future birth to be: man, in communicating his own existence to others, was to transmit to them at the same time the life of their Father in heaven; the natural and the supernatural life wereto be as inseparable as a building and its foundation; nature without grace would be but a frame without a picture. All too soon did sin destroy the harmony of the divine plan; nature violently separated from grace could produce only sons of wrath. Yet God was too rich in mercy to abandon the design of his immense love; and having in the first instance created us to be his children, he would now re-create us as such in his Word made Flesh. Reduced to a shadow of what it would have been, the union of Adam and Eve, unable to give birth straightway to sons of God, was dismantled of that glory which the sublime privileges of the Angels would have paled: nevertheless it was still the figure of the great mystery of Christ and the Church. Sterile according to God and doomed to the death she had brought upon her race, it was only by participation in the merits of the second Eve, that the first could be called the mother of the living. Great honor indeed was still to be hers, but on condition of yielding to the rights of the Bride of the second Adam. Far better than Pharao’s daughter rescuing Moses and confiding him to Jachabed, could the Church say to every mother on receiving her babe from the waters: “Take this child and nurse him for me.” And every Christian mother, anxious to correspond to the Church’s trust in her and proud of being able to realize God’s primitive intentions, might well repeat with regard to this second child-birth, those words uttered by a superhuman love: My little children, of whom I am in labor again, until Christ be formed in you. shame upon her that would forget the sublime destiny of her child to be a son of God! A far less crime would it be, were she, through negligence or by design, to stifle in him by an education exclusively directed to the senses, that intelligence which distinguishes man from the animals subjected to his power. For the attainment of man’s true end, the supernatural life is more necessary than the life of reason; for a mother to make no account of it, and to suffer the divine germ to perish after being planted in the infant’s soul at its new birth from the sacred font, would be to do unto death the frail being that owed its existence to her.

Far otherwise, O martyrs, did your illustrious mother understand her mission! Hence, though her memory is honored on the day when four months after you she quitted this earth, yet this present feast is the chief monument of her glory. She, more than yourselves, is celebrated in the readings and chants of the Holy Sacrifice and in the lessons of the Night Office. And why is this? Because, says St. Gregory, being already the handmaid of Christ by faith, she has today become His mother, according to our Lord’s own word, by giving him a new birth in each of her seven sons. After having made such a complete holocaust of you to your heavenly Father, what will her own martyrdom be, but the long-desired close of her widowhood, the happy hour which will reunite her in glory to you who are doubly her sons? Henceforward, then, on this day which was to her the day of suffering, but not of reward; when after passing seven times over through tortures and death, she had yet to remain in banishment, it is but just that her children should rise and make over to her, as of right, the honors of the triumph. Henceforth, though still an exile, she is clothed with purple, dyed not twice, but seven times; the richest daughters of Eve own that she has surpassed them all in the fruitfulness of martyrdom; her own works praise her in the assembly of the saints. On this day, O sons and mother, and ye two noble sisters who share in their glory, listen to our prayers, protect the Church, and make the whole world heedful of the teaching conveyed by your beautiful example!

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