On the pilgrimage to Rome I led a few years ago, our group visited an ancient basilica dedicated to Saint Stephen, the first martyr of the Church. Commonly known as Santo Stefano Rotondo, this unusual church in the round is decorated with 36 scenes of martyrdom, depicting dozens of macabre scenes typical of the grisly deaths many of the early Christians suffered at the hands of their cruel persecutors. The graphic murals portray martyrs being flayed, boiled, vivisected, roasted, crucified, and buried alive.
The first conflicts between Christians and government authorities began almost immediately after the death of Christ. At first, they were persecuted by Jews. Many of them believed that the Roman occupation of Palestine was the direct result of the people’s unfaithfulness, and Christianity was seen as an heretical sect of Judaism that needed to be stamped out in order to protect the nation. Christians ironically sought refuge under the wing of the Roman authorities.
Soon, however, it was the Roman emperors themselves who began ordering systematic persecutions of the followers of Christ, beginning with Nero and Domitian in the first century, Marcus Aurelius and Septimius Severus in the second century, and Decius and Diocletian in the third. Christians were charged with being “atheists” for worshiping an invisible god, objecting to military service, and dishonoring the Roman pantheon by refusing to attend civic events at which sacrifices were offered to the gods and incense was burned before a statue of the emperor.
Indeed, suffering, persecution, and martyrdom have been consistent themes throughout Christianity. In the second reading today, Christ is glorified for the suffering he endured. In the first reading from the Book of Acts, the apostles rejoiced that they had been found worthy to suffer for the sake of Christ. In the gospel reading, Jesus pulled Peter aside and told him that, one day, he would be led somewhere he would “not want to go.” Forced to “stretch out [his] hands,” Peter also would have the honor of suffering crucifixion for the glory of God (John 21:1-19).
As with Peter, we too give witness to Christ by how nobly we endure persecution and suffering in his name. Far from damaging our faith, the blood of the martyrs and the brave model of perseverance demonstrated by Christians throughout the ages have been its seedbed. The many exemplary deaths of Christians have moved many who witnessed or heard of them to join their ranks and encouraged the rapid spread of the faith around the world. Just as the disciples could not be silenced, even in the face of persecution and danger, we also are encouraged to stand up courageously for the faith in our own times.
Learn how to evangelize and inspire others by continuing the grit our Christian forefathers once demonstrated. Listen live or online to this Sunday’s episode of our Easter message series, To Be Continued: Fearless Evangelization.
—Father Roger Gustafson, Pastor
Father Roger Gustafson