July 10, 2018: SEVEN HOLY BROTHERS, AND SS. RUFINA & SECUNDA
July 10, 2018: THE SEVEN HOLY BROTHERS, MARTYRS, AND SS. RUFINA & SECUNDA, VIRGINS & MARTYRS
“My sons look up to heaven, where Jesus Christ with his saints expects you. Be faithful in his love, and fight courageously for your souls.”
(St. Felicitas to her seven sons)
“Our soul, like the sparrow, hath escaped from the hunters’ snare. The snare broke, and we escaped. Our help is in the name
of the Lord, who made both heaven and earth.”
(Ps, cxxiii. 7-8)
Grant, we beseech thee, O Almighty God, that as we have been informed of the constancy of the glorious Martyrs in the profession of thy faith, so we may experience their kindness in recommending us to thy mercy. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, thy Son, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, God, world without end. Amen.
Three times within the next few days will the number seven appear in the holy Liturgy, honouring the Blessed Trinity, and proclaiming the reign of the Holy Spirit with His sevenfold grace. St. Felicitas, St. 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 recognised in the immolation of her seven children the triumph of life and the highest blessing that could be bestowed on her motherhood? Honour 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 years 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 scepticism 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 favour. Felicitas soon followed her sons; Justin the philosopher found out by experience what was the sincerity of Caesar'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, so 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 skilful endeavours 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 honour 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 honour of gathering into their crypts the sacred remains of the martyrs; and the glorious tombs have in our own day furnished the Christian archaeologist 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 honour 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 July as the “day following the feast of the Martyrs.”
The honours 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 honour 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 to-day's Liturgy, beginning with that of the Seven Brothers.
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 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 and Secunda were sisters and Roman virgins. 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 honourably, but me dishonourably? 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 fœtid dungeon; immediately a bright light and a most sweet odour filled the prison. They were then shut up in a bath, the floor of which was made red-hot; but from this also they emerged unhurt. Next they were thrown into the Tiber with stones tied 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.
Another account of the Seven Brothers and St. Felicitas, their mother.
In the Second Century
The illustrious martyrdom of these saints has been justly celebrated by the holy fathers. It happened at Rome under the Emperor Antoninus, that is, according to several ancient copies of the acts, Antoninus Pius. The seven brothers were the sons of St. Felicitas, a noble pious Christian widow in Rome, who brought them up in the most perfect sentiments and practice of heroic virtue. After the death of her husband she served God in a state of continency, and employed herself wholly in prayer, fasting, and works of charity. By the public and edifying example of this lady and her whole family, many idolaters were moved to renounce the worship of their false gods, and to embrace the faith of Christ, which Christians were likewise encouraged, by so illustrious a pattern, openly to profess. This raised the spleen of the heathenish priests, who complained to the Emperor Antoninus that the boldness with which Felicitas publicly practised the Christian religion, drew many from the worship of the immortal gods who were the guardians and protectors of the empire, and that it was a continual insult on them; who, on that account, were extremely offended and angry with the city and whole state. They added, that in order to appease them, it was necessary to compel this lady and her children to sacrifice to them. Antoninus, being himself superstitious, was prevailed upon by this remonstrance to send an order to Publius, the prefect of Rome, to take care that the priests should be satisfied, and the gods appeased in this matter. Publius caused the mother and her sons to be apprehended and brought before him. When this was done he took Felicitas aside, and used the strongest inducements to bring her freely to sacrifice to the gods, that he might not be obliged to proceed with severity against her and her sons; but she returned him this answer: “Do not think to frighten me by threats, or to win me by fair speeches. The Spirit of God within me will not suffer me to be overcome by Satan, and will make me victorious over all your assaults.” Publius said in a great rage, “Unhappy woman, is it possible you should think death so desirable as not to permit even your children to live, but force me to destroy them by the most cruel torments?” “My children,” said she, “will live eternally with Christ if they are faithful to him; but must expect eternal death if they sacrifice to idols.” The next day the prefect, sitting in the square of Mars, before his temple, sent for Felicitas and her sons, and addressing his speech to her, said, “Take pity of your children, Felicitas; they are in the bloom of youth, and may aspire to the greatest honours and preferments.” The holy mother answered, “Your pity is really impiety, and the compassion to which you exhort me would make me the most cruel of mothers.” Then turning herself towards her children, she said to them, “My sons look up to heaven, where Jesus Christ with his saints expects you. Be faithful in his love, and fight courageously for your souls.” Publius being exasperated at this behaviour, commanded her to be cruelly buffeted, saying, “You are insolent indeed, to give them such advice as this in my presence, in contempt of the orders of our princes.”
The judge then called the children to him one after another, and used many artful speeches, mingling promises with threats to induce them to adore the gods. Januarius, the eldest, experienced his assaults the first, but resolutely answered him, “You advise me to do a thing that is very foolish, and contrary to all reason; but I confide in my Lord Jesus Christ, that he will preserve me from such an impiety.” Publius ordered him to be stripped and cruelly scourged, after which he sent him back to prison. Felix, the second brother, was called next, and commanded to sacrifice. But the generous youth replied, “There is one only God. To him we offer the sacrifice of our hearts. We will never forsake the love which we owe to Jesus Christ. Employ all your artifices, exhaust all inventions of cruelty, you will never be able to overcome our faith.” The other brothers made their answers separately, that they feared not a passing death, but everlasting torments; and that having before their eyes the immortal recompenses of the just, they despised the threats of men. Martialis, who spoke last, said, “All who do not confess Christ to be the true God, shall be cast into eternal flames.” The brothers, after being whipped, were remanded to prison, and the prefect, despairing to be able ever to overcome their resolution, laid the whole process before the emperor. Antoninus having read the interrogatory, gave an order that they should be sent to different judges, and be condemned to different deaths. Januarius was scourged to death with whips loaded with plummets of lead. The two next, Felix and Philip, were beaten with clubs till they expired. Sylvanus, the fourth, was thrown head long down a steep precipice. The three youngest, Alexander, Vitalis, and Martialis, were beheaded, and the same sentence was executed upon the mother four months after. St. Felicitas is commemorated in the Roman Martyrology on the 23rd of November; the sons on the 10th of July, on which day their festival is marked in the old Roman Calendar, published by Bucherius.
St. Gregory the Great delivered his third homily on the Gospels, on the festival of St. Felicitas, in the church built over her tomb on the Salarian road. In this discourse he says, that this saint “having seven children was as much afraid of leaving them behind her on earth, as other mothers are of surviving theirs. She was more than a martyr, for seeing her seven dear children martyred before her eyes, she was in some sort a martyr in each of them. She was the eighth in the order of time, but was from the first to the last in pain, and began her martyrdom in the eldest, which she only finished in her own death. She received a crown not only for herself, but likewise for all her children. Seeing them in torments she remained constant, feeling their pains by nature as their mother, but rejoicing for them in her heart by hope.” The same, father takes notice how weak faith is in us: in her it was victorious over flesh and blood; but in us is not able to check the sallies of our passions, or wean our hearts from a wicked and deceitful world. “Let us be covered with shame and confusion,” says he, “that we should fall so far short of the virtue of this martyr, and should suffer our passions still to triumph over faith in our hearts. Often one word spoken against us disturbs our minds; at the least blast of contradiction we are discouraged or provoked; but neither torments nor death were able to shake her courageous soul. We weep without ceasing when God requires of us the children he hath lent us; and she bewailed her children when they did not die for Christ, and rejoiced when she saw them die.” What afflictions do parents daily meet with from the disorders into which their children fall through their own bad example or neglect! Let them, imitate the earnestness of St. Felicitas in forming to perfect virtue the tender souls which God hath committed to their charge, and with this saint they will have the greatest of all comforts in them; and will by his grace count as many saints in their family as they are blessed with children.
Another account of Ss. Rufina & Secunda.
Rufina and Secunda were two virgin sisters in Rome, daughters of Asterius and Aurelia, of honourable family. They were betrothed by their parents to two young patricians, Armentarius and Verinus, who, like the maidens, were Christians. But when the persecution of Valerian and Gallienus broke out, the two young men renounced their faith to secure their lives. When Rufina and Secunda heard this, they refused to accept them as their husbands, and started in a closed carriage for a villa that belonged to them in Tuscany. Armentarius and Verinus at once appealed to the Count Archisilaus, who arrested them on their road, and they were brought back to Rome, and led before the prefect of the city, Junius Donatus. He tried in vain to persuade them to renounce their religion, and marry the young patrician renegades. Their constancy aroused his fury. He ordered Secunda, the youngest, to be scourged before her elder sister, hoping to melt the heart of Rufina, and turn her from her purpose through compassion for the young girl.
But Rufina cried out, when the first strokes were laid upon her tender white shoulders, “Monster! why dost thou glorify my sister and dishonour me?” Then Junius Donatus said, “You are more of a fool than your sister.”
“I am no fool,” answered Rufina, “nor is my sister. But as we are both Christians let us both be beaten.” Finding that nothing he could do would change their purpose, the prefect reluctantly gave orders for their execution on the Via Cornelia, at a place called Buxo. One was decapitated, the other beaten to death. Thus, no doubt, stood the old and genuine account of the martyrdom of these virgins; but it has suffered interpolation; according to which the prefect ordered the damsels to be thrown into the furnace of the public baths, and when the fires died out, and left the maidens unhurt, he had them both attached by the necks to one stone and thrown into the Tiber; but when the water refused to drown them, he ordered them to be taken out upon the Cornelian Road and executed… The relics of these martyrs were discovered by pope Anastasius IV, and are now in the Lateran basilica of Ss. Rufina and Secunda.
Taken from: The Liturgical Year - Time after Pentecost, Vol. IV, Dublin, Edition 1901;
The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Other Principal Saints, Vol. II;
The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Other Principal Saints, Vol. VII; and
The Divine Office for the use of the Laity, Volume II, 1806.
Ye Seven Holy Brothers and Ss. Rufina & Secunda, pray for us.