Summary: We have two challenges: to make faith in Our Lord known and to so act that Americans turn back to Christ and the Church and repent and are healed. And at the foundation of that effort, we must pray, pray, pray.
Feast of St Agnes 2021
Saint Agnes was martyred in the persecution of Diocletian, right about the year of our Lord 303. Now we in the United States tend to think in terms of four to eight years, the length of a presidential administration. But just imagine what life was like in the last half of the third century in the Roman Empire. Emperor Gallienus had stopped persecuting religious minorities in the year 260. There were over a dozen Roman emperors between that time and Diocletian, about a quarter century later, and they left the Church pretty much alone. Sociologist Keith Hopkins estimates that the Christian population grew in the last half of that century from 1 to 6 million. The common people began to think that following Christ was ok, and attractive.
But Diocletian and his co-emperors were intolerant. They believed that the decline of Roman power and culture in the third century was due to disrespect of the old Roman gods, particularly Jupiter and Hercules. So they gradually ramped up discrimination against all other religions, particularly the Catholics, because they were seen to worship a man, Jesus, and so were considered atheists. The emperors began to insist on public worship of the Roman gods, but faithful Christians wanted nothing to do with worshiping what they knew were demons.
The co-emperor Galerius was probably the chief enemy of the Christians, but Diocletian and the others began the purge: “On February 23, 303, Diocletian ordered that the newly built Christian church at Nicomedia be razed, its scriptures burned, and its treasures seized. February 23 was the feast of the Terminalia, for Terminus, the god of boundaries. It was the day they would terminate Christianity. The next day, Diocletian's first ‘Edict against the Christians’ was published. The key targets of this piece of legislation were senior Christian clerics and Christians' property. . .The edict prohibited Christians from assembling for worship, and ordered the destruction of their scriptures, liturgical books, and places of worship across the empire. . .Christians were also deprived of the right to petition the courts, making them potential subjects for judicial torture; Christians could not respond to actions brought against them in court; Christian[s]. . .were deprived of their ranks; and Christian imperial freedmen were re-enslaved.. . . .Following the publication of the second edict, prisons began to fill—the underdeveloped prison system of the time could not handle the deacons, lectors, priests, bishops, and exorcists forced upon it. Eusebius writes that the edict netted so many priests that ordinary criminals were crowded out, and had to be released.”
The ten-year crisis ended for good only with Constantine’s victory and the Edict of Milan. But many, many martyrs’ stories have come down to us from that age. These were the men, women and children who knew that only Jesus “is able for all time to save those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.” Of all the sacrifices made to so-called “gods” in that era, only the sacrifice of the God-man commemorated in the Eucharist was of avail to anyone. Jesus preached and accomplished the “glad news of deliverance” in the one gift of self on the cross.
Saint Agnes of Rome was about thirteen when the edicts of the emperors ware published. Her whole family was Christian, and wealthy; the annals tell us that Agnes had many suitors, but that she was determined to remain a virgin. So the rejected men turned her into the authorities. On her conviction, she was sentenced to a brothel, but divine protection shielded her, and shamed those who would have violated her. Then the persecutors tried to burn her to death, but the flames would not touch her. Finally she died by the sword. Her tomb almost immediately became a destination for pilgrims and those seeking healings.
When I was in high school, American Catholics were riding high. There was a baptized Catholic in the White House, our schools, taught by thousands of consecrated religious and priests, were packed, and the Council was listening to the Holy Spirit’s guidance. Today there is a baptized Catholic in the White House who has essentially vowed to destroy the Church’s opposition to murdering unborn children. He is surrounded by functionaries with missions that are mostly antithetical to the Church’s uncompromising moral doctrines. That means we have two challenges: to make faith in Our Lord known and to so act that Americans turn back to Christ and the Church and repent and are healed. And at the foundation of that effort, we must pray, pray, pray, and especially confess our sins and celebrate Eucharist together in joy and hope. God is good–all the time. All the time–God is good.