Working as a historian, there is a temptation to feel like an omniscient narrator of lives and events. “If only they had known this fact, they would not have chosen that path, and their lives would have been quite different…” Endless hours of roundtable speculation regarding battles, personalities, who said what and when, all end up being so much Monday morning quarterbacking. The truth is, since we cannot even fathom our own motivations, we cannot transpose onto others what they would have done. We have our ideas about fairness or justice, our underdog in the fight of human social struggle. Why did they die so soon? Just a few days later or a year later, their world changed, and their lives would have been spared.
My parish, St. Raphael of Brooklyn Mission, in Fuquay Varina, NC, recently accepted a generous gift of three saints’ relics. Over the last three weeks, Fr. James has introduced us to each saint individually and we have venerated their relics. We are honored to have St. Joseph the Betrothed, St. Luke the Evangelist, and St. Beatrix of Rome at our parish now. While the other two saints need no initial introduction, St. Beatrix’s story intrigued me. As she would be in our veneration and act as intercessor for our parish, I delved into the background of her life and martyrdom.
The reign of Diocletian, from 286 to 305, was that darkness for the Church before a dawn they could not fathom would arrive. Emperor Diocletian, from a political and military standpoint, was an incredible reformer of the empire. He restructured the provincial governments, reformed the tax code, attained peace with the Persians, and secured the borders of Rome. He was a successful, hard, and shrewd Emperor who pulled together an empire which was threatened on every side. One threat he could not stamp out were the Christians.
The Diocletian persecution, which was begun as a call to purge the “impious”, or those who were not worshipers of the Roman gods, was the most systematic in the the first 300 years of the Church. Edicts went out to the whole of the empire, commanding that any Christian places of worship be razed, wealth & land confiscated, and Scriptures burned. When the imperial palace caught fire, not once, but twice, Christians were blamed for the plot and several were tortured and burned. Further edicts called for clergy to be arrested and called all Roman citizens to make a universal sacrifice to the gods. Those not complying would face torture and death.
Beatrix and her brothers, Simplicius and Faustinus, lived in Rome when these edicts were made in 303. The brothers were the first who were called out as refusing to sacrifice to the gods. They were beaten with clubs, beheaded, and thrown into the Tiber River. Beatrix found their bodies and had them honorably buried. For seven months after her brothers’ death, Beatrix lived with another Christian woman and helped the persecuted in secret. Eventually, her neighbor reported Beatrix to the authorities because he wanted her property. When she appeared before the judge, she stated she would never sacrifice to demons because she was a Christian. Beatrix was strangled in prison and her fellow Christians buried her next to her brothers. Her accuser, though, did not live long. At a feast, he ridiculed the martyrs, and a child called him out on his treachery. The crowd took vengeance on him and threw his body into a pit.
From our vantage point, we can see those persecuted Christians in the Roman empire only had twenty more years before Constantine made their faith universal. For St. Beatrix and her brothers, though, and all their predecessors, that ‘dawn’ was unfathomable. Freedom to build churches? To worship and pray openly? To make iconography, mosaics, and other religious art without fear of destruction? The truth of the faith to be preached to the people? The faith made universal was the sea-change to which all future experiences would be held. Persecution is that darkness which comes and goes – like the waxing and waning of the moon. We will never be fully free in all the lands where Christianity is lived. Yet, we can wait in that darkness, in the prison cell, with those who suffer, knowing the light of Christ will come, either in this world or the world to come.