In the year 300, you could be put to death if you were a Christian. In 400, you could be put to death if you weren’t. During those first three centuries of persecution, heroic women came to hold pride of place in the Christian community.
Seven women – in addition to the Mother of God – are named in the Roman Canon I: Felicity, Perpetua, Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, Cecilia, and Anastasia. It was for their faith that they suffered ghoulish physical torture and martyrdom. In the Eastern part of the Roman Empire, the saints Helena, Macrina, and Olympias put their indelible stamp on the young Church with their natural gifts and position. Accurate records for all these women are minimal, but what they recount is remarkable.
Final Century of Christian Persecution
By the year 200, it was clear that the increasing number of Christians in the Roman Empire had to trouble the emperors and displease the gods. Christian persecution intensified.
Reign of Septimus Severus (193-211)
Sts. Perpetua and Felicity and Catechists
The noblewoman Perpetua was twenty-two years of age, and Felicity was her slave. Both were catechumens; their companions, catechists. When all four were arrested, Felicity was pregnant. The entire group was condemned to be devoured by wild beasts, but while under arrest, they were baptized.
Perpetua’s father begged her to apostatize. Because it was illegal to execute a pregnant woman, the execution was delayed. When at last Felicity delivered her child, they were all flogged, led into the amphitheater, and, on March 7, 202, were beheaded in the arena at Carthage.
The Passio Perpetuae et Felicitatis is one of the most ancient reliable histories of the martyrs and recounts the martyrdom of all and was frequently quoted by St. Augustine of Hippo. Part of the Passio was written by Perpetua for an account of her vision in prisons. It is also an important record about early Christian martyrdom. These martyrs were venerated in Carthage, and a basilica was erected over their tomb. A sixth-century mosaic of Felicity and Perpetua hangs in the archbishop’s chapel in Ravenna. Their feast day is celebrated on March 6 (E. Hoade, “Perpetua,” New Catholic Encyclopedia 11:143). The name Felicity means happiness, and Perpetua, perpetual or forever.
St. Agatha (d. ca 251)
Agatha was born in Sicily. To induce her to repudiate her faith, she was sent to a brothel where her breasts were cut off. Not surprisingly, the cult of St. Agatha quickly spread. A thirteenth-century mosaic stands in the Palazzo Reale at Palermo (P. Roche, “St. Agatha,” NCE 1:196-7). Since the fourteenth century, Agatha has been depicted with her severed breasts on a plate. Her name in Greek means "good."
St. Cecilia (Second or Third Century)
Cecilia was a young Christian noblewoman betrothed to the Valerian, also of noble birth. She converted him and his brother, and all three were executed for their faith. Cecilia however was ordered to be suffocated in a hot bath but escaped unharmed. Then she underwent additional torture and eventually died from her wounds. Cecilia is usually depicted with a small organ or viola. The Church celebrates her feast on Nov. 22.
Reign of Diocletian (285-305)
In 286, Diocletian divided the Roman Empire into East and West. He ruled the West; Constantius with Galerius, his co-emperor. Though persecution of the Christians coming to an end, there were many still to execute, the most vulnerable being young Christian women known for their physical beauty.
St. Agnes (d. Third Century)
Agnes is one of the most revered saints in the Roman calendar. Such was her beauty, that she was sent to a house of prostitution for refusing to compromise herself and her faith. Some records recount that she was beheaded while others report that she was burned to death or strangled. On Jan. 21, at the age of thirteen, she was martyred.
An Ambrosian hymn, Agnes beatae virginis was composed in her honor. From the sixth century, Agnes is portrayed as a young girl wearing a martyr’s crown and holding a lamb in her arms. Her grave is located in Rome at the Church of St. Agnes. (M.J. Finegan, “St. Agnes,” NCE 1: 204-5). Her name in Latin means “lamb.”
Each year on Jan. 21, Agnes’ feast day, the Holy Father blesses two lambs whose wool will later be used in weaving pallia. The pallium, a circular piece of white wool and marked with six dark purple crosses, is worn front and back around the neck of the pope and some archbishops. It symbolizes the Good Shepherd who carried the lost sheep on his shoulders.
St. Anastasia (d. ca 304)
Anastasia is revered in both Western (Latin) and Eastern Churches. After harsh punishment from her husband Publius for refusing to reject her faith, she was imprisoned and was bound hand and foot to pillars with a fire lit round about her. She died on island of Palmaria (Sirmium) where the Church of St. Anastasia was erected in her honor by Pope Damasus. Her body was transferred to a church in Constantinople. Anastasia gets a second mentioning in the second Mass of Christmas (E.G. Ryan, “Anastasia,” 477-8). Her name means resurrection. Her feast day is celebrated on Dec. 22.
St. Lucy (d. ca 304)
As a young woman, Lucy committed herself to a life of virginity. Like the women mentioned above, her beauty was known far and wide, but she consecrated herself to Jesus Christ. As a clue to the reason for her martyrdom, she is depicted in art holding a plate with two eyes on it. There are various apocryphal explanations regarding the manner in which her eyes were gouged out when she refused to succumb to a suitor. Though her eyesight was miraculously restored, she was tortured in other ways (E.G. Ryan, “St. Lucy,” NCE 8:1062). Her name, from the Latin, lux/lucis, means light. Patroness of the blind, Lucy died in Syracuse, Sicily. Her feast day on Dec. 13 is celebrated among Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Anglican and Lutheran Christians.
Fourth and Fifth Centuries
St. Helena, Mother of Constantine I (d. 330)
By 307, Constantine, son of Constantius, ruled the entire empire. With his accession to the throne, Christian persecution came to an end. He was sure that victory in battle lay in the gift of the God of Christians. The banner on which was inscribed: “In this sign, you will conquer” at the battle of the Milvian Bridge had brought him victory. Christ was the Son-God, expressed in the symbol of the Chi-Rho.
The Edict of Milan (313) put Christianity on an equal footing with other religions of the Empire. By 325, Christianity became its predominant religion. Constantine moved the capital to a city on the Bosphorus Sea which he named Constantinople.
Helena, Constantine’s mother, made several pilgrimages to the Holy Land and supervised his church-building projects: the Church of the Holy Cross (Rome), the Churches of the Nativity and that of Eleona on Mt. Olives (Holy Land), and the Church of the Apostles (Constantinople). The story of the finding of the Holy Cross is dependent on the account of St. Eusebius in his Vita Constantini. Helena died in 330 and her feast day is celebrated on Aug. 18 (J.H. Geiger, “Helena,” NCE 6: 1000).
St. Macrina the Younger (d. 380)
Macrina the Younger, a deaconess of the Church of Ibora, might today be considered the woman who had everything – beauty, wealth, education, holiness – and then threw it all away. In his biography of his sister, Gregory of Nyssa describes the existence of a double religious community, one for women and one for men. The monasteries were located on opposite sides of the Iris River.
Macrina’s monastery is cited as the beginning of an organized institution of orphanages for homeless children, the first of its type mentioned in history. Macrina’s brother Peter of Sabaste took in homeless boys under his guidance. The two orphanages were the first schools for youth. She used her inherited funds from the family endowment to support these projects. In an oblique compliment, her brother, Gregory is uncertain as to whether Macrina “should be styled woman, for I do not know whether it is fitting to designate her by her sex, who so surpassed her sex” (The Life of St. Macrina, 14). Macrina is credited as the co-founder of the Order of St. Basil the Great, named after her brother. Their sainted family had such members as Macrina the Elder, Emmelia their mother, Peter of Sabaste, Gregory of Nyssa, Basil, and the young Macrina.
St. Olympias (d. 408)
Because of her exemplary life, Olympias was made a deaconess by Nectarius, bishop of Constantinople toward the end of the fourth century. Considered “the glory of the widows in the Eastern Church” by St. Gregory Nazianzen, Olympias was one of his followers (Butler’s Lives of the Saints). When, in 398, St. John Chrysostom succeeded Nectarius as Patriarch, he Chrysostom became her spiritual director. With his advice, she founded a convent and had it built adjoining his cathedral. A woman of material means, Olympias distributed her vast fortune to the needy.
She brought with her about fifty of her housemaids, her relative Elisanthia, and her sisters Martyria and Palladia. These three were also ordained deaconesses. When Chrysostom was illegally deposed, she rallied to his defense, an action which eventually led to her own exile. During this time, he comforted and consoled her in several letters written between 404 and 407. Named, after Mount Olympus, home of the gods, she was a seat of strength to those who knew her.
The Power of One
Ten remarkable women – plus two unnamed catechists – each faced the fundamental choice. Their relationship with the Lord was so great that they gladly went to their death rather than betray him.
It was not simply an attraction to an ethical or lofty idea in a world of supermarket cults. No, their heroic virtue sprang from an encounter with the person of Jesus who gave decisive direction to their lives. Overtaken by this love, they shared it with others – as our retiring pontiff, Benedict XVI has done. All of which brings us to a special Lenten spring.