Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Martyrs of Lyons

Reading N°48 in the History of the Catholic Church

 Fr. Fernand Mourret, S.S.

Divine Providence has permitted the preservation of one of the most exquisite accounts of martyrdom of which the Church can boast. It is recorded in a document of unquestioned authenticity, the letter written in AD 177 by the Churches of Lyons and Vienne to the Churches of Asia and Phrygia.[1] Even Renan, in presence of this memorable document, was unable to restrain his deep feeling. He says:
It is one of the most extraordinary pieces that any literature possesses. Never has a more impressive picture been drawn of the lofty enthusiasm and devotion to which human nature can attain. It is the ideal of martyrdom, with the least possible boasting on the part of the martyrs.[2]
The city of Lyons was at that time the administrative metropolis of the three provinces of the Gauls. The representatives of sixty-four peoples resided there, as in a federal city. The worship of Rome and Augustus, in the charge of a high priest representing the three Gallic provinces, was there conducted with the greatest solemnity. It has been said that, at the very time when in the Eternal City the Roman religion seemed to be retreating before the advance of philosophy, it was establishing a mighty center for itself in the great Gallic city.[3] Furthermore, the stream of commerce which had long since developed between the ports of Asia Minor and the Gallic cities of the Rhone had, by the very force of things, become a field of fruitful apostolate. The Christian communities of Lyons and Vienne were increased by the addition of Syrian and Phrygian elements that brought, along with the Christian traditions of the East, a constant renewal of vitality.

St. Pothinus of Lyons
An aged and venerable bishop governed the Church of Lyons in the middle of the second century: Pothinus. His principal helper, his right hand as it were, was Irenaeus. Both were natives of Asia. Both of them, too, had been disciples of Papias and Polycarp, who in turn were disciples of St. John. The Church of Lyons was nourished with the purest doctrine by an active correspondence with the churches of Asia, and it radiated its light. Archeological monuments indicate, if not a strict filiation, at least some religious dependence between the churches of Autun, Langres, Chalons, Tournus, Dijon, and the Church of Lyons.[4]

The Roman colony had its center at Fourvières; the famous altar where the worship of Rome and Augustus was celebrated was at the confluence of the Rhone and the Saône. The center of the Christian population was probably on the islands of the confluence, near Athanacum, now Ainai.

Between the two religions, Christian and pagan, a clash was inevitable. This appeared the more imminent since a floating population of laborers, clerks, people who were rich and poor, idle and busy by turns, according to the fluctuations of commerce, was ever ready to foment disturbances. In 177, this popular agitation, for some unknown reason, was suddenly turned against the Christians. The Christians were publicly insulted. In the streets, on the country roads, in the public places, they were attacked, stones were thrown at them. It may be that the native Lyonese confused the Christians and their mysterious ceremonies with those gross Gnostics who had been brought to the great city of the Gauls by the commercial activity of Asia. Unhappily, the Roman authorities were unconcerned with repressing these enmities or dispelling these misunderstandings. In the absence of the imperial legate, the tribune and the duumvirs attempted merely to put an end to the agitation by arresting a number of those whom popular report designated as Christians.

Among those whom they imprisoned were the venerable Bishop Pothinus, the priest Zachary, the deacon Sanctus, the neophyte Maturus, Attalus of Pergamus, a young female slave, Blandina, and several other Christians. One of them was placed under arrest at the first sitting of the court. This was Vettius Epagathus, a young man of noble birth and great virtue. Affected by the tortures that were being inflicted upon the accused, he gave vent to his indignation and requested that he should be heard in defense of his brethren, while he ventured to assert that there was nothing at variance with religion or piety among them. But the judge only asked whether he also were a Christian. He confessed and was thereupon transferred to the ranks of the accused.

Amphitéâtre des Trois-Gaules, Lyon, France. The column
standing in the arena is a memorial to the Holy Martyrs
killed for the Faith during the persecution.
Meanwhile, the imperial legate returned to Lyons. The trial continued. At first, the slaves of the accused were brought forward and put to the torture. When urged by the soldiers, says our document, "they falsely accused us of Thyestean feasts and Oedipodean incests, and things which it is not right for us either to speak of or to think of."[5] These abominable lies added to the popular rage. But every effort was made to obtain a confession of these crimes from the accused themselves. In the amphitheater, before an infuriated multitude thirsting for the sight of blood, the Christians were scourged, placed in hot iron chairs, thrown to wild beasts that dragged them around the arena, in short, subjected to every torture that the maddened crowd demanded. The deacon Sanctus, from whom they tried to force a revelation of the secrets of the Church, would say nothing more than, "I am a Christian." Not another word could be extracted from him. The executioners then exercised their fury upon the slave Blandina. She was short and feeble. Her fellow-Christians, especially her mistress (also among the accused), were apprehensive lest she should weaken. But she was heroic. For a whole day, she endured the most atrocious tortures, repeatedly saying: "I am a Christian woman, and nothing wicked happens among us."

The greatest anguish of the accused was not the thought of torture; it was the fear that some of their brethren might prove weak and deny Christ. Ten of them actually did so. But every day, the arrests continued. Loyal Christians filled the places left vacant by the apostates. Our document tells us that those who resisted showed no arrogance or contempt toward these weak brethren. They condemned no one, but merely wept and prayed. They humbled themselves beneath the hand of God, to whom they owed their constancy; if anyone called them martyrs, they would not accept this title, saying that those only are martyrs who have confessed Christ to the very end.

The attitude of Pothinus, the venerable head of the Church of Lyons, was sublime. The legate asked him who was the God of the Christians. The Bishop replied: "If you are worthy, you will know." He was beaten unmercifully; the populace threw at him whatever they could lay hands on. Half-dead, he was thrown into a dungeon, where he expired two days later.

In fine, those who were found to be Roman citizens were sentenced to be beheaded; the others were destined for the beasts.

A fifteen-year-old boy named Ponticus, and the slave Blandina, were kept for the last. It was hoped that, after they had witnessed all the sufferings of their brethren, they would weaken. But both of them showed admirable strength. The most refined torture was inflicted upon the boy. The tender words of Blandina aided him, with the grace of God, to remain constant to the end.

Blandina now alone remained.
After scourging, after the beasts, after the gridiron, she was at last put in a net and thrown to a bull. She was tossed about a long time by the beast, having no more feeling for what happened to her through her hope and hold on what had been entrusted to her and her converse with Christ. And so she, too, was sacrificed, and the heathen themselves confessed that never before among them had a woman suffered so much and so long.[6]

The martyrdom of St. Blandina

Forty-eight martyrs died thus in the metropolis of the Gauls.[7]

The letter of the Churches of Lyons and Vienne, from which we have taken the details of this martyrdom, closes with these words:
Divine grace did not fail the martyrs; the Holy Ghost dwelt in their midst.
The Acts of St. Felicitas, of St. Justin, in fact, nearly all the Acts of this period, close with a triumphant doxology: "Glory to God unto all ages!" Of the two powers that clashed in the great Gallic city as in the capital of the Empire, it was the Christian power that triumphed. More and more, the Empire was visibly nearing its fall.

Marcus Aurelius observed this. The philosopher in him vainly resisted through sheer duty, saying:
Let the god that is in thee be lord of a living creature that is manly and of full age [...] as one who awaits the signal of recall from life in all readiness.[8]
If this meditative prince, transformed into a man of action during part of his reign, could have penetrated the future, he would have spoken with still greater bitterness the words he addressed to the tribune who came to his tent for the last time to ask for instructions:
Go to the rising sun; I am setting.
From all sides, barbarous races were pressing on the Roman frontiers. In their rear, the great nation of the Goths was beginning to move forward. Upon all these races, who were soon to give the death-blow to the Roman colossus, the rising sun of the Gospel was casting its rays. Perchance the philosopher-prince had some foreboding of the future of the world when, in his last hour, with a gesture that was more despairing than stoical, he turned his head from his son Commodus and covered his face so as to see no one, and to die alone.


[1] With the exception of Ernest Havet, whose extraordinary bias is well known, all historians who have written of the early centuries of the Church, both ancient historians and modern - e. g., Tillemont, Renan, Harnack, Aube, Gaston Boissier, Duchesne - regard this letter as undoubtedly genuine.
[2] Renan, Marc-Aurèle, p. 340.
[3] Boissier, Inscriptions antiques de Lyon, p. 407; Bernard, Le Temple d'Auguste et fa nationalité gauloise, p. 30.
[4] Tillemont, Mémoires, III, 35 ff.; cf. Bulliot, Essai historique .sur l'abbaye de Saint-Martin d'Autun, pp. 47-50.
[5] Eusebius, H. E., V, i, 14.
[6] Ibidem, no. 56.
[7] Their names will be found in the Martyrologium Hieronymianum (ed. De Rossi-Duchesne), p. 73, and in Leclercq, Les Martyrs, I, 106 f. About half of the martyrs have Greek names, and about half, Latin. From this fact we may infer a similar numerical proportion among the Christians of Lyons.
[8] Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, III, 5.


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