(Martyred A.D. 304)
The pagan Roman emperors normally sought to punish Christians because they refused to take part in offering sacrifice to the “strange gods” or at least eating of the food so offered. Diocletian, last of these persecuting Roman rulers, went farther. He decreed that even the possession of New Testament texts or other Christian literature was treasonable, and therefore punishable by death.
Agape, Chionia and Irene were young Thessalonian women of prominence. They were converts to the Faith, and good ones, though their father still remained firmly pagan.
When the imperial decree was issued in 303, forbidding possession and use of the scriptures, the three sisters fled to the mountains. They preferred exile to being apprehended. (Even though one should be ready for martyrdom, one should not invite it!) In the mountains, apparently in the company of others, they spent their time in prayer. Although they had abandoned willingly their own possessions, and were without funds, God took care of them. In 304, however, this trio and others were discovered, arrested, and brought back to trial. Since portions of the court interrogation have been preserved, we have an opportunity of observing their conduct before the magistrate, Prefect Dulcitius.
The sisters and the others with them stood their ground with heavenly courage. When Dulcitius asked them if they had Christian writings, they said no–the emperor had already taken them away. Each “criminal” of the group having declared his or her determination not to participate in idolatrous sacrifice, Dulcitius proclaimed his judgment. Several of them he remanded to prison or released for some discretionary reason, but he condemned Agape and Chionia to being burned alive then and there.
Among those sent back to prison was Irene, probably because of her youth. On the day after her sisters’ deaths, however, Dulcitius called her once more before his tribunal. He asked her again if she would offer the commanded sacrifice. Should she do so, he said, she would be released. But she declared that she would never risk eternity by offending the Creator by such an act.
Dulcitius then brought up the question of retaining the sacred scriptures. He had discovered that she and her sisters had hidden two documents ordered destroyed. Who had advised her to protect these sacred books? “It was Almighty God who had advised us,” she replied. “He who bade us love him unto death. We did not dare to be traitors (handers-over of the books), but we chose to be burned alive or suffer anything else that might happen to us rather than betray the writings.” They had hidden the books, and were afraid to bring them out even to read them themselves, as had been their daily custom up to that point.
The prefect therefore announced that for this concealment Irene deserved a graver punishment than her sisters. He first sentenced her to be sent to a public house of prostitution with only one loaf of bread for food. Fortunately, while she was in that awful prison of sin, no man dared approach Irene or even address her with insulting speech. Hence Dulcitius at length called her back before him. “Do you still persist in the same folly,” he said. “It is not folly,” Irene said, “but piety.”
He therefore condemned her, too, to be burned to death. Thus the brave teen-ager died rather than commit treason to God either by sacrificing to other gods or by surrendering for destruction the revealed books of the New Testament.
As Jesus himself reminded the devil, “not on bread alone is man to live but on every utterance that comes from the mouth of God.”
–Father Robert F. McNamara