In the year 303, Roman Emperor Diocletian, determined to extinguish Christianity completely, issued four edicts of persecution, each one more vicious than its predecessor. The first edict, published February 22, 303, ordered the demolition of all the Christian churches that had risen in a more peaceful period. It also commanded Christians to hand over their bibles and other sacred books to be burned in public.
Throughout the Empire, Christians now had to stand helpless as their churches, small and large, were demolished. But the government’s command to hand over the holy scriptures posed an even more difficult problem. Since the imperial order was enacted and enforced so quickly, a number of Christians hastened in fright to deliver the sacred books. Even Fundanus, bishop of Abitina in Proconsular Africa, weakly did as commanded. In Christian eyes, handing over the sacred books by a cleric was condemned as a type of apostasy.
The “treason” of Fundanus, the weakling, was fortunately offset by the heroic martyrdom of 49 Christians of Abitina shortly afterward.
One Sunday, Roman magistrates and troops swarmed into a Christian gathering place in Abitina at Mass-time, and arrested the 49 people in attendance. These included a Christian priest named Saturninus, and his four children (celibacy was not yet the rule): Hilarion, a little boy; Mary, who had consecrated herself to God; and Saturninus Junior and Felix, who were church lectors. Others of the congregation known by name were Dativus and a second Felix, both prominent Roman senators; Emeritus, Ampelius, Rogatian and Victoria. When questioned about their faith, they all proclaimed Christianity so boldly that the judges themselves praised their courage.
The captives were paraded from Abitina to Carthage, some 50 miles distant. During the journey they sang hymns and praised God in prayer.
The presiding magistrate at Carthage, a proconsul, first queried Senator Dativus. Despite his governmental rank, the Senator answered that he was a Christian and worshiped with Christians. He was forthwith sent to be tortured. When Thelica was asked who was their “ringleader”, she said, “The holy priest Saturninus and all of us with him.” Emeritus frankly declared that the Sunday “collects” (liturgy) had been taking place in his home, and when questioned where was the congregation’s collection of holy scriptures, he said only that they were hidden in his heart.
Although tortured, each and every captive remained constant in the profession of faith. Among them, the young woman Victoria was especially brave. Converted from paganism in her youth, she had vowed herself to God. Her pagan parents had forced her to be married to a young nobleman. But to escape from him, she had leaped from the window on their wedding day and sought the sanctuary in the Christian church, consecrating herself to God. Despite the proconsul’s efforts to cajole her, she insisted, “I am a Christian.” And when her pagan brother tried to defend her by saying that she had been forced into Christianity, she insisted that Christianity was her own free choice. “Wouldn’t you like to return with your own brother?” the magistrate asked her. She answered that she could not acknowledge as brother anybody who did not keep God’s law.
St. Saturninus and his children made strong professions of faith. Even young Hilarion insisted that he had attended Christian worship because he wanted to. When the proconsul threatened to punish him, he laughed. “I will cut off your nose and ears,” the judge said, still more menacingly. “You may do it,” Hilarion answered, “but anyhow I am a Christian.”
Finally, the proconsul sent them all back to prison. Hilarion and the rest exclaimed, “Thanks be to God!” They had passed the test of giving witness. The manner of their deaths varied: torture, long imprisonment, or just brutal cruelties. But they died happy, proud to have offered their lives to protect the Word of the Lord.
–Father Robert F. McNamara