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The Martyrdom of Paul
The justice of Rome under Nero was not more speedy than it had been under Felix at Caesarea; and the distance from the center (Jerusalem) from whence the accusations had started, did not favor its progress. Bureaucracy was slow; and the Emperor used no more energy in doing the little he had to do as supreme judge than was obligatory. Two years were thus employed in discussing Paul's cause.
It is not known if the accusers from Jerusalem ever presented themselves at Caesar's tribunal or not. In Jerusalem political passions had become stronger, the clash between factions harder, and the tyranny of the governors more provoking. It seems probable, then, that the Sanhedrin sent no representatives directly from Jerusalem, but perhaps some from the Roman Synagogues were appointed to appear. The report from Festus had been favorable to Paul and, according to Roman Law, the dogmatic differences within the Hebrew religion (the tolerated religion of a conquered people) were not considered material for the penal law. Therefore the innocence of Paul had been recognized by sentences of the tribunal, and he was set free at the beginning of the year 63.
The Roman Community, through the influence of the brethren installed in the imperial palace, had promoted the steady course of the lawsuit and its decision. They now rejoiced, for during the two years (especially on account of Peter's absence), Paul had been the prop in the work of evangelization and of Christian life in the city. When Paul wanted to leave for Spain, they provided him with the means and men to accompany him. Luke, alas, does not inform us, or at least we do not have his notes on this voyage in which, according to his custom, Paul would have referred to the Synagogues and Hellenistic colonies.
His Roman companions introduced him to the Latin groups with whom it is most likely Paul spoke Latin. He was a Roman citizen; and all persons of culture knew both the Greek and Roman languages since they were in continual intercourse with Greeks and Latins. Paul had, no doubt, while in Rome perfected his Latin. He belonged to a race that easily acquired a knowledge of several languages, something necessary for traffic in an Empire which was officially versatile in the practice of many dialects.
Clement of Rome, later Bishop of Rome about the year 90, speaks of Peter and Paul in his letters to the Corinthians as "the good Apostles." He refers to them as persons well known in the Roman Community, and hints at Paul's voyage to the extreme west. The term "west" commonly meant Spain, although it could also mean Britain. If he had the means to do so, most assuredly the Apostle would never miss the opportunity of announcing Christ to the most remote confines of the Empire. "He taught justice to the whole world," wrote St. Clement, who knew it from personal knowledge. That had been the constant ambition of Paul.
From the west he returned to Rome; recalled there perhaps by the calamities which befell the great Church, of which he knew himself to be a co-founder with Peter. In July of the year 64, a conflagration starting near the Circus Maximus, which was packed with small shops and stores at the foot of the Palatine hill, spread rapidly, aided by the wind, and devoured ten of the fourteen regions of Rome. Tacitus says that it is not known whether the fire was started by accident, or was one of the crimes of Nero. Enormous crowds of people without homes, shelter, or goods, gathered under the Palatine palace, and with cries and tears poured imprecations on Nero, calling him an incendiary and a matricide. This was the beginning of a revolt.
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The frightened Emperor, accepting the suggestion given him by some Jews, or perhaps yielding to some scheme of Poppea his wife, threw the blame on the Christians, now well known and hated by the common people who were ready to impute to them a series of other crimes. The advice worked successfully. A large number of Christians were arrested and condemned to death; not so much for the crime of having started the fire as for the accusation of hating mankind. Since they detested the idols, and kept apart from the pagans, they appeared to be a sect given to inhuman and anti-Roman hatred.
To distract the attention of the homeless people and to satisfy his fondness for glamorous performances, Nero made use of their death for a theatrical display in his own gardens opened to the public, now, the Vatican hill. Christian men and women were covered with the skins of wild animals, nailed to crosses, and used as burning torches along the avenues, while the imperial assassin in golden attire mingled with the crowds celebrating the games of the Circus. The butchery, which continued by day and by night, took place chiefly in the Circus Maximus. This was an enormous oval enclosed by the imperial gardens, at one end of which rose an obelisk, now standing in the square of St. Peter-----a mute witness to the bloody triumph of the Christian Martyrs and of the peaceful glory of their successors.
In Rome, therefore, took place the second great contact of Christianity with the polytheistic state. The first had been in Jerusalem with Jesus Christ Himself. Paul, as well as Peter, if he were absent, must have hurried to Rome to comfort the afflicted Community.
The attention of the people was temporarily diverted by the bloodshed and by the games in the Circus, so that the persecution seemed to be a formal condemnation of the Christian religion which had worked so much havoc in Rome and had even spread to the provinces.
From Rome, Paul started travelling again to visit his Hellenic Churches. This last circuit was like a race. It was an urgent matter that he avoid the old enemies and adversaries and return quickly, for the time was short. He followed a bloody trail.
He visited Ephesus again, and perhaps saw the Christians of Colossae and Laodicea. In the city of Aphrodite from which he had previously fled under the idolatrous uprising, he left his most trusted disciple, the one who most resembled him, the beloved Timothy. Then reascending the coast to Troas, where he was the guest of Carpus, he took ship for Macedonia. There he embraced those cherished brethren of Philippi and afterwards those of Thessalonica. From Macedonia he wrote a letter of encouragement and counsel to Timothy who, on account of his youth and naturally timorous temperament and the simplicity of his faith, felt the burden of the Community he had to shepherd.
Now that persecution made faith a great risk, many of the learned were inclined to dissolve the Gospel into ambiguous formulas and high-sounding speech; it was the old snare for compromise. After his rapid inspection of the Churches in Macedonia, Paul passed into Achaia, and the Corinthians had the joy of contemplating once more that countenance, now lined with deep wrinkles and crowned with the white hair of an old father. He had hardly arrived when he had to leave again.
It is probable that from Corinth, he took ship for Crete with Titus for a companion. It was in this island he had stopped five or six years before in his chains on his voyage to Rome. Here he had sowed the good seed of the Gospel and had organized a Christian Community. . . . Paul left with them his "son in Christ"-----Titus, his companion and confidant, especially in the missions of this third itinerary. . . .
During the years that followed Paul's first imprisonment in Rome and while he was engaged in his Apostolic journeys, he had not neglected to dictate various letters when occasion offered. We mention one addressed to Timothy and another written to Titus. In his great letters to the different Churches and Christian Communities, he had fought with prophetic vigor against the intrusion of the Mosaic observances as a necessary condition for salvation within Christianity. He had spoken clearly; and his condemnation was aimed at the material and carnal aspects of practices which, by means of ablutions, discriminations in food, and physical macerations, pretended to supplant a faith in Christ which already included suffering the ills and afflictions of life. For such faith, there is no substitute in seeking salvation, because salvation is solely a gift from God in relation to man's acts.
Some weak or ill-conditioned minds saw, even in those early days, a condemnation of the old moral Mosaic laws, which released them from the necessity of good works; as if faith in one's heart were enough, and the body could be given over to sin. Against such abuse and laxity, the other Apostles had already spoken; St. James the Less, "brother of Jesus," in his stirring letter to the Christian Jews, had reminded them that the message of the Gospel was to be practiced, they were not to be "hearers of the word, but doers of the word"; that "the law of perfect liberty" must be studied in its profound essence by the Christian. . . . Persecution was imminent; there were hundreds of indications of it. The conflagration at Rome had set fire to a heap of prejudices already amassed in the course of years. . . . At the end of his career, when writing to those same Churches, Peter had denounced the false teachers who had given themselves up to a sinful life, and called them "fountains without water, clouds driven by the wind," and like dogs returned to their vomit. He had referred to the letters of his "most dear brother Paul" and went on to say that there were some things difficult to understand, that the ignorant and the unstable would misinterpret, as they did with the rest of the Scriptures, but to their own destruction.
So also the Apostle Jude, brother of St. James the Less, in the year 64 had written a concise and vehement letter against the false Apostles who intruded on the ranks of the faithful, perverting the life of grace into a worldly life of luxury and giving out abnormal and twisted theories on the cult of the Angels. They praised "someone," probably Paul, for his "self-interested aims," in order to draw from his letters a sterile doctrine and an unworthy practice. This generated divisions, insulted the hierarchy, and blasphemed the majesty of the Lord.
All this fermentation of sensuality and false knowledge prevailed in Asia Minor, a restless land influenced by Hellenism because it was in constant contact with Athens and Alexandria. Paul shared the anxiety of James and Peter and of Jude; (later John would also react to this unrest by his burning and scathing words in the Apocalypse). With the other Apostles then, Paul fought the errors and abuses produced by a superficial and artificial exegesis of his own doctrines. Foreseeing that from this there would arise the greatest schism in the Community of Christ, he explained in a series of letters the duties of Christian life and practice, together with the theology he had
preached. Such letters are the one to the Hebrews, both of those to Timothy, and the one to Titus. . . .
Paul loved his own people with the human love of blood relationship; he loved them because of the Divine love God had shown them in the special privileges He had granted the Hebrew race. From them had sprung the Prophets and the Apostles who were the foundation of the Christian Church, of whose blood the Man-God Christ had been born, Redeemer of both Jews and pagans: Jews first, and after them the pagans.
The most fanatical among the Jews had repaid this love of the Pharisee of Tarsus by tenacious hatred and murderous pursuit. All this had never sufficed to reduce the ardor of this son of Israel nor the duty of the Apostle who, in order to convert them to Christ, would have made himself anathema to all. During these last months in Rome, foreseeing the end, he disposed of his few belongings and wrote his last letters as a testament. He remembered again the Christians from Judaism, and with them, all the Jews. He left to them the doctrine of the wonderful unfolding of the Old Testament into the New Testament . . . which was a last blow to Mosaism. . . .
The persecution of heresy and of blood was raging. Paul took those beaten and defeated Christians who were beginning to waver in their faith and good works and to keep themselves aloof from the meetings in the Churches and, with a daring gesture, he transferred them to a higher plane. . . . he comforted them for the misfortunes that had befallen their Communities; and this thought from him, the Apostle to the Gentiles, spoke of his great heart that could hold within itself the entire universal Church. Perhaps some of the other Apostles to the Israelites were dead, or else far away. The success of the fanatic Nationalists constituted an increasing menace for the followers of Christ; so much so that in the year 66 they had to flee from Jerusalem to Pella. The little Christian Community there, converted from Judaism, was being severely tried by the persecutions of their co-nationalists and by the pagans. They had paid for their fidelity to Jesus Christ by the confiscation of their property, insults and prison.
If some of them, through fear, had returned to Judaism, the greater number had preferred the Gospel's riches to stolen goods, and accepted peace of conscience in exchange for the wounds caused by calumny. So they upheld one another by a supernatural solidarity and unity. Paul was right in encouraging them to reconstruct in their minds the ideal and realization of the fact that they were redeemed men and the consciousness of being in the right relationship with the prophets of old.
First of all, he dealt a blow to the current worship of the Angels, reducing it to the just place where it belonged. The Angels are a part of God's creation through Christ, Who, therefore, is infinitely superior to them, as He is superior to Moses because Moses was also created by Him, and chosen by Him as His Own minister. The Angels were the heralds of the Old Testament as the prophets were, and the Lord Himself is the herald of the New Testament.
This makes the New Covenant between God and His creatures far superior because it is a great Reality; whereas the Old Covenant was only by promise a preparation for the New Covenant. It was well to remind the neophytes of this who, under the pressure of the Roman and Jewish persecutions, could be tempted to return to the former religion of their forefathers. . . . The Jews possessed the Scriptures and understood them, so the Apostle quotes numerous passages to prove the supereminence of Christ. . . . In spontaneously offering His Blood in expiation for the sins of men, Christ acted as the Great High Priest. He is a Pontiff Who shares our temptations and our infirmities, sin excepted. Consequently, He is a High Priest Who can have compassion on us, and when He ascended into Heaven, He took compassion with Him to the very throne of God. A Priest is one whom God chooses from among men to minister to other men in the things of religion; to offer gifts and expiatory sacrifices and through whom God exercises pity and compassion and mercy towards those who err.
Christ received this priestly dignity and power from God; and on account of the perfect obedience with which He received it, He was made the Eternal High Priest forever, according to the order of Melchisedech. In the order of priesthood, like that of Melchisedech, the office is not a carnal nor exclusive one, as it was in the priesthood of Aaron (fallen with all the Levitical order on account of its weakness and uselessness), but is spiritual and eternal.
Abraham, who represents the laity, is towards the Law what the spiritual priesthood of Melchisedech is towards the Levitical order. Abraham was blessed by Melchisedech. Abraham represents the Christian people, as Melchisdech represents Christ, the Eternal Pontiff, Who gives a justice which the Mosaic Law could not give.
The priesthood of the Levites only lasted as long as they lived; that of Jesus will last forever. Only He can save eternally, ever living to make intercession for us. His sacrifice is not that of immolated animals, or of food, or of drink offered every morning for the sins of the Levites first and then for the people afterwards. He had no sin; and it was enough that He should offer Himself but once, thereby forming a second covenant, which was necessary since the first one was imperfect.
The priesthood of Christ, which is unending, does away with the old rites that are now useless and powerless. . . . The New Covenant is initiated, of which Jesus Christ is the Immortal Mediator with God for the salvation of all men.
The Jewish High Priest who offered only bread and wine to God was an anticipation, a shadow of Christ's Priesthood, which is not concerned with earthly goods, but with eternal ones. It is exercised, not in a temple made with hands, but in an Eternal See in Heaven, where Jesus has entered, having immolated His Own Body, and where He remains. The Jewish High Priest went into the Holy of Holies one day a year to intercede for his people, Jesus is eternally in the Presence of God to intercede for us. The blood of goats and bulls cleansed the flesh; the Immaculate Blood of Christ cleanses consciences. In the Old Covenant, men acted for other men who were like themselves, corruptible and sinners, and therefore this order could not last. In the New Covenant, because it is new, it makes the other old. A Holy Priest acts for men, with a definite and absolute ministry.
A testament has value only on the death of the testator; the New Covenant between God and men drew its value from the death of Jesus. As the Old was inaugurated with blood (the blood of goats), so the New was sealed with Blood, the Blood of the God-Man. "For without the shedding of Blood, there is no remission of sins." It is the offering of that Blood, made once and forever, which sanctifies us and opens the way into the Eternal Sanctuary of Heaven.
If He has sanctified us, His people, in His Blood, we should, on our part, be willing to shed our blood for Him; not being ashamed of His Blood (and of the Church) but willingly and gladly "bear reproaches." He who profanes this Blood, in which he has been sanctified, offends the Holy Spirit and dissipates Grace. He, who once knew the truth (and this is a terrible thing to contemplate), will fall into the hands of the living God, Who will condemn him to the eternal fires of Hell. We must resist evil. The trial is short but hard; and the judgment is near. Faith is indispensable. Without faith we cannot please God. . . . Paul reminds them of the sacrifices they have already made so courageously when, on account of their being Baptized, . . . they have to suffer reproaches, prison, spoliations. How heroically they have borne all these, he says, because of faith and hope in better things to come. "Resist" is the watchword. At the same time they are to oppose the flood of evil with good deeds; to oppose war with peace, fornication with chastity, the politics of the state with faith in the immovable Kingdom of God. They are to exchange the unstable city here below for the future city above which is Heaven. "Therefore, since we receive a kingdom that cannot be shaken, we have grace, through which we may offer pleasing service to God with fear and reverence. For our God is a consuming fire." 9 The children of Israel had experienced this. Faith is a fire that shall consume the enemies of God, but the just who reverence and fear Him have no cause to fear men. Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday and today, yes, and forever. Paul recommends unity and solidarity, assisting one's neighbor and strangers, prisoners, and the suffering, to be always in reverent submission to the hierarchy of the Church, our guide. He tells them to pray for the Apostle who is faraway, but who has a desire to return and see them again and to share all the tribulations of his brethren in the land of their fathers.
. . . The Apostolate was now taking on a new form. Spreading the Word would follow the shedding of blood, as it did with Christ; and Paul knew well that his sufferings were a collaboration with the Gospel and an immense service to the brethren. There is no other way. He who wants to live religiously in Christ must suffer persecution, and the prisoner repeats this as a well-known truth vitally related to the Gospel.
If the Churches were emptied by the police and by the executioners; if the bishops and priests and deacons were bound in chains, there would yet be salvation, since the Word of God, like a two-edged sword, penetrates as far as the joining of the soul with the body and cannot be chained. In its opinion, the formidable mechanism of the Roman state became impotent. Christ would be faithful to him who was faithful to Christ.
The follower of Christ, above all the one who had the duty of directing others, as Timothy had, must hold the Word of God tenaciously and preach it insistently, in time and out of time, reprehending, admonishing, supplicating, exhorting with patience the truth of doctrine. The essential matter was to hold and maintain the deposit of doctrine, and thereby to merit God's grace. Timothy, young and impetuous like all Asiatics, had been disputing warmly with the innovators, but Paul counseled him not to do so, for it was useless as far as truth was concerned and harmful to peace. Paul told him to ignore them; to resist the enemies from outside, recalling the truth to their minds. This had been Paul's way in the Apostolate and it had borne much good fruit. Timothy must learn to dwell on the Scriptures by long meditations and prayer and to remember that fidelity to Christ always provoked persecution.
Paul's great concern was to leave a worthy disciple to carryon the work, one well prepared and one who would follow his own example in the Apostolic life. The Church would soon pass into other hands, and the deposit of truth would be entrusted to others also. As for himself, he had no hope of liberation; Paul knew no one would be spared who professed Christianity. He was offering himself in death as a sacrifice to God. He felt that now the end of his life's drama was at hand, and he kept his serenity of soul. He had given proof of his strength before, and he could say in summarizing all the events of his life, "I have fought the good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith." It seemed as if he bad chiselled this epitaph for himself.
Nevertheless he still hoped to see Timothy once more, and to give him by word of mouth many recommendations, as one who would be his heir. The procedure of the Roman law was slow. Paul wished that Timothy would make haste and come, bringing Mark with him and the cloak he had left in the home of Carpus at Troas. He needed the cloak as it was often cold in the damp prison, and he also asked that the sacred books be brought him, especially those written on parchment. He could enjoy these in his hours of solitude; to repeat the prophecies and feel again the joy he always experienced in seeing them realized in Christ-----the joy ever old and ever new in realizing that Christ had chosen him as His minister.
Paul, being of an active temperament, suffered in solitude. . . .
The second process of the Roman law was also long. This is not surprising, even following after the promulgation of Nero's laws which condemned all Christians without any examination at all. Paul was a Roman citizen, therefore he must be treated according to the most meticulous procedure. He was also a Jew; consequently he was to be dealt with according to the Roman regulations concerning the Jewish laws. In the minds of the magistrates, the distinction between Hebraism and Christianity was not very clear. Paul, who exalted Christ as the Flower and Fruit of Hebraism, did not help them any in clarifying their ideas.
His compact and logical dialectics embarrassed them. His personal prestige weakened their will to persecute him, while his friends in the imperial palace put continual obstacles in the way of Nero's justice. Besides, there was the hope of obtaining information regarding the ramifications of the Christian Communities in Rome as well as throughout the Empire. So Peter and Paul were detained in prison a longer time in order to question them. At all events, by their dignity, by their faith, and by their sufferings the two Apostles glorified Christ in their flesh, and all who saw them or heard them must have been edified and impressed.
Finally, a sentence was passed which ended abruptly all the questionings and applied briefly but simply the dispositions of Nero's decree. When taken before the magistrates, Paul was asked whether in the horror of his prison he had become wiser and was ready to deny Christ and thereby gain a few more months or years of existence among men? Paul, serene and firm, confessed his love for Christ, to Him he belonged; and he wept for joy to be able to give this last testimony for Christ.
The judgment hall was crowded with pagans and Jews, who were anxious to see the famous organizer of Churches, the father of the Martyrs, himself to be a Martyr now. Peter was passing through the same process, but because of his status as a barbarian (as the Jews from outside Rome were called) he was tortured.
Worn out by so much walking in the service of the Gospel, Peter abandoned himself to the sweet embrace of his Master and to his return to the One he so ardently loved. Now Peter understood how painful had been the abandonment in the garden, in the praetorium. and what the solitude on the Cross must have been for Christ. Tradition has it that the two Apostles were put to death on the same day. . . . They were the two leaders of the Christian Communities, a fact that could easily be proved by spies. And they were condemned for the same crime. However, death could not be inflicted in the same manner because Paul was a Roman citizen while Peter was not; Paul was to be beheaded, Peter was to be crucified.
The Chief of the Apostles, older, with white hair and beard, followed his executioners to the Vatican hill, where the soil was already stained with the blood of Martyrs. He was crucified, conformably to. the Lord's prediction, "When thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hand, and another shall gird thee and lead thee whither, thou wouldst not; signifying by what manner of death he should glorify God." 10 Through humility, Peter would not in his death, imitate his Master and asked to be crucified head down, as if he wished to be a holocaust at the feet of Christ. Pious Christians buried that glorious body in the same place where it fell and there, even today, it glorifies the Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul was led out to a country place, called "Aquae Salviae" which means "healing waters," three miles from Rome, not far from the road to Ostia. That venerable old man whose white head was still more bent by the sufferings endured in prison, walking in the midst of a company of soldiers . . . was an object of curiosity to the spectators and the butt of jokes from idlers. Years and sufferings had still more reduced his height, and the prison had bent his whole person. Now and then, he raised that intelligent countenance as if to inhale the fresh air, and as if undertaking another voyage.
Only on his mouth was there stamped an expression of deep sadness; a sadness which came from a homesickness for his Master, together with a sense of pity for those he was leaving behind. These had, not yet heard the Gospel word; and he thought of the ruin wrought by persecution which seemed to be all about him. A great mass of thought burned in those tired eyes peering from beneath an ample forehead, showing the effects of sufferings so patiently endured. He thought of the sufferings he had seen others bear, and felt the consciousness of more to come. His lips moved faintly as he murmured his prayer. The end was near; the fight was coming to an end. The expectancy of Christ awaited him and his eyes shone with vision and ecstasy. They were taking him to his execution, and he was marching his last mile to Paradise.
A few faithful disciples with broken hearts followed from a distance, with the servants of the household of Lucina, a rich Christian convert, in whom some recognize the penitent Pomponia Graecina whom Tacitus mentions. Three miles from the city the cortege turned off the Ostian road and in a short time reached the "Aquae Salviae". There, near a pine tree that glorious head was detached by a single stroke of the sword, the head which had given so much glorious thought to all mankind. The matron Lucina requested the body that she might bury it. It was a request which the Roman law readily granted. A number of Christians and servants, in a sad procession, carried the body to the estate of Lucina on the Ostian road, about a mile from the city. It was buried there, and became the place for many pilgrimages of the Christians until persecutions made it advisable to remove it, along with the body of St. Peter, to a place more secure on the Appian Way called "Ad Catacumbas," The Catacombs.
When peace returned, the two relics were taken from the place called "The Memoria Apostolorum" and brought back to their first burying place on the Ostian Way and the Vatican hill. Over them the Emperor Constantine constructed two basilicas to consecrate their supernatural royalty. Now Rome had, after Romulus and Remus, two new Patrons and Founders, and because of them Rome has become the capital of a new Empire.
On the tomb of Paul was written an epitaph with Roman brevity: "Paulo, Apostolo, Mart" (Paul, Apostle and Martyr). The Church blossomed from those two tombs as from a fountain of life, surrounding the city built on seven hills with a new glory. St. John Chrysostom who loved it, saw in those tombs the most solemn titles of majesty. He delighted to imagine a vision on the Resurrection day when Paul and Peter together should rise to meet the Lord, interpreting the sentiment of all Christianity.
The two Apostles in Rome are like two lamps shining above the whole world.
For a brief explanation about the tombs of the two Martyrs, Click HERE. This is an external link.
9. Heb. 12:28, 29.
10. St. John 21:18,19.