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'The Ecstasy of St Gregory the Great' – Peter Paul Rubens, 1608, depicting St. Gregory adoring the Blessed Virgin Mary, accompanied by Sts. Domitilla, Nereus, and AchilleusWikimedia Commons

(LifeSiteNews) — So far in our Paschal season, the choir of martyr-virgins has not yet offered to Jesus its crown of roses and lilies. It does so today, by presenting to him the noble Flavia Domitilla – the fairest flower of Rome, that was cut down by the sword of martyrdom in the first age of the Christian Faith.

It was under the persecution of Domitian – the same that condemned John the Evangelist to be burned alive in the cauldron of boiling oil – that Flavia Domitilla was honored with banishment and death for the sake of our Redeemer, whom she had chosen as her spouse.

She was of the Imperial family, being a niece of Flavius Clemens, who adorned the consular dignity by martyrdom. She was one of the Christians belonging to the court of the Emperor Domitian, who show us how rapidly the religion of the poor and humble made its way to the highest classes of Roman life. A few years previous to this, St. Paul sent to the Christians of Philippi the greetings of the Christians of Nero’s palace. (Philippians 4:22)

There is still extant, not far from Rome, on the Ardeatine way, the magnificent subterraneous cemetery, which Flavia Domitilla ordered to be dug on her Prædium, and in which were buried the two martyrs, Nereus and Achilleus, whom the Church honors today together with the noble virgin, who owes her crown to them.

Nereus and Achilleus were in Domitilla’s service. The acts of these two saints – which were drawn up long after their martyrdom, and on which were formed the Lessons of today’s Office– call them “eunuchs,” but it is a mistake of the compiler, who belongs to the fifth or sixth century. The introduction of eunuchs into the imperial court, and into the Roman families, is of a later date than the reign of Domitian.

Hearing them one day speaking on the merit of virginity, she there and then bade farewell to all worldly pleasures, and aspired to the honor of being the spouse of Christ. She received the veil of consecrated virgins from the hands of Pope St. Clement: Nereus and Achilleus had been baptized by St. Peter himself. What glorious reminiscences for one day!

The bodies of these three saints reposed, for several centuries, in the basilica called the Fasciola on the Appian road; and we have a homily which St. Gregory the Great preached in his church on their feast. The holy pontiff dwelt on the vanity of this earth’s goods; he encouraged his audience to despise them by the example of the three martyrs, whose relics lay under the very altar around which they were that day assembled.

“These saints,” said he, “before whose tomb we are now standing, trampled, with contempt of soul, on the world and its flowers. Life was then long, health was uninterrupted, riches were abundant, parents were blessed with many children; and yet, though the world was so flourishing in itself, it had long been a withered thing in their hearts.” (Homily 28, in Evang)

Later on, the Fasciola having been almost reduced to ruins by the disasters that had befallen Rome, the bodies of the three saints were translated, in the 13th century, to the church of St. Adrian, in the forum. There they remained till the close of the 16th Century, when the great Baronius, who had been raised to the cardinalate, with the title of Saints Nereus and Achilleus, resolved to repair the Church that was thus entrusted to his care.

Through his munificence, the naves were restored; the history of the three martyrs was painted on the walls; the marble pulpit, from which St. Gregory preached the homily, was brought back, and the homily itself was graven, from beginning to end, on the back; and the confession was enriched with mosaics and precious marbles, preparatory to its receiving the sacred relics, of which it had been deprived for three hundred years.

Baronius felt that it was high time to put an end to the long exile of the holy martyrs, whose honor was not made so specially dear to him. He organized a formal triumph for their return. Christian Rome excels in the art of blending together the forms of classic antiquity and the sentiments inspired by faith. The chariot, bearing a superb canopy, under which lay the relics of the three martyrs, was first led to the capitol.

On reaching the top of the clivus Capitolinus, the eye met two inscriptions, placed parallel with each other. On one were these words: “To Saint Flavia Domitilla, virgin and martyr of Rome, the capitol, purified from the wicked worship of demons and restored more perfectly than by Flavius Vespasian and Domitian, emperors, kinsmen of the Christian virgin.”

On the other: “The Senate and people of Rome to Saint Flavia Domitilla, virgin and martyr of Rome, who, by allowing herself to be put to death by fire, for the faith of Christ, brought greater glory to Rome, than did her kinsmen, the Emperors Flavius Vespasian and Domitian, when, at their own expense, they restored the capitol that had twice suffered from fire.”

The reliquaries of the martyrs were then put on an altar that had been erected near the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius. After being venerated by the faithful they were replaced on the chariot, which descended by the opposite side of the capitol. The procession soon reached the triumphal arch of Septimus Severus, on which were hung these two inscriptions:

To the holy martyrs, Flavia Domitilla, Nereus and Achilleus, the best of citizens, the Senate and people of Rome, for their having honored the Roman name by their glorious death, and won peace for the Roman commonwealth by shedding their blood.

To Flavia Domitilla, Nereus and Achilleus, the invincible martyrs of Christ Jesus, the Senate and people of Rome, for their having honored the city by the noble testimony they bore to the Christian faith.

Following the Via Sacra, the procession was soon in front of the triumphal Arch of Titus, the monument of God’s victory over the deicide nation. On one side there were inscribed these words: “This triumphal arch, formerly dedicated and raised to the Emperor Titus Flavius Vespasian, for his having brought the rebellious Judea under the yoke of the Roman people, is now, by the Senate and people of Rome, more auspiciously dedicated and consecrated to Flavia Domitilla, kind woman of the same Titus, for having, by her death, increased and furthered the Christian religion.”

On the other side of the arch, there was the following inscription: “To Flavia Domitilla, virgin and martyr of Rome, kinswoman of the Emperor Titus Flavius Vespasian, the Senate and people of Rome, for her having, by the shedding her blood and laying down her life for the faith, rendered a more glorious homage to the death of Christ, than did the said Titus, when, by a divine inspiration, he destroyed Jerusalem, to avenge that same death.”

Leaving on the left the Colosseum – the hallowed ground whereon so many martyrs had fought the battle of faith – they passed under the triumphal Arch of Constantine, which so eloquently speaks of the victory of Christianity, both in Rome and the empire, and which still bears on it the name of the Flavia family, of which the first Christian emperor was a member. The two following inscriptions were attached to the Arch:

To Flavia Domitilla, Nereus and Achilleus, the Senate and people of Rome. On this Sacred Way – whereon so many Roman Emperors received triumphal honors for having brought various provinces into subjection to the Roman people – these martyrs are receiving today a more glorious triumph, for that they conquered, by a greater courage, the conquerors themselves.

To Flavia Domitilla, the Senate and people of Rome. Twelve emperors, her kinsman, conferred honor on the Flavia family and on Rome herself, by their deeds of fame; but she, by sacrificing all human honors and life itself, for Christ’s sake, rendered greater service to both family and city than they.

The procession then continued its route along the Appian way, and at length reached the basilica. Baronius, assisted by a great number of cardinals, received the precious relics, and took them with great respect to the confession of the high altar. Meanwhile the Choir sang this Antiphon of the Pontifical: “Come in, ye saints of God! for a dwelling hath been prepared for you by the Lord. The faithful people have followed you on your way, that ye may intercede for them with the majesty of the Lord. Alleluia!”

The following is the account of our three Martyrs, as given in the liturgy.

Nereus and Achilleus, brothers, were in the service of Flavia Domitilla, and were baptized, together with her and her mother Plautilla, by St. Peter. They persuaded Domitilla to consecrate her virginity to God; in consequence of which they were accused of being Christians by Aurelian to whom she was betrothed. They made an admirable confession of their faith, and were banished to the Isle of Pontia. There they were once again examined, and were condemned to be flogged.

They were, shortly afterwards, taken to Terracina; and, by orders of Minucius Rufus, were hoisted on the rack and tormented with burning torches. On their resolutely declaring that, having been baptized by blessed Peter the apostle, no tortures should ever induce them to offer sacrifice to idols, they were beheaded. Their bodies were taken to Rome by their disciple Auspicius, Domitilla’s tutor, and were buried on the Ardeantine way.

Flavia Domitilla, a Roman lady and niece of the Emperors Titus and Domitian, received the holy veil of virginity from the blessed Pope Clement. She was accused of being a Christian by Aurelian, to whom she was promised in marriage, and who was a son of the Consul Titus Aurelius. The Emperor Domitian banished her to the Isle of Pontia, where she suffered a long martyrdom in prison.

She was finally taken to Terracina, where she again confessed Christ. Finding that her constancy was not to be shaken, the judge ordered the house where she lodged to be set on fire; and thus she, together with two virgins, her foster-sisters Theodora and Euphrosyna, completed her glorious martyrdom, on the ninth of the nones of May (May 7), during the reign of the Emperor Trajan.

Their bodies were found entire and were buried by a deacon, named Cæsarius. But this is the day on which the bodies of the two brothers and that of Domitilla were translated from the Diaconia of Saint Adrian to the basilica, called Fasciola.

How grand was the triumph which Rome gave to you, O holy martyrs, so many centuries after your glorious deaths! How true it is that there is no glory here on earth which can bear comparison with that of the saints!

Where are now those twelve emperors, thy kinsmen, O Domitilla? Who cares about their remains? Who even cherishes their memory? One of them was surnamed “the delight of mankind;” and now, how many are there who never heard of his existence? Another, the last of the twelve, had the glory of proclaiming the victory won by the Cross over the Roman Empire; Christian Rome honors and loves his name; but the homage of religious devotion is not given to him, but to thee, O Domitilla, and to the two martyrs whose names are now associated with thine.

Who does not recognize the power of Jesus’ resurrection, in the love and enthusiasm wherewith a whole people welcome your holy relics, O martyrs of the living God? Fifteen hundred years had elapsed and yet your lifeless remains were greeted with a transport of joy, as though you yourselves were there, and living. It was because we Christians know that Jesus, who is the the first-born of the dead (Apocalypse 1:5) has risen from the grave; and that you also are one day to rise glorious like him.

Therefore do the faithful honor, by anticipation, the immortality which, at a future period, is to be given to your bodies, slain as they were for Jesus’ sake; they already see, by faith, the future brightness which is to be imparted to your flesh; and in all this they are proclaiming the dignity which the redemption has given to man, to whom death is now but a transition to true life, and the tomb but a resting place where the body is consigned, as seed to the earth, to be restored in a hundred-fold of richer beauty.

Happy they who, as the prophecy says, “have washed their robes, and have made them white in the blood of the Lamb!”(Apocalypse 7:14) But happier they, says holy Church, who, after being thus purified, have mingled their own blood with that of the divine victim! For by so doing, they have filled up, in their flesh, those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ.” (Colossians 1:24) Hence, their intercession is powerful, and we should address our prayers to them with love and confidence.

Befriend us, then, O holy martyrs Nereus, Achilleus, and Domitilla! Obtain for us an ardent love for our risen Jesus; perseverance in the new life He has conferred upon us; detachment from the things of this world, and a determined resolution to trample them beneath our feet, should they become a danger to our eternal salvation. Pray for us, that we may be courageous in resisting our spiritual enemies, ever ready to defend our holy faith, and earnest in our endeavors to gain that kingdom, which is to be “borne away by violence.” (Matthew 11:12)

Be you the defenders of the holy Roman Church, which fervently celebrates your memory each year. You, Nereus and Achilleus, were converts of Peter; and thou, Domitilla, wast the spiritual daughter of Clement, Peter’s successor: protect the pontiff who now governs the Church – the pontiff in whom Peter still lives – the pontiff, the successor of Clement. Dispel the storms which are threatening the Cross on the capitol, and pray for the inhabitants of Rome, that they may be staunch to the faith.

This text is taken from The Liturgical Year, authored by Dom Prosper Gueranger (1841-1875). LifeSiteNews is grateful to The Ecu-Men website for making this classic work easily available online.