Last week’s saints, Sts. John and Paul, were paired together in the Roman Canon, and we remember their accomplishments together. Today too, our saints are paired together because they were brothers. Sts. Cosmas and Damian were twin brothers who were born in Cilicia, in modern-day Turkey.
Unfortunately, we know very little about their lives, but the most notable part of their background is that they were physicians. Supposedly, they were quite popular and skilled, but they also used their work as an opportunity to spread the Gospel by their words and examples. They routinely included prayer in their treatment, and accepted no payment for their services, earning them the nicknames “The Unmercenaries” (not really that creative) or “The Silverless”. One of their miraculous healings occurred when, assisted by the angels, they supposedly grafted a leg from a recently deceased Ethiopian man to replace the cancerous leg of a deacon they were acquainted with. Nobody knows if these legends are accurate, but often times, Sts. Cosmas and Damian are pictured in the process of performing this procedure or actually holding the leg in their arms!
Because they were so outspoken about their faith, Cosmas and Damian, along with their three younger brothers, were rounded up in Cyrus of Syria during the Great Persecution of Diocletian. Despite the tortures inflicted on them, they stayed true to their faith. Not only that, but they survived being hung on a cross and exposed to the elements, being pelted with stones, and being shot with arrows! Eventually, they were given the crown of martyrdom by being beheaded, and were buried there in Cyrus. Years later, the Emperor Justinian, who himself was cured of illness through the intercession of the martyrs, rebuilt and fortified the lowly city of Cyrus, building a great basilica over their tomb. These twin brothers are a great example of living their faith even as they carried out their secular professions as doctors. Today, let’s ask their prayers for doctors, nurses, and all healthcare professionals!
As a very important side note, sometimes the way that I’ve written about these early saints can make martyrdom seem fairly casual. It’s easy as Americans and modern Catholics to see martyrdom as something long ago and far away, but as the recent brutal murder of twenty-one Coptic Christians shows us, people are still giving their lives for their faith. Make no mistake: these people were not murdered because they are citizens of a rival nation; they were intentionally referred to as “People of the Cross.” Christian martyrdom is real, ugly, and present today. I mention this not to scare us, but for us to take courage by their witness, just as the early Christians did. Early Church Father Tertullian wrote that “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.” Let us pray for all who face persecution and death, and ask the prayers of the holy martyrs, past and present, that we can be courageous witnesses to our faith as well!
The two saints for today are Sts. John and Paul – not the apostles, but two men of the same names who were martyred in Christ’s service. John and Paul were “soldier martyrs”, a particular category of martyrs who were honored in the early Church. Other famous examples of these soldier martyrs are guys like St. George, St. Theodore, and St. Julius the Veteran. This group of martyrs inspired devotion because of their ability to put their faith in Christ above their orders, their emperor, and even their lives.
The lives of Sts. John and Paul are based in legends, but what is certain is that they were martyred. The two of them were soldiers under the Emperor Constantine, who was so impressed by their service to the Empire and their devotion to God that he made them special bodyguards to his daughter, Constantia. After their service, and through the emperor’s generosity, they retired to a house on the Caelian Hill in Rome.
After a while, Emperor Julian (aka Julian the Apostate) came along around 362, and recalled them to serve as his aides. They refused his request because Julian had rejected his faith – which he had willingly been baptized into – in favor of the Roman gods (hence his nickname, “the Apostate”). Julian was a little upset, as you might imagine, and gave them 10 days to reconsider, or he would charge them with impiety and execute them. John and Paul spent those 10 days distributing their possessions to the poor, until Julian sent one of his captains to their home and beheaded them there.
Speaking of that house on the Caelian Hill, the Christian community continued to offer Masses there every year on the anniversary of their martyrdom, until in 398, 36 years after their death, a senator named Pammachius built a church on the site. The church has been restored again and again after being damaged (Visigoths, earthquakes, and Normans, oh my!), but it is the same church and one of the 25 original tituli, which as you might remember from last week was one of the original parishes in Rome. Original frescoes depicting the martyrdom of John and Paul can still be seen in the church, and the tombs of the two martyrs are there as well.
We’ll get a glimpse into the lives of two other martyrs next week – this time, brothers!
Many times when I’m praying through the saints in the Roman Canon, I can just fire them off left and right. There are the apostles, which we all know, then guys like Cornelius and Lawrence, both of whom have pretty normal names. And then we get to this guy: Chrysogonus. What a name! It doesn’t really mix too well, right? But if you’re like me, and you stumble over his elaborate name, you probably wonder, “Who is this guy?”
Actually, very little is known about him – much less than the other saints we’ve been talking about, at least. Most of what we do know comes from legends about his life. Chrysogonus served as a functionary of the vice-prefect of Rome – essentially, an official who helped the guy…who helped the guy…who ran the city of Rome. So by day, Chrysogonus was a civil servant.
But by night (and on Sundays), he was a catechist, particularly known in the legends for teaching the ways of the faith to Anastasia, the daughter of a Roman noble named Praetextatus. When the Great Persecution under the Emperor Diocletian broke out in 303, Chrysogonus was discovered and thrown into prison. Anastasia cared for her teacher a great deal, and felt guilty for his being caught, so Chrysogonus wrote letters to her to comfort her and give her courage.
Eventually, he was brought before the Emperor (or at least the Emperor’s men) at Aquileia, in the northeast part of Italy. He was condemned to death and beheaded, and his body was thrown into the sea. Eventually, it washed ashore, where it was claimed and buried by an old priest named Zoilus (Seriously, what’s with the weird names this week?).
So why was this obscure saint, who’s name is very difficult to pronounce, in the Roman Canon? Well, one thing is for sure: we can definitely see how old this prayer is. There is a very old church in Rome dedicated to St. Chrysogonus. The present church is from the 12th century and had been added onto in the 17th century, but it is actually built on an older church from the 4th century, probably commissioned by Pope Sylvester I. That church dates to between 314 and 335, which is only 10 years after Chrysogonus’s death. This ancient church was certainly very well known, and was one of the tituli, the first parish churches in the city of Rome.
So we have one of the first parishes in Rome, built only 10 years after the death of some guy in the outlying city of Aquileia. It was probably there because people personally knew him and remembered him. Think of our own Blessed Theresa of Calcutta Parish, built a short time after the soon-to-be-saint’s death. We know and respect her as one of our own, and find special inspiration from her life. The same was probably true for the people of the 4th century, who named their church after St. Chrysogonus. They loved and respected him so much, that they also added his name to their prayers at the time, which eventually found their way into our prayers today. And that’s why we stumble over his name every time we pray it!
We’re still trekking through the saints of the early Church, and today brings us to St. Lawrence of Rome. He was born in Huesca, Spain around the year 225. As a young man, he travelled to Zaragoza, where he met Sixtus II (can you believe it’s this guy again?), and went with him to Rome. Lawrence was ordained by Sixtus as the first of seven deacons in Rome, given the title of “archdeacon.” At this time, the deacon’s job was a very practical one, as they were in charge of the material needs of the seven regions in Rome and cared for the treasury of the Church. They would use this treasury for the distribution of alms and food among the poor of the city.
After Pope Sixtus II was killed in August of 258 by the decree of Emperor Valerian, the prefect of the city captured Lawrence and demanded that as archdeacon and caretaker of the treasury, he would hand over the riches of the Church. Lawrence asked that he would have three days to gather the wealth, which he promptly used to distribute as much property and riches to the poor as he could to prevent it from being seized (C’mon, prefect! You should have seen that one coming!).
On the 3rd day, Lawrence gathered together a group of Christians from the streets of the city – poor, crippled, blind, sick and suffering – and led them to the prefect. He presented them saying, “Here is the treasure of the Church. The Church is truly rich, far richer than your emperor.”
Clearly, the prefect didn’t really find this to be funny, and had his men prepare a gridiron with hot coals beneath it. Lawrence was then bound and placed on the grill! As you can already see, Lawrence was known for his sense of humor, and after being left on the gridiron for a while, he made the famous cheerful remark: “I’m well done on this side. Turn me over!” Hence, St. Lawrence is the patron of cooks, chefs, and in particular, grillmasters.
St. Lawrence’s body was buried outside the walls of Rome, where it remains to this day. Over the tomb was built the minor basilica of St. Lawrence Outside the Walls, which is considered one of the seven major basilicas in Rome, alongside St. Peter’s and St. Paul Outside the Walls. Lawrence was clearly held in high esteem in the early Roman Church, and even today, we celebrate his feast with a higher solemnity than most other saints.
Oh yeah, and the gridiron used in his martyrdom was preserved in the church of San Lorenzo in Lucina, also in Rome. Sounds like a new destination just made it onto my dream Roman itinerary!