Today is the Memorial of Pope Saint Sixtus II and his companions. Sixtus (or Xystus) was Bishop of Rome during the time of the emperor Valerian, who waged an all-out persecution against the Christian faithful. On August 6, A.D. 258, Sixtus was celebrating Mass at the catacombs of Saint Calixtus with four of his seven deacons, when the emperor’s soldiers entered and killed them. Another of his deacons, Lawrence, would be killed a few days later following a stunning act of defiance (he is the only deacon to be honored with a Feast).
We know of their fate primarily from a letter written by Saint Cyprian, who would himself be killed not long thereafter, to a fellow bishop named Successus. I am including my meager translation of that letter below. I would ask that, as you read it, you please think of those Christians suffering religious persecution today, and recognize the mindset that accompanies it on both sides. I don’t mean the simple humiliation that Christians in the West endure at the hands of secular humanist relativism (not to mention each other); I’m thinking of those at odds with the government in Sudan and Syria, those being wiped out or forced to flee in Iraq by the radical Islamic caliphate, and those trapped in Gaza and unable to evacuate. I pray such extreme persecution never develops here, but rather ends everywhere.
Translator’s Note – You’ll notice the recurring phrase “attended to.” This is a translation of the Latin word animadvertere (literally, “to turn the mind towards something”), and should be read in the most fatal understanding of that apocryphal Chinese curse: “May you come to the attention of those in authority.”
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My most beloved brother:
The reason I could not write to you all immediately was because the whole clergy, having found themselves under the sting of combat, was not able to get away from the place at all; they each have prepared themselves, through the offering of his spirit, for divine and heavenly glory. You should know, however, that they have come back whom I had sent into the City for this reason: that they bring back to us the truth they have investigated of whatever had been decreed concerning us. For many different and uncertain things have been tossed around in our imaginations.
Here are the things which are true: that Valerian decreed to the senate that bishops and priests and deacons should immediately be attended to; that even senators and eminent men and Roman knights should lose their dignity and be stripped of their goods; that if, once deprived of their means, they should persist in being Christians they should be beheaded; that matrons, once deprived of their goods, should be cast off into exile; that anyone of Caesar’s own house whether they had confessed previously or would confess now should be seized and sent chained into the possessions of the Caesars.
The emperor Valerian even submitted a copy of his decree in written form to those governors of the provinces around us; we wait every day for those letters to come, holding ground in the endurance of suffering according to the strength of our faith, and looking ahead to the crown of eternal life by the Lord’s help and mercy. You should know, however, that Xystus was attended to in the cemetery on the eighth day before the Ides of August, and with him four deacons. Furthermore, the prefects in the City pursue this persecution every day, so that if anyone is offered up to them he is attended to and his goods are confiscated.
These things, I ask, should be made known through you to the rest of our colleagues, so that through their encouragement the brotherhood everywhere may be able to be strengthened and prepared for spiritual combat; so that each of us may think no more of death than of immortality; so that, dedicated to the Lord with full faith and courage entire. they may be more glad than afraid in their confession – that confession in which they know that the soldiers of God and Christ are not destroyed but crowned.
I wish that you, most beloved brother, may always be well in the Lord.