Today is the feast day of Saint Felicitas and The Seven Brothers. Orate pro nobis.
By Fr. Francis Xavier Weninger, 1876
The names of the seven brothers whose martyrdom is commemorated today, are: Januarius, Felix, Philip, Sylvan, Alexander, Vitalis and Martialis. Their mother was St. Felicitas, a matron greatly renowned in Rome, not only on account of her noble birth, but still more for her edifying life. After her husband’s death, she laid aside all worldly magnificence and vowed to live in perfect chastity for the remainder of her life. The education of her sons was her greatest care, and as at that period, the Christians were most cruelly persecuted, she directed all her exhortations and instructions in such a manner, that she might impress deeply into their hearts constancy to the true Faith, contempt of temporal happiness, and even of life itself, and, at the same time, a high estimation of eternal happiness and a great desire to obtain it. She frequently spoke to them of the torments of the Christian martyrs in and out of Rome, and the great glories which therefore had been prepared for them in heaven; of the happiness of suffering or dying for Christ’s sake. “How happy should I be,” said she, “if I should, one day, see you give your blood and life willingly out of love for Christ! How happy would you yourselves be for all eternity!” By these and similar words she awakened in the hearts of her sons a fervent desire to suffer and die for the faith of Christ. They spoke of nothing more frequently than of martyrdom, and declared to each other how they would despise all flatteries and caresses, all honors and riches of the world, and how gladly they would suffer pains and tortures. The pious mother listened with great inward joy to these words, and prayed daily to the Almighty to receive her children as an agreeable sacrifice.
God accepted her prayer. The idolatrous priests had observed that many were converted to the Christian faith by the edifying example of St. Felicitas and her sons. Hence they went to the Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, representing that the wrath of the gods rested on Rome because Felicitas, one of the most noble matrons, dared to alienate the inhabitants of the city from their worship; hence she ought to be compelled to offer a public sacrifice to the gods in order to appease them. The Emperor forthwith ordered Publius, the Prefect of the city, to attend to the request of the priests, and see that what they desired should be done. Publius, who greatly esteemed the Saint on account of her high birth and many noble qualities, sent for her, and, informing her of the Imperial command, entreated her to comply. He endeavored to persuade her by flatteries and promises, and at last, finding them of no avail, he proceeded to the most frightful menaces. But the Christian heroine said, fearlessly: “Thy menaces have no more power over me than thy flatteries. Neither I nor my sons will ever forsake the true Faith.” “In that case,” replied Publius, “you prepare your own ruin. But if you do not care for your own life, why should you become the murderess of your children? Consider, at least, their welfare and lives.” “My children,” said Felicitas, “will live in eternal happiness if they die for Christ’s sake: should they, however, sacrifice to your gods, who are only devils, everlasting death will be their lot.” Publius would say nothing further on that day, but dismissed her with the injunction to consider the matter well. The pious mother told her sons what had happened and spent the night with them in prayer, as she was convinced that they would suffer martyrdom.
On the following day, Publius repaired to the Place of Mars, and taking his seat as Judge, had Felicitas and her seven sons brought before him. All appeared cheerful, encouraging each other to bear bravely the approaching tortures. Publius, addressing the mother, said: “I presume that you have already changed your mind; but if not, look upon your children and take pity on them. In your power lies all their future happiness.” After this he turned to the children and said: “Come, my dear children, I will procure you the happiest lot upon earth, if you are obedient to the emperor; but I am compelled to treat you most cruelly, should you oppose his commands.” “Say rather,” exclaimed Felicitas, solemnly addressing the Prefect, “that thou wilt be the cause of their eternal ruin with thy treacherons happiness.” Then, turning towards her children, she encouraged them to constancy, like the heroic mother of the Maccabees, and said: “My beloved sons, look not upon the tyrant, but raise your eyes to heaven, and behold your God and Redeemer, Jesus Christ. He expects you, to place on your heads the crown of glory. As He has given His blood for your salvation, may you likewise give yours to His honor. Do not regard the torments with which you are menaced here below, but consider the joys which God promises you in heaven. Fight bravely, be not faint-hearted, but continue faithful in your love to Christ.” Publius, furious that Felicitas dared in his presence to incite her children to disobey the imperial command, ordered her to be buffeted most barbarously. Then, calling the children to him one after another, he endeavored to win them with alternate promises and menaces. To the first he said: “Be wise, my son, obey the command of the emperor; if not, I shall have you scourged till you are dead.” “My mother,” said Januarius, “has spoken wisely, and I should act foolishly if I preferred the emperor’s command to God’s command. I do not fear scourging. My God will aid me that I may remain faithful, even unto death.” Enraged at this dauntless answer, Publius ordered him to be scourged and cast into a dungeon. The same was done to the second, third, fourth, and fifth, as their answers breathed the same spirit as that of their brother. He then left nothing untried to induce at least the two youngest, Vitalis and Martialis, to forsake Christ, but found that they were not less brave and constant than the others. Vitalis said: “I am ready rather to give my life than sacrifice to the devils, your gods.” Martialis, the youngest, fearing that they might spare him on account of his tender age, cried aloud: “I too am a Christian, like my brothers. I despise the idols as they do, and if their lives are taken, mine must be taken also.” Publius, astonished at such unprecedented heroism, reported the whole proceedings to the emperor, who gave orders that they should all be executed.
Beyond description was the joy of the seven Christian heroes when their death was announced to them. They hastened to the place of execution with greater eagerness than others to a cheerful entertainment, and lost, during their martyrdom, neither their courage nor their joy. Each encouraged the other, until all had gone to heaven. Januarius was scourged with loaded whips until he expired; Felix and Philip were beaten to death with clubs; Sylvanus was thrown down a precipice; Alexander, Vitalis, and Martialis received the crown of martyrdom by being executed with the sword. Felicitas, the pious mother, was present at the dreadful martyrdom of her sons, but, like the above-mentioned mother of the Maccabees, she continued to encourage them until the last had expired. After this, she was brought back to prison, where she suffered four months longer, when at last she was beheaded, and thus rejoined her seven sons in heaven. (1)
Saint Felicitas and The Seven Brothers
By Dom Prosper Guerenger, 1901
Three times within the next few days will the number seven appear in the holy Liturgy, honoring the Blessed Trinity, and proclaiming the reign of the Holy Spirit with His sevenfold grace. Felicitas, Symphorosa, and the mother of the Machabees, each in turn will lead her seven sons to the feet of Eternal Wisdom. The Church, bereaved of her Apostolic founders, pursues her course undaunted, for the teaching of Peter and Paul is defended by the testimony of martyrdom, and when persecutions have ceased, by that of holy virginity. Moreover, “the blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians (Tertullian, Apolog. 50):” the heroes who in life were the strength of the Bride, give her fecundity by their death; and the family of God’s children continues to increase.
Great indeed was the faith of Abraham, when he hoped against all hope that he would become the father of nations through that same Isaac whom he was commanded to slay: but did Felicitas show less faith, when she recognized in the immolation of her seven children the triumph of life and the highest blessing that could be bestowed on her motherhood?
Honour be to her, and to those who resemble her! The worldly-wise may scorn them; but they are like noble rivers transforming the desert into a paradise of God, and fertilizing the soil of the gentile world after the ravages of the first age.
Marcus Aurelius had just ascended the throne, to prove himself during a reign of nineteen years nothing but a second-rate pupil of the sectarian rhetors of the second century, whose narrow views and hatred of Christian simplicity he embraced alike in policy and in philosophy. These men, created by him prefects and proconsuls, raised the most coldblooded persecution the Church has ever known. The scepticism of this imperial philosopher did not exempt him from the general rule that where dogma is rejected, superstition takes its place; and monarch and people were of one accord in seeking a remedy for public calamities in the rites newly brought from the East, and in the extermination of the Christians. The assertion that the massacres of those days were carried on without the prince’s sanction, not only does not excuse him, it is moreover false; it is now a proven truth that, foremost among the tyrants who destroyed the flower of the human race, stands Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, stained more than Domitian or even Nero with the blood of Martyrs.
The seven sons of St. Felicitas were the first victims offered by the prince to satisfy the philosophy of his courtiers, the superstition of the people, and, be it said, his own convictions, unless we would have him to be the most cowardly of men. It was he himself who ordered the prefect Publius to entice to apostasy this noble family whose piety angered the gods; it was he again who, after hearing the report of the cause, pronounced the sentence, and decreed that it should be executed by several judges in different places, the more publicly to make known the policy of the new reign. The arena opened at the same time in all parts not only of Rome, but of the empire; the personal interference of the sovereign intimated to the hesitating magistrates the line of conduct to pursue if they wished to court the imperial favour. Felicitas soon followed her sons; Justin the philosopher found out by experience what was the sincerity of Caesar’s love of truth; every class yielded its contingent of victims to the tortures which this would-be wise master of the world deemed necessary for the safety of the empire. At length, that his reign might close as it had begun in blood, a rescript of the so-called mild emperor sanctioned wholesale massacres. Humanity, lowered by the unjust flattery heaped upon this wretched prince even up to our own day, was thus duly rehabilitated by the noble courage of a slave such as Blandina, or of a patrician such as Caecilia.
Never before had the south-wind swept so impetuously through the garden of the Spouse, scattering far and wide the perfume of myrrh and spices. Never before had the Church, like an army set in array, appeared, despite her weakness, so invincible as now, when she was sustaining the prolonged assault of Caesarisin and false science from without, in league with heresy within. Want of space forbids us to enter into the details of a question which is now beginning to be more carefully studied, yet is far from being thoroughly understood. Under cover of the pretended moderation of the Antonines, hell was exerting its most skilful endeavours against Christianity at the very period which opened with the martyrdom of the Seven Brothers. If the Caesars of the third century attacked the Church with a fury and a refinement of cruelty unknown to Marcus Aurelius, it was but as a wild beast taking a fresh spring upon the prey that had well nigh escaped him.
Such being the case, no wonder that the Church has from the very beginning paid especial honour to these seven heroes, the pioneers of that decisive struggle which was to prove her impregnable to all the powers of hell. Was there ever a more sublime scene in that spectacle which the saints have to present to the world? If there was ever a combat which angels and men could equally applaud, it was surely this of the 10th July 162; when in four different suburbs of the Eternal City, these seven patrician youths, led by their heroic mother, opened the campaign which was to rescue Rome from these upstart Caesars and restore her to her immortal destinies. After their triumph, four cemeteries shared the honour of gathering into their crypts the sacred remains of the martyrs; and the glorious tombs have in our own day furnished the Christian archaeologist with matter for valuable research and learned writings. As far back as we can ascertain from the most authentic monuments, the 6th of the Ides of July was marked on the calendars of the Roman Church as a day of special solemnity, on account of the four stations where the faithful assembled round the tombs of “the Martyrs.” This name, given by excellence to the seven brothers, was preserved to them even in time of peace–an honour by so much the greater as there had been torrents of bloodshed under Diocletian. Inscriptions of the fourth century, found even in those cemeteries which never possessed their relics, designate the 11th July as the “day following the feast of the Martyrs.”
Let us read the short account of their martyrdom given us in today’s Liturgy, beginning with that of the Seven Brothers.