Today is the feast day of Saints Nereus, Aghilleus, Domitilla, and Pancratius. Orate pro nobis.
by Fr. Francis Xavier Weninger, 1877
Nereus and Achilleus, two brothers, who in their youth had been baptised by the holy Apostle Peter, were servants of Flavia Domitilla, first cousin of the Emperor Domitian. They had, by their pious life and persuasions, converted Domitilla to the Christian faith; but this had been done in silence and secresy. Aurelian, one of the most eminent of the young noblemen in Rome, chose Domitilla for his bride, and she betrothed herself to him, perhaps only with the intention of gaining him over to Christianity. One day, as she, expecting her intended, was adorning herself with great care in order to please him, both her chamberlains became sad, and one of them, with deep sighs, said: “O Domitilla! if you were as assiduous in adorning your soul to please the heavenly spouse, who is willing to be united to you, as you are to adorn your body out of love of your earthly bridegroom, how happy would you be!” Both now represented to her the priceless treasure of virginity, the felicity of that soul which has Christ for its spouse, and the difference between what we may expect from an earthly and from a heavenly bridegroom. Domitilla was at first indignant at this speech, but afterwards, when she had listened more quietly, the grace of the Lord worked so mightily in her heart, that, filled with love for the heavenly spouse, she exclaimed: “Why did you not tell me this before? If I had known earlier, what you now tell me, I would have chosen no other than the heavenly bridegroom. But I can do it still, and I am willing so to do. Only assist me that I may soon be united to Him.”
The two pious chamberlains joyfully imparted the resolution of Domitilla to Pope Clement, who thus spoke to her: “My dear daughter, I praise your desire, and your intention. But have you rightly considered the struggle which awaits you if by consecrating your virginity to Christ, you take Him as your spouse? and do not keep your promise to Aurelian. Have you sufficient fortitude for it? Will you be able to endure the suffering which will come upon you?” Domitilla replied unhesitatingly “I rely upon the grace of my heavenly bridegroom in Him I trust; He will not forsake me.” Having said this, she took, in the presence of the Pope, the vow of chastity, and received from his hands the veil, as was already the custom at that remote period.
Aurelian, when informed of it, became almost wild with rage, but at first tried to change Domitilla’s purpose by flatteries and caresses. As he, however, could not prevail upon her, he had all those imprisoned who, he supposed, had taken part in Domitilla’s action. The first that were seized were Nereus and Achilleus. They were denounced as Christians, and as they fearlessly professed their faith, they were banished, with St. Domitilla to the Island of Portia, where they had to suffer great misery. Minutius Rufus, the prefect, endeavored to force them by repeated scourgings and other tortures, to sacrifice to the idols. But they fearlessly said: “We have been baptized by the holy Apostle Peter, and, therefore, cannot worship idols.” When the prefect saw that he had no power over Nereus and Achilleus, he condemned them to be beheaded, and ordered Domitilla to be tortured again in various ways. As she, however, remained steadfast in her confession, Aurelian had recourse to other means. He sent to her two noble maidens, Euphrosyne and Theodora, who had been reared with her in paganism, under pretext of waiting upon her, but in reality to endeavor to awaken her former love for him. Both did their utmost. They praised matrimony and the beauty and wealth of Aurelian beyond everything, scorned and derided a single life, &c. Domitilla, however, instead of being influenced by their words, converted both pagans, who not only resolved to embrace Christianity, but also, to dedicate their virginity to Christ, and take Him as their spouse.
Being informed of this, Aurelian was so beside himself with rage, that he knew not what to do, until at last he resolved to make one more effort. He caused Domitilla to be brought to Terracina, with the intention of marrying her forcibly. He ordered a splendid banquet to be prepared, to which the greatest of the nobility were invited. Domitilla had also to appear. When after the repast was over, Aurelian began to dance with joy, being sure that he had gained his end, Domitilla went, unperceived, into another apartment, and thus prayed to God from her inmost heart. “Now, O Lord! has the time of utmost danger come, in which I need Thy help in order, that I may not become faithless to Thee.” While the chaste virgin thus prayed, and Aurelian enjoyed himself by dancing, he sank suddenly lifeless to the ground. Domtilla, departing immediately with her companions, gave thanks to God who had so miraculously saved her.
Luxarius, however, the brother of Aurelian, accused Domitilla of having by, magic, caused his brother’s death, and demanded from the emperor the permission to revenge himself on her. Having easily received this, he set fire to the house where the chaste virgin dwelt with her two companions, and burnt it to ashes. The bodies of the three holy maidens were found, lying prostrate, with their faces to the ground, but not a hair of their heads was singed by the flames.
To the three holy martyrs above mentioned the Roman Martyrology adds a boy fourteen years old named Pancratius. He was born in Phrygia, and was the son of wealthy parents, but early became an orphan. Cledonius, his father, had stood high in the favor of the Emperor Dioclesian on account of the many valuable military services he had rendered him; in recompense for which he had received from the Emperor a large estate at Rome on the Celian hill. On his deathbed Cledonius called his brother to him, and most warmly recommended Pancratius at that time but a small child, to his care, praying him to take the utmost pains with his education, and also to administer faithfully the rich inheritance that would come into his possession. Dionysius, this was the name of the brother, took the little boy with pleasure to his home and treated him as if he had been his own child. After some years, Dionysius went with his family to Rome, that he might be better able to administer the estate of the young Pancratius and attend better to his education. At that period there raged at Rome the most horrible persecution of the Christians, of whom many thousands were executed in the most cruel manner. The Pope kept himself concealed in the same street in which dwelt Dionysius and Pancratius. As Dionysius had heard much even from the pagans concerning the holiness of this man, and as he saw with his own eyes, how constant the Christians were in the confession of their faith, and how firmly they bore the most cruel martyrdom, the thought came into his mind that in truth the Christian faith must be divine, and the only one leading to salvation. This thought he communicated to Pancratius, whose mind was far in advance of his years. Both became eager to know in what this faith consisted. At their request, therefore, they were brought by a Christian to the holy Pope, whom they humbly begged to instruct them in the Christian faith. The Pope joyfully consented to their wish, and so clearly represented to them the falsity of the heathen gods and the truth of the Christian faith, that both, after an instruction of twenty days, determined to receive holy baptism which was accordingly administered to them.
The joy that filled their hearts is not to be described, while at the same time their zeal to give their lives, after the example of so many Christians, for Christ’s sake, was so fervent that they desired to present themselves to the Emperor, and in his presence to profess Christianity. To this, however, the holy Pope would not give his consent. They, therefore, determined to lead a truly Christian life. They employed their wealth in assisting the suffering and persecuted Christians, and by their kind persuasion they brought many heathens to the knowledge and reception of the Christian faith. Dionysius, shortly after, received his reward from God. He was taken sick, and before he had lived a year in the practice of the Christian faith, he died calmly and happily.
Before his death, he exhorted Pancratius to remain steadfast in the newly accepted faith, and rather to suffer the most cruel death than to forsake it. Pancratius promised faithfully to follow this admonition, and the sequel will show how well he kept his word. When he was fourteen years old those who were always spying out the Christians, accused him to the Emperor as a despiser of the idols. Diocletian had him brought before him, and addressed him most kindly. “My child;”said he, “I have been informed that you have been seduced by the Christians. I advise you to renounce your error, and again to sacrifice to our gods, that you may not die so young. I know that you have not yet reached the age of fifteen. Your father was my beloved friend, and out of regard to him I will adopt you as my son. Should you, however, not follow my counsel, you have nothing to expect but death.”
Pancratius fearlessly replied: “You are mistaken, Emperor, if you suppose that I have been seduced by the Christians. Your gods have been seducers and imposters. If one of your servants should be guilty of the deeds your gods committed, you would not allow him to be in your presence, but would severely punish him. How can I then honor them as gods? It is true that I am young in years, but my dear Jesus has so strengthened my heart and soul that I fear not your menaces.” This and more Pancratius said without exhibiting the least signs of fear. The Emperor, fearing to make himself despicable by torturing a child, commanded that he should be led to a place called Aurelia and be decapitated.
The holy youth rejoiced and gave thanks to God for having vouchsafed him the grace to die for His sake. He went with a cheerful face to the place of execution and ended his life fearlessly by the sword. Octavilla, a noble Christian matron, had the holy body taken away secretly at night and buried it with great honor in the year of our Lord 302. St. Gregory of Tours writes that it was still in his time the custom to bring those who were to make an oath to the grave of the Saint, and if any one dared to perjure himself by a false oath, he either suddenly died, or became possessed by the devil, and was most horribly tormented.
Image: crop of Saint Domitilla with Saint Nereus and Achilleus, artist: Cristoforo Roncalli, circa 1598-99 (5)
Research by REGINA Staff