Priest Arrested in the Catacombs (Alamy)
"A Christian cannot exist without Holy Mass, any more than Mass can be celebrated without Christian people. I boldly avow that we met together with pious devotion and offered our prayers during the time the Mass was being said.” At this the tyrant flew into such a rage that he caused the holy martyr to be thrown to the ground and beaten to death.
Let us then lay this to heart and consider well of what great profit it is for us to hear Mass, because in the Holy Mass,
Jesus Christ offers Himself up for us and places Himself as a mediator between the divine justice and the sins of mankind and either altogether averts, or at least arrests, the chastisement which is the due penalty of our daily offenses. Did we but recognize this correctly, how we should love Holy Mass, how devoutly we should hear it, how reluctant should we be to allow anything to keep us from it! In fact, we should choose rather to suffer temporal loss than to deprive our soul of the benefit of assisting at this Sacred and Salutary Sacrifice. Such was the fervor of the early Christians that they would rather lose their life than omit Mass. Baronius tells a striking story on this subject. The incident occurred about the year 303.
In the town of Aluta in Africa, all the Christian churches had been destroyed and the Christian worship proscribed by the Emperor’s commands. In spite of this prohibition, a number of Christians, both men and women, had assembled in a private dwelling to hear Mass. They were surprised by the pagans, seized and dragged before the judge in the public marketplace. The missal, as well as several other books which were found in the captives’ possession, were, amid general derision, thrown into a fire kindled in the marketplace; they were, however, not consumed, for before the flames could reach them, a shower of rain fell with such extraordinary violence as to extinguish the fire. The judge was so struck by this occurrence that he sent the prisoners—thirty-four men and seventeen women—to Carthage, to appear before the Emperor. The Christians went quite cheerfully, beguiling the way with psalms and hymns. When they were brought into the Emperor’s presence, the officer who conducted them said: “These mischievous Christians were apprehended by us, O Emperor, in the town of Aluta, where in
defiance of thy decree, they were worshiping their false gods.” The Emperor immediately had one of the prisoners stripped, placed on the rack and his flesh torn with sharp hooks. Thereupon one of the others, Telica by name, said aloud: “Why, O Tyrant, do you torture one alone? We are all Christians, and we all have heard Mass as well as he.” Then the Emperor caused this man also to be stripped and subjected to the same torment. “Whose doing was it that you held this meeting?” he asked. “It was the doing of Saturninus, the priest, and of us all,” was the reply; “but remember you are acting contrary to all justice in torturing us on account of it.” “You ought to have obeyed our mandate, and abandoned the practice of your false worship,” the Emperor rejoined. But Telica answered: “I owe obedience to no command that is contrary to the commands of my God, for which I am ready to die.”
Then the Emperor ordered the martyrs to be unbound and cast into prison without food or drink. Meanwhile, the brother of one of the prisoners, himself a heathen, came forward and accused a senator by the name of Dativus of having been the means of inducing his sister, whose name was Victoria, to hear Mass. But Victoria spoke up for herself: “It was by no man’s persuasion, but of my own free will,” she said, “that I went to that house to attend Holy Mass; for I am a Christian, and my crime is that I follow the law of Christ.” Her brother answered: “You are demented and speak like a fool.” “I am no fool,” she replied, “but a Christian.” The Emperor then asked if she would return home with her brother, but she answered that she recognized those as her true brethren and sisters who suffered for the name of Christ; nor would she abandon them, for she too had been present at Mass and with them had received Holy Communion. The Emperor urged her to save herself by following her brother’s counsel, for he wished to spare her, as she was a woman of rare beauty and a member of one of the first families in the town; but, finding he prevailed not at all, he ordered her to be placed in confinement and no effort to be spared to induce her to give up her faith. The parents of this maiden had desired her to marry against her will, and rather than submit to this, she had sprung out of a high window and going to Saturninus, the priest, entreated him to admit her into the number of consecrated virgins.
Finally, the tyrant addressed Saturninus himself and inquired whether in defiance of the imperial decree he had assembled those people for worship. Saturninus replied: “I assembled them by God’s command for His divine service.” “Why did you do that?” the Emperor asked. “Because it is obligatory upon us to offer the Holy Sacrifice,” the priest answered. And upon the Emperor’s inquiring further whether it was at his instigation and persuasion that the people assembled for this purpose, he acknowledged that it was so and that he had himself said the Mass. The judge then sentenced him to be stripped and torn with hooks until his bowels protruded through his flesh; afterwards, he was thrown into the dungeon where the other prisoners were confined.
Emericus, another of the captives (who was subsequently canonized), was next led before the Emperor. On being asked who he was, he said that he was the one who was responsible for this meeting, for it was in his house that the Mass was celebrated, and he had caused it to be done for the sake of his brethren, because they could not be deprived of Holy Mass. Thereupon, he met with the same fate as the others. Then the Emperor, addressing the remaining prisoners, said: “It is to be hoped that you will take warning by the punishment inflicted on your fellow-Christians and not throw your lives away in like manner.” But they all answered as one man: “We are Christians; we are resolved to keep the law of Christ, though it cost us our blood.” Singling out one of those before him, Felix by name, the Emperor said: “I do not ask you whether you are a Christian, but whether you were present when the Mass was celebrated.” “That question is quite superfluous,” Felix replied; “a Christian cannot exist without Holy Mass, any more than Mass can be celebrated without Christian people. I boldly avow that we met together with pious devotion and offered our prayers during the time the Mass was being said.” At this the tyrant flew into such a rage that he caused the holy martyr to be thrown to the ground and beaten to death.
After all the captives had been most cruelly tortured, they were thrust together into one large dungeon, and their jailers were strictly ordered to give them no food whatsoever. Their relatives, hearing this, came to the prison, bringing provisions with them, but the jailers searched them, took everything from them and ill-treated them into the bargain. The inhuman tyrant never relaxed his barbarity; thus the servants of Christ were left to perish of hunger and thirst in the prison.
This story, which Baronius takes from the ancient records, proves beyond a doubt that in the early Christian Church Mass was said and that the Faithful were present at it. We may also learn from it how great was the devotion which the pious Christians of the first centuries had for Holy Mass, so that, rather than desist from hearing it, they were willing to suffer agonizing torture and the most cruel death. And whence was this fervor? It arose from their appreciation of the sovereign virtue of Holy Mass and their keen desire to share in its fruits. Let their example be a lesson to us, inciting us to hear Mass with
greater devotion and more profit to our souls.
Taken from The Incredible Catholic Mass by Fr. Martin von Cochem, Chapter 2, pgs. 42-46