First Martyrs of the See of Rome

The holy men and women are also called the “Protomartyrs of Rome.” They were accused of burning Rome by Nero , who burned Rome to cover his own crimes. Some martyrs were burned as living torches at evening banquets, some crucified, others were fed to wild animals. These martyrs died before Sts. Peter and Paul, and are called “disciples of the Apostles. . . whom the Holy Roman church sent to their Lord before the Apostles’ death.”

St. Peter

Peter, who was also known as Simon Peter of Cephas, is considered the first Pope. Despite his papacy, Peter had humble beginnings and became one of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus. He was ordained by Jesus in the “Rock of My Church” written in Matthew 16:17-18, which says, “Jesus replied, ‘Simon son of Jonah, you are a blessed man!

Because it was no human agency that revealed this to you but my Father in heaven. So I now say to you: You are Peter and on this rock I will build my community. And the gates of the underworld can never overpower it.'”

Peter was a native of Bethsaida, near Lake Tiberias and was the son of Jonah. He and his brother Andrew were fishermen on Lake Genesareth. The Bible chronicles when the brothers met Jesus in Luke chapter 5, which reads:

“Now it happened that he was standing one day by the Lake of Gennesaret, with the crowd pressing round him listening to the word of God, when he caught sight of two boats at the water’s edge. The fishermen had got out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats — it was Simon’s — and asked him to put out a little from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat.

When he had finished speaking he said to Simon, ‘Put out into deep water and pay out your nets for a catch.’ Simon replied, ‘Master, we worked hard all night long and caught nothing, but if you say so, I will pay out the nets.’ And when they had done this they netted such a huge number of fish that their nets began to tear, so they signaled to their companions in the other boat to come and help them; when these came, they filled both boats to sinking point.

When Simon Peter saw this he fell at the knees of Jesus saying, ‘Leave me, Lord; I am a sinful man.’ For he and all his companions were completely awestruck at the catch they had made; so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were Simon’s partners. But Jesus said to Simon, ‘Do not be afraid; from now on it is people you will be catching.’ Then, bringing their boats back to land they left everything and followed him.”

Just like that, Peter followed Jesus and his life was changed forever. Though he was one of the first disciples called to follow Jesus and eventually became the spokesman for the group, Peter is known for his “little faith.”

In Matthew 14, Jesus and his disciples came ashore, where a large crowd waited. Jesus healed the sick and by the end of the day, his disciples told him to tell everyone to go to the villages for food but Jesus performed a miracle and made give loaves of bread and two fish feed the group of five-hundred people. Following the miracle, Jesus told the disciples to take their boat to the other side of a nearby river while he sent the crowds away.

After he bid farewell to the throngs of people, he prayed by himself in the hills. As he prayed, the boat the disciples were on was experiencing rough waves and “In the fourth watch of the night,” Jesus approached their boat as he walked on the water. When his disciples spied Jesus walking on the water, they were afraid but Jesus called to them and said, “Courage! It’s me! Don’t be afraid.” Peter answered “Lord … if it is you, tell me to come to you across the water.”

Jesus told him to come so Peter began to walk toward Jesus on the surface of the water. It wasn’t until he noticed the wind that he began to fear and cried “Lord … save me!” Jesus touched him and said, “You have so little faith … why did you doubt?”

This is one of many stories involving Peter and Jesus. Another famous story is Peter’s attempt to save Jesus from the soldiers who came to take Him to his doom. As described in John 18:10-12, “Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant, cutting off his right ear. The servant’s name was Malchus. Jesus said to Peter, ‘Put your sword back in its scabbard; am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?’ The cohort and its tribune and the Jewish guards seized Jesus and bound him.”

Following the failed attempt to save Jesus, Peter was recorded denying Jesus, which The Savior foretold during the Last Supper in Mark 14:18-31:

“And while they were at table eating, Jesus said, ‘In truth I tell you, one of you is about to betray me, one of you eating with me.’ They were distressed and said to him, one after another, ‘Not me, surely?’ He said to them, ‘It is one of the Twelve, one who is dipping into the same dish with me. Yes, the Son of man is going to his fate, as the scriptures say he will, but alas for that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! Better for that man if he had never been born.’

“And as they were eating he took bread, and when he had said the blessing he broke it and gave it to them. ‘Take it,’ he said, ‘this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he handed it to them, and all drank from it, and he said to them, ‘This is my blood, the blood of the covenant, poured out for many. In truth I tell you, I shall never drink wine any more until the day I drink the new wine in the kingdom of God.’

“After the psalms had been sung they left for the Mount of Olives. And Jesus said to them, ‘You will all fall away, for the scripture says: I shall strike the shepherd and the sheep will be scattered; however, after my resurrection I shall go before you into Galilee.’

“Peter said, ‘Even if all fall away, I will not.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘In truth I tell you, this day, this very night, before the cock crows twice, you will have disowned me three times.’ But he repeated still more earnestly, ‘If I have to die with you, I will never disown you.’ And they all said the same.”

Regardless of his claims, Peter did deny Christ three times. His denials were recorded in Mark 14:66-72:

“While Peter was down below in the courtyard, one of the high priest’s servant-girls came up. She saw Peter warming himself there, looked closely at him and said, ‘You too were with Jesus, the man from Nazareth.’ But he denied it. ‘I do not know, I do not understand what you are talking about,’ he said. And he went out into the forecourt, and a cock crowed.

“The servant-girl saw him and again started telling the bystanders, ‘This man is one of them.’ But again he denied it. A little later the bystanders themselves said to Peter, ‘You are certainly one of them! Why, you are a Galilean.’ But he started cursing and swearing, ‘I do not know the man you speak of.’

“And at once the cock crowed for the second time, and Peter recalled what Jesus had said to him, ‘Before the cock crows twice, you will have disowned me three times.’ And he burst into tears.”

Matthew 26:69-75 and John 18:17-27 also tell the story of Peter disowning Jesus three times. Following Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, it was Peter who first entered the empty tomb. It was described in Luke 24:12 that when Peter heard Mary of Magdala, Joanna, and Mary, the mother of James, claim Jesus’ tomb was empty, he “went off to the tomb, running. He bent down and looked in and saw the linen cloths but nothing else; he then went back home, amazed at what had happened.”

1 Corinthians 15:3-7 describes how Jesus resurrected and appeared before Peter first. “The tradition I handed on to you in the first place, a tradition which I had myself received was that Christ died for our sins, in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried; and that on the third day, he was raised to life, in accordance with the scriptures; and that he appeared to [Peter of] Cephas; and later to the Twelve; and next he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still with us, though some have fallen asleep; then he appeared to James, and then to all the apostles.”

Following his resurrection, Christ came before his disciples several times. John:21:12-23 describes an instance when Peter is given three chances to admit his love for Jesus, and each time he says he does.

“Jesus said to them, ‘Come and have breakfast.’ None of the disciples was bold enough to ask, ‘Who are you?’ They knew quite well it was the Lord. Jesus then stepped forward, took the bread and gave it to them, and the same with the fish.

“This was the third time that Jesus revealed himself to the disciples after rising from the dead. When they had eaten, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these others do?’ He answered, ‘Yes, Lord, you know I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’

“A second time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He replied, ‘Yes, Lord, you know I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Look after my sheep.’ Then he said to him a third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter was hurt that he asked him a third time, ‘Do you love me?’ and said, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep.

“In all truth I tell you, when you were young you put on your own belt and walked where you liked; but when you grow old you will stretch out your hands, and somebody else will put a belt round you and take you where you would rather not go.’

“In these words he indicated the kind of death by which Peter would give glory to God. After this he said, ‘Follow me.’ Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them — the one who had leant back close to his chest at the supper and had said to him, ‘Lord, who is it that will betray you?’

“Seeing him, Peter said to Jesus, ‘What about him, Lord?’ Jesus answered, ‘If I want him to stay behind till I come, what does it matter to you? You are to follow me.’ The rumour then went out among the brothers that this disciple would not die. Yet Jesus had not said to Peter, ‘He will not die,’ but, ‘If I want him to stay behind till I come.'”

Jesus offered Peter three chances to follow Him and with the three confirmations of love, Peter was able to balance his three previous denials.

In the time following Christ’s Ascension, Peter stood as the unquestionable head of the Apostles, which the book of Acts clearly describes. He went on to appoint the replacement of Judas Iscariot, spoke first to the crowds that had assembled after the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, he was the first Apostle to perform miracles in the name of the Lord, and he rendered judgment upon the deceitful Ananias and Sapphira, both of whom were stealing from church members and God alike.

Peter was instrumental in bringing the Gospel to the Gentiles. He baptized the Roman pagan Cornelius, and at the Council of Jerusalem gave his support to preach to Gentiles, thereby permitting the new Church to become universal.

There are so many stories about Peter that it is nearly impossible to fully encompass his deeds, but one story of note was when he was imprisoned by King Herod Agrippa but was able to escape with the help of an angel.

King Herod had begun to persecute specific members of the church and had James, the brother of John beheaded. The Jewish community was grateful for the persecutions so Herod continued and went after Peter. As described in Acts 12:4-11:

“As it was during the days of Unleavened Bread that he had arrested him, he put him in prison, assigning four sections of four soldiers each to guard him, meaning to try him in public after the Passover. All the time Peter was under guard the church prayed to God for him unremittingly.

“On the night before Herod was to try him, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, fastened with two chains, while guards kept watch at the main entrance to the prison. Then suddenly an angel of the Lord stood there, and the cell was filled with light. He tapped Peter on the side and woke him. ‘Get up!’ he said, ‘Hurry!’ — and the chains fell from his hands.

“The angel then said, ‘Put on your belt and sandals.’ After he had done this, the angel next said, ‘Wrap your cloak round you and follow me.’ He followed him out, but had no idea that what the angel did was all happening in reality; he thought he was seeing a vision.

“They passed through the first guard post and then the second and reached the iron gate leading to the city. This opened of its own accord; they went through it and had walked the whole length of one street when suddenly the angel left him. It was only then that Peter came to himself. And he said, ‘Now I know it is all true. The Lord really did send his angel and save me from Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.'”

Following his escape, Peter resumed his apostolate in Jerusalem and his missionary efforts included travels to such cities of the pagan world as Antioch, Corinth, and eventually Rome. He made reference to the Eternal City in his first Epistle by noting that he writes from Babylon. Through a variety of works, it is certain that Peter died in Rome and that his martyrdom came during the reign of Emperor Nero, believed to be in 64 AD.

Testimony of his martyrdom is extensive, including Origen, Eusebius of Caesarea, St. Clement I of Rome, St. Ignatius, and St. Irenaeus. According to rich tradition, Peter was crucified on the Vatican Hill upside down because he declared himself unworthy to die in the same manner as the Lord. He was then buried in Rome near the Vatican on Vatican Hill.

In the early 4th century, Emporor Constantine I honored Peter with a large basilica over the site of his burial despite the slope of Vatican Hill, which first needed to be excavated. According to a letter, Pope Vitalian sent a cross with filings said to be from Peter’s chains to the queen of Oswy, Anglo-Saxon King of Northumbria in 665 along with unspecified relics of Peter.

In 1950 human bones were discovered beneath the alter of St. Peter’s Basilica and many claimed they belonged to Peter. In 1953 an excavation found St. Peter’s tomb in Jerusalem bearing his previous name Simon, as well as the tombs of the other apostles, Mary, and Jesus.

In the 1960s, discarded debris from the excavation beneath St. Peter’s Basilica were re-examined and were identified as the bones of a male human. This discovery caused Pope Paul VI in 1968 to announce they were likely to belong to the Apostle Peter. On November 24, 2013, Pope Francis revealed the relics of nine bone fragments for the first time in public during a Mass celebrated at St. Peter’s Square.

While Peter’s chief feast day is June 29, he is also honored on February 22 and November 18. In liturgical art, he is depicted as an elderly man holding a key and a book. His symbols include an inverted cross, a boat, and the cock.

St. Irenaeus

The writings of St. Irenaeus entitle him to a high place among the fathers of the Church, for they not only laid the foundations of Christian theology but, by exposing and refuting the errors of the gnostics, they delivered the Catholic Faith from the real danger of the doctrines of those heretics.

He was probably born about the year 125, in one of those maritime provinces of Asia Minor where the memory of the apostles was still cherished and where Christians were numerous. He was most influenced by St. Polycarp who had known the apostles or their immediate disciples

Many Asian priests and missionaries brought the gospel to the pagan Gauls and founded a local church. To this church of Lyon, Irenaeus came to serve as a priest under its first bishop, St. Pothinus, an oriental like himself. In the year 177, Irenaeus was sent to Rome. This mission explains how it was that he was not called upon to share in the martyrdom of St Pothinus during the terrible persecution in Lyons. When he returned to Lyons it was to occupy the vacant bishopric. By this time, the persecution was over. It was the spread of gnosticism in Gaul, and the ravages it was making among the Christians of his diocese, that inspired him to undertake the task of exposing its errors. He produced a treatise in five books in which he sets forth fully the inner doctrines of the various sects, and afterwards contrasts them with the teaching of the Apostles and the text of the Holy Scripture. His work, written in Greek but quickly translated to Latin, was widely circulated and succeeded in dealing a death-blow to gnosticism. At any rate, from that time onwards, it ceased to offer a serious menace to the Catholic faith.

The date of death of St. Irenaeus is not known, but it is believed to be in the year 202. The bodily remains of St. Irenaeus were buried in a crypt under the altar of what was then called the church of St. John, but was later known by the name of St. Irenaeus himself. This tomb or shrine was destroyed by the Calvinists in 1562, and all trace of his relics seems to have perished.

St. Cyril of Alexandria

St. Cyril of Alexandria, Bishop and Doctor of the Church (June 27) Cyril was born at Alexandria, Egypt. He was nephew of the patriarch of that city, Theophilus. Cyril received a classical and theological education at Alexandria and was ordained by his uncle. He accompanied Theophilus to Constantinople in 403 and was present at the Synod of the Oak that deposed John Chrysostom, whom he believed guilty of the charges against him. He succeeded his uncle Theophilus as patriarch of Alexandria on Theophilus’ death in 412, but only after a riot between Cyril’s supporters and the followers of his rival Timotheus. Cyril at once began a series of attacks against the Novatians, whose churches he closed; the Jews, whom he drove from the city; and governor Orestes, with whom he disagreed about some of his actions. In 430 Cyril became embroiled with Nestorius, patriarch of Constantinople, who was preaching that Mary was not the Mother of God since Christ was Divine and not human, and consequently she should not have the word theotokos (God-bearer) applied to her. He persuaded Pope Celestine I to convoke a synod at Rome, which condemned Nestorius, and then did the same at his own synod in Alexandria. Celestine directed Cyril to depose Nestorius, and in 431, Cyril presided over the third General Council at Ephesus, attended by some two hundred bishops, which condemned all the tenets of Nestorius and his followers before the arrival of Archbishop John of Antioch and forty-two followers who believed Nestorius was innocent. When they found what had been done, they held a council of their own and deposed Cyril. Emperor Theodosius II arrested both Cyril and Nestorius but released Cyril on the arrival of Papal Legates who confirmed the council’s actions against Nestorius and declared Cyril innocent of all charges. Two years later, Archbishop John, representing the moderate Antiochene bishops, and Cyril reached an agreement and joined in the condemnation, and Nestorius was forced into exile. During the rest of his life, Cyril wrote treatises that clarified the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation and that helped prevent Nestorianism and Pelagianism from taking long-term deep root in the Christian community. He was the most brilliant theologian of the Alexandrian tradition. His writings are characterized by accurate thinking, precise exposition, and great reasoning skills. Among his writings are commentaries on John, Luke, and the Pentateuch, treatises on dogmatic theology, and Apologia against Julian the Apostate, and letters and sermons. He was declared a doctor of the Church by Pope Leo XIII in 1882. His feast day is June 27th.

St. Anthelm

Carthusian monk and bishop, defender of papal authority. Anthelm was born in 1107 in a castle near Chambery, in Savoy, France. He was ordained a priest and visited the Carthusian Charterhouse at Portes, where he entered the Order at the age of thirty. Two years later, in 1139, he was appointed abbot of Le Grande Chartreuse, which had been damaged. Anthelm made the monastery a worthy motherhouse of the Carthusians, constructing a defensive wall and an aqueduct. As minister-general, Anthelm also united the various charterhouses of the Order. Rules were standardized, and women were given the opportunity to enter the Carthusians in their own charterhouses. After a few years as a hermit, starting in 1152, Anthelm returned to Le Grande Chartreuse and defended Pope Alexander III against the antipope Victor IV. In 1163, the pope appointed him as bishop of Belley, France. Anthelm reformed the clergy and regulated affairs, going as far as to excommunicate a local noble, Count Humbert of Maurienne, who had taken one priest captive and murdered another priest trying to free him. When Humbert appealed to Rome and won a reversal, Anthelm left Belley in protest. Pope Alexander then sent Anthelm to England to mediate the dispute between Henry II and St. Thomas Becket. Anthelm was unable to undertake that journey. He returned to Belley to care for the poor and for the local lepers. On his deathbed, Anthelm received a penitent Count Humbert. Anthelm died on June 26, 1178. His feast has been celebrated by the Carthusians since 1607. His relics were enshrined in Belley. In liturgical art, Anthelm is depicted with a lamp lit by a divine hand.

St. William of Vercelli

William of Vercelli, Saint 1085-1142. founder, born in Vercelli Italy he was brought up as an orphan became a hermit on Monte Vergine, Italy after a pilgrimage to Compostella and attracted so many followers that a monastery was buillt. By 1119 his followers were united in the Benedictine congregation, the Hermits of Monte Vergine (Williamites) which he headed. The austerity of his rule led to dissension among his monks to restore peace he left and was taken under the protection of Roger I of Naples who built a monastery for him in Salerno. He founded monasteries through out Naples, and died at the Guglielmo monastery near Nusco Italy. He is also called William of Monte Vergine. Feast day June 25.

St. John the Baptist

John the Baptist was the son of Zachary, a priest of the Temple in Jerusalem, and Elizabeth, a kinswoman of Mary who visited her. He was probably born at Ain-Karim southwest of Jerusalem after the Angel Gabriel had told Zachary that his wife would bear a child even though she was an old woman. He lived as a hermit in the desert of Judea until about A.D. 27. When he was thirty, he began to preach on the banks of the Jordan against the evils of the times and called men to penance and baptism “for the Kingdom of Heaven is close at hand”. He attracted large crowds, and when Christ came to him, John recognized Him as the Messiah and baptized Him, saying, “It is I who need baptism from You”. When Christ left to preach in Galilee, John continued preaching in the Jordan valley. Fearful of his great power with the people, Herod Antipas, Tetrarch of Perea and Galilee, had him arrested and imprisoned at Machaerus Fortress on the Dead Sea when John denounced his adultrous and incestuous marriage with Herodias, wife of his half brother Philip. John was beheaded at the request of Salome, daughter of Herodias, who asked for his head at the instigation of her mother. John inspired many of his followers to follow Christ when he designated Him “the Lamb of God,” among them Andrew and John, who came to know Christ through John’s preaching. John is presented in the New Testament as the last of the Old Testament prophets and the precursor of the Messiah. His feast day is June 24th and the feast for his beheading is August 29th.

St. Joseph Cafasso

Joseph Cafasso was born at Castelnuovo d’Asti in the Piedmont, Italy, of peasant parents. He studied at the seminary at Turin, and was ordained in 1833. He continued his theological studies at the seminary and university at Turin and then at the Institute of St. Franics, and despite a deformed spine, became a brilliant lecturer in moral theology there. He was a popular teacher, actively opposed Jansenism, and fought state intrusion into Church affairs. He succeeded Luigi Guala as rector of the Institute in 1848 and made a deep impression on his young priest students with his holiness and insistence on discipline and high standards. He was a sought-after confessor and spiritual adviser, and ministered to prisoners, working to improve their terrible conditions. He met Don Bosco in 1827 and the two became close friends. It was through Joseph’s encouragement that Bosco decided his vocation was working with boys. Joseph was his adviser, worked closely with him in his foundations, and convinced others to fund and found religious institutes and charitable organizations. Joseph died on June 23 at Turin and was canonized in 1947. His feast day is June 23rd.

St. Thomas More

St. Thomas More, Martyr (Patron of Lawyers) St. Thomas More was born at London in 1478. After a thorough grounding in religion and the classics, he entered Oxford to study law. Upon leaving the university he embarked on a legal career which took him to Parliament. In 1505, he married his beloved Jane Colt who bore him four children, andwhen she died at a young age, he married a widow, Alice Middleton, to be a mother for his young children. A wit and a reformer, this learned man numbered Bishops and scholars among his friends, and by 1516 wrote his world-famous book “Utopia”. He attracted the attention of Henry VIII who appointed him to a succession of high posts and missions, and finally made him Lord Chancellor in 1529. However, he resigned in 1532, at the height of his career and reputation, when Henry persisted in holding his own opinions regarding marriage and the supremacy of the Pope. The rest of his life was spent in writing mostly in defense of the Church. In 1534, with his close friend, St. John Fisher, he refused to render allegiance to the King as the Head of the Church of England and was confined to the Tower. Fifteen months later, and nine days after St. John Fisher’s execution, he was tried and convicted of treason. He told the court that he could not go against his conscience and wished his judges that “we may yet hereafter in heaven merrily all meet together to everlasting salvation.” And on the scaffold, he told the crowd of spectators that he was dying as “the King’s good servant-but God’s first.” He was beheaded on July 6, 1535. His feast day is June 22nd.

St. Aloysius Gonzaga

St. Aloysius was born in Castiglione, Italy. The first words St. Aloysius spoke were the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary. He was destined for the military by his father (who was in service to Philip II), but by the age of 9 Aloysius had decided on a religious life, and made a vow of perpetual virginity. To safeguard himself from possible temptation, he would keep his eyes persistently downcast in the presence of women. St. Charles Borromeo gave him his first Holy Communion. A kidney disease prevented St. Aloysius from a full social life for a while, so he spent his time in prayer and reading the lives of the saints. Although he was appointed a page in Spain, St. Aloysius kept up his many devotions and austerities, and was quite resolved to become a Jesuit. His family eventually moved back to Italy, where he taught catechism to the poor. When he was 18, he joined the Jesuits, after finally breaking down his father, who had refused his entrance into the order. He served in a hospital during the plague of 1587 in Milan, and died from it at the age of 23, after receiving the last rites from St. Robert Bellarmine. The last word he spoke was the Holy Name of Jesus. St. Robert wrote the Life of St. Aloysius.