The saints in our liturgical calendar are not just names described by dates and a few words. They’re much more. They tell us how God works in time through his church.
We just remembered Saints Cornelius and Cyprian (September 16) who died martyrs a few years apart in the middle of the 3rd century. One was bishop of Rome, the other Bishop of Carthage in Africa. They lived in times of fierce persecution, before the peace brought by the Emperor Constantine in 312.
As church leaders they constantly faced death and at the same time had to deal with difficult circumstances in the church. They’re not the only ones we remember from those crucial times. There are other church leaders, like Pope Callistus 1, (October 14), Pope Fabian (January 20), Pope Sixtus and four of his deacons (August 6), Lawrence the Deacon (August 10) who lived through those times. We remember all of them in our calendar.
Besides church leaders, we remember other members of the body of the church from those hard years. Heroic women, like Agnes (January 21), Cecilia (November 22), Agatha (February 5), Felicity and Perpetua (March 7), Two doctors, Cosmas and Damian (September 26) and a soldier Sebastian (January 20).
What can we learn from them? They remind us that in troubled times many leave the church. Faced with persecution, which was easily avoided then by simply offering sacrifice to the gods of the time, many Christians left the church. They would have joined the emperor, Marcus Aurelius (above), and offered homage at another altar.
Church leaders struggled with the question then of the “lapsi”, those who had left. Should we look for their return? Leave them to God? What kind of faith did they have anyway? Church leaders strongly disagreed on the approach to take. Cyprian is important because he was a church leader who took the side of mercy. Like good shepherds, go in search of the lost sheep. His writings are important too because he stressed the need for unity in his troubled church.
The women martyrs are important witnesses. The accounts of their lives are often called legends, but is that because they suffered so much alone, with no one at their side to give an eyewitness account? They suffered harsh torments, yet, like Mary they remained faithful.
The two doctors, Cosmas and Damian, continued to practice their skills, even in dangerous times. They didn’t give up on their calling. They kept healing people. Bad times are not times to give up.
Sebastian, the soldier, found himself serving a government at odds with his church. He too remained faithful. He was suspect and eventually killed because he treated Christian prisoners well.
We’re often reminded in the scriptures to remember those who have gone before us. The saints from times of persecution are special examples to follow. They offer wisdom for seeing our own times. We should pray to them and keep them in mind.