The Roman Martyrology Shows What It Means to Die Like a Christian

It’s not pretty, but the Roman Martyrology reminds us of all the saints who have suffered torment and torture in witness to Jesus Christ.

Konstantin Flavitsky, “Christian Martyrs in the Colosseum” (1862)
Konstantin Flavitsky, “Christian Martyrs in the Colosseum” (1862) (photo: Public Domain)

Admittedly the Roman Martyrology doesn’t hold the same pride of place on most Catholics’ home bookshelves as other hagiographical tomes. More popular (read: “shorter”) books such as the one-volume versions of Butler’s Lives of the Saints and The Golden Legend, along with any number of books on “The Saint of The Day,” seem to have displaced the official Roman hagiology.

Still, the Roman Martyrology serves two purposes—one liturgical, one devotional. First, since Benedict XVI’s 2007 motu proprio Summorum Pontificium liberated not only the Latin Mass, but also the pre-1962 version of The Divine Office, the Martyrology is read daily during Prime (the second liturgical morning hour—after Lauds—which was suppressed under Blessed Paul VI’s revision of the Liturgy of the Hours). Since Prime is itself a combination of two liturgical “hours,” the Martyrology reading forms a bridge between the two and reminds the reader, whether solo or in choir, of whom we are remembering on any given day.

Devotionally, the Roman Martyrology provides the reader preparation for the last four things: death, judgment, Heaven and Hell. But as its title declares, the key focus here is “death” and this is where the martyrology excels at collecting the way—make that the very many different ways—in which the martyrs gave their lives for the faith.

As mentioned in my piece on another monument to the lives of the saints, The Golden Legend, Eamon Duffy has noted at least 81 different deaths the martyrs suffered to gain the palm of life.

So without further delay, and with the warning that this is somewhat graphic, here are some of the saints and the way their lives ended, per the official Roman Martyrology:

January: “St. Concordius, priest and martyr, who in the time of the Emperor Antoninus, was first beaten with rods, then stretched on the rack, and afterward afflicted in prison. There he was consoled by an angel and at length ended his life by the sword.”

February: “St. Juliana, Virgin and Martyr, who first was grievously scourged by her father Africanus, under the Emperor Maximian, and then tortured in diverse ways by the prefect Evilasius, whom she refused to marry. Afterward she was cast into prison, where she openly fought with the devil, and then triumphing over the flames of fire and a boiling cauldron, she consummated her martyrdom by decapitation.”

March: “The passion of blessed Quirinius, a tribune, father of St. Balvina, Virgin. He was delivered to the judge Aurelain, and when he persisted in the confession of the faith, unconquered soldier of Christ, he ended his contest of martyrdom with the sword, after he had suffered the cutting out of his tongue, torture upon the rack, and the amputation of his hands and feet.”

April: “St. Sabas… he was burnt with torches, and cast into a cauldron of boiling pitch, but he emerged unharmed and by this miracle converted many souls to Christ. All these, remaining constant in the profession of the faith, were slain by the sword. But he himself was drowned in a river.”

May: “James, who is called the Lord’s brother and the first Bishop of Jerusalem, was cast headlong from a pinnacle of the temple, and his legs being broken, and his brains scattered by a blow from a fuller’s club, he died, and was buried not far from the temple.”

June: “St. Dulas, Martyr, who, under the governor Maximus, having been scourged with rods for Christ’s name, set upon a gridiron, burnt with boiling oil, and suffered other torments, as a victor receiving the palm of martyrdom.”

July: “The passion of the holy virgins Justa and Rufina, who were arrested by the prefect Diogenian, and were first of all tortured by the rack and torn with hooks: afterward they suffered imprisonment, starvation, and various torments; at last Justa gave up the ghost in prison, while Rufina’s neck was broken for her confession of The Lord.”

August: “At Carthage, the holy martyrs Liberatus, Boniface, Servus, and Rusticus, Rogatus and Septimus and Maximus: in the Vandal persecution under King Hunneric they were assailed by various unheard-of tortures for confessing the Catholic faith and defending the non-repetition of baptism. Last of all they were fastened with nails to pieces of wood wherewith they were to be burnt, but although the fire was kindled again and again, yet by the power of God it was each time extinguished, and by command of the king they were smitten with oars, and their brains dashed out so that they were slain, and thus, being crowned by the Lord, they fulfilled the splendid course of their battle.”

September: “The holy martyrs Andochius, Priest, Thyrsus, Deacon, and Felix, who were sent by blessed Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, from the East to evangelize France, and were there cruelly scourged and hung up by their hands all day long and cast into the fire; but since they were not burnt, at length their necks were broken with heavy bars and thus they were gloriously crowned.”

October: “Saints Martinian and Saturian with their two brothers, who in the time of the Vandal persecution, under the Arian King Genseric, were servants of a certain Vandal, and were converted to Christ’s faith by their fellow-servant St. Maxima, a Virgin. For their constancy in the Catholic faith they were first of all beaten with knotted scourges by their master, and flayed even to the bones; but after suffering such things for a long time and returning on the next day always together unhurt, they were at last sent into exile, where they converted many barbarians to the faith of Christ, and obtained from the Roman pontiff a priest and other ministers who baptized them. Finally, feet tied together, at the backs of moving chariots, they were ordered to be dragged through thorny parts of a wood to their death.”

November: “St. Theodore… after he had been stretched upon the rack and lacerated with hooks so that his entrails appeared, he was given over to be burnt with lighted torches. St. Gregory of Nyssa celebrated his praise in a famous eulogy.”

December: “In Armenia, the passion of the holy martyrs Eustratius, Auxentius, Eugene, Mardarius and Orestes, in the persecution of Diocletian. Of these, Eustratius, under Lysias, then at Sebaste under the governor Agricolaus together with Orestes was first of all subjected to extreme tortures and, being cast into a furnace, gave up the ghost. Orestes was placed upon a heated iron couch and so passed to the Lord. The rest suffered cruelest punishments among the Arabaci, under the governor Lysias, and consummated martyrdom in different ways.”

It’s not pretty, but the Roman Martyrology reminds us of all the saints who have suffered almost every conceivable form of torment and torture in order to give us an example that, hopefully, we will not have to follow—but will know that they did to keep their (and our) faith alive.