Leafing through the pages of the Golden Legend, we find facts from the lives of the Saints which, although they may lack historical proof, help us to appreciate the lives of the Blessed in their marvellous aspect, as can be noted in the episode narrated in these lines, describing the early origins of one of the most deeply-rooted Catholic devotions.
Two pillars of the Church, united until martyrdom
“Peace be with you, foundation of the churches, shepherd of the sheep and lambs of Christ!” Hearing these words at such a stirring moment, St. Peter, in turn, addressed his fraternal farewell to the Apostle of the Gentiles: “Go in peace, preacher of good morals, mediator and guide of the salvation of the just.”1 They had together fought the last battle in the preaching of the Gospel against the perfidious magician Simon, and now, after the triumph of orthodoxy, St. Peter and St. Paul now faced the same glorious end: martyrdom, which would take place on the same day and hour, in Rome, by order of the Emperor Nero.
Crucifixion was reserved for the Apostle who loved the most. His disciples, amid their tears, had the consolation of seeing Angels surrounding the cross from which he had been hung upside down. Our Lord Jesus Christ appeared to the Head of the Church and handed him a book, in which St. Peter read the following words: “It is You, Lord, I wished to imitate, but without presuming to be crucified upright, for always upright, splendid and sublime are You, whereas we are children of the first man, whose head is buried in the earth […]. You, Lord, are everything for me, […] there is nothing besides You.”2 And, commending all the faithful to God, he surrendered his spirit.
The intrepid St. Paul was beheaded, for he was a Roman citizen. At the moment of execution, from his lips flowed the name he had fearlessly preached and for which he had lovingly suffered untold torments: Jesus Christ! Indeed, “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Mt 12:34), especially in the last moments of life. When his venerable head was detached from his body, it struck the ground three times, and in each place a fountain miraculously sprang up.
After the martyrdom of these two pillars of Christianity had been consummated, a woman named Lemobia, who was present at St. Paul’s death, beheld a vision of the two Apostles wearing dazzling clothes and crowns of light on their heads.3 Those two fiery souls were already in heavenly glory, receiving the portion “which the Lord, the righteous Judge” (2 Tm 4:8) had reserved for them!
Meanwhile, however, here on earth their lifeless bodies would serve as the occasion for a beautiful act of heroism.
Beheaded in defence of the holy relics
It is said that on that very night, while silence reigned on the Roman streets, two women of the nobility took advantage of the circumstance to bury the bodies of these giants of the Faith who had offered their holocaust. Basilissa and Anastasia, who had been converted by the preaching and apostolate of both, did not hesitate to risk their lives in homage and gratitude to their teachers.
However, by providential design, the two were discovered and brought to Nero’s tribunal in order to reveal the whereabouts of the bodies, so that they could be burned.
Sustained by divine grace, neither of them could be brought to confess the hiding place of the holy corpses. The authorities, seized with fury at the heroic resistance of the two women, decided to torture them: they cut out their tongues and severed their arms and feet. Nevertheless, none of this was able to shake their fidelity! Both were finally beheaded by the iniquitous tribunal.
Precious heritage of the first Christians
The martyrdom of Sts. Basilissa and Anastasia on account of their defence of those mortal remains of those most worthy representatives of Christ Jesus reveals the strong devotion to relics of the earliest Christians.
The record of the death of St. Polycarp, disciple of St. John the Evangelist, recounts that the faithful gathered up the venerable Bishop’s bones, like precious gems, and buried them.4 Another account describes the holocaust of St. Ignatius of Antioch in the Coliseum, after which his followers collected his holy remains to be “deposited in the Church as a priceless treasure.” 5
The cult of relics ‒ a term originating from the Latin relinquere, to remain, and which in a religious sense refers to the remains of the bodies of the Saints or of objects used by them ‒ continued throughout the history of the Church. In the catacombs, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass was celebrated over the tombs of the martyrs; cathedrals were built to be great reliquaries, as it were. Sainte-Chapelle, for example, was built to enshrine the crown of thorns of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
However, relics were kept not only in buildings. It was the custom among Catholic knights to have them inlayed into the hilts of their swords to strengthen them in battle. Roland, Charlemagne’s nephew and one of his peers, carried a piece of Our Lady’s garment and a tooth of St. Peter in his sword.6
For the medieval faithful in general, militant in daily life, relics were instruments of grace and miracles. Accordingly, they spared no effort in making pilgrimages to visit of the bodies of the Blessed. And so this pious devotion became firmly established in souls, and took on new vigour in the troubled 16th century.
Condemnation of the heresy
At that time, the Protestant reformers spread their poison by preaching a kind of “invisible Church” and rejecting elements of mediation in the relationship between man and God. Outraged by the cult of human remains, which they impiously deemed idolatry, they burned several incorrupt bodies preserved in Europe.
The abomination reached such a pitch that, on invading the city of Rome, an antipapist army burned and destroyed countless relics and desecrated others of great value to Christendom: the head of St. Andrew was thrown to the ground; the cloth with which Veronica wiped the Holy Face of the Redeemer was offered for sale in an inn; the lance that pierced the side of the Divine Saviour was sarcastically carried in a profane parade.7
In the face of these and many other heresies and manifestations of hatred, the Church reacted by holding the Council of Trent, which reinforced that the veneration of the mortal remains of the Saints is a means whereby God bestows many benefits upon men, and condemned all those who contradict this truth and deny relics their due honour.8
We have intercessors in eternity!
The pragmatism of the present day unfortunately obscures the intelligence, weakens the will and unbalances sensitivity towards the things of Heaven, leading man to relegate the cult of relics to a secondary plane. Yet we have no idea how much the Blessed are, so to speak, “leaning over the parapet” of Heaven, at the disposition of earthly supplicants, desirous of helping them in their needs and leading them to union with God.
Let us, then, have recourse to the Saints; they are our brothers! And if on earth they fulfilled to a heroic degree the divine commandment to love their neighbour as themselves, how much more will they not strive for our good, now that they are enjoying eternal happiness! ◊
1 BLESSED JACOBUS DE VORAGINE. Legenda áurea. Vidas de Santos. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2003, p.506.
2 Idem, p.507.
3 Idem, p.517.
4 Cf. RUIZ BUENO, Daniel (Ed.). Actas de los mártires. 5.ed. Madrid: BAC, 2003, p.277.
5 RUINART, Teodorico. Las verdaderas actas de los mártires. Madrid: Joachin Ibarra, 1776, t.I, p.21.
6 Cf. JONIN, Pierre (Ed.). A canção de Rolando. São Paulo: Martins Fontes, 2006, p.83.
7 Cf. HIBBERT, Christopher. Rome: the biography of a city. London: Penguin, 1985, p.158.
8 Cf. DH 1822.