Devotion to martyrs in the roman liturgy
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Mario Lessi Ariosto

First testimonies

When the Roman Liturgy began to assume specific characteristics and certain differences compared to the other liturgies, the era of the martyrs was not over. Christians were accustomed to bury their dead with all due honour and especially those who had been witnesses of the faith even to the point of giving their life. Up until the third century, only scarce traces of actual devotion to martyrs are found. The devotion developed from the local funeral customs, purified in the light of the Christian faith and matured through reflection on the ecclesial role of martyrdom and martyrs.

There are two main streams of research, which shed light one on the other and allow us to learn about the early forms of devotion to martyrs: those which, in the broadest sense, can be termed archaeological and those better called literary. Here we will deal mainly with the latter, although we are aware that the one needs the other to permit access to greater information.

The first references in Rome are found in the Depositio Martyrum of 354 AD which goes back, apart from the Apostles, to the time of Pope Calixtus and the group of seven deacons martyred with Pope Sixtus during the persecutions of 258. In the Philo Calendar there is no mention of martyrs of the second century and we find no few omissions which have given rise to more than one conjecture, but which, in substance, reflect devotion to martyrs in Rome. At the same time in Carthage, in the African area of the Roman Liturgy, Bishop Cyprian is added to the list of martyrs of his own Church, a list of which he is aware and of which he writes.

Literary sources testify however to the existence of reflection on martyrdom and martyrs, through expressions such as that of Tertullian: "Christus in martyre est" (De Pudicitia, 22) or another of Saint Cyprian: "Evangelium Christi unde martyres fiume" (Epist. 38), which show that the basis of martyrdom is a profession of total adherence to the Gospel, almost a "re-presentation" of the redeeming Passion and Death of Christ. This is why every Church which, by divine consent, feels illustrated, made illustrious and also illuminated on its path towards Christ by the glorious blood of its martyrs, described as "incolae Christi", "blessed", "most blessed", may also glory herself in the title of blessed (Cf Cyprianus Epist. 10 ).

Every Church recorded in its annals the dates of its sons' martyrdom (Cf Cyprian, Epist. 12, 2), the gestures, the place of the tomb. And in the Roman tradition there comes a time when even martyrs originally from another Church are considered citizens of the place of martyrdom. (Cf Damasus, Epigram n. 46, for Saint Saturnino: "Sanguine mutavit patriam"). Every year on the "dies natalis", which for Christians is the day of death, the Christian community would gather at the tomb of the martyr or in a more spacious place nearby, for a joyful celebration of the "Refrigerium" or funeral meal with readings, prayers, - the Eucharist in spontaneous forms typical of the Roman Liturgy in early times. These assemblies form that spirit of which later Saint Augustine will say: «Ideo quippe ad ipsam mensam (...) eos commemorarmus (...) ut eorum vestigiis adhaereamus» (In Ioan tract. 84,1).

The "memory" of the gestures of the martyrdom was most probably done through the reading of the account of the martyrdom during the liturgical celebration and the celebration of a "memory" of a martyr included that of a place and an anniversary.

How devotion to martyrs spread and the forms in which it has been preserved

Already for some of the preceding affirmations we have gone beyond the period prior to the Constantinian peace. It will not be surprising to see that the tombs of the martyrs are adorned with decoration which distinguishes them from those of the other dead, the customary use of lamps near the tombs doubled on the day of the anniversary and the inscriptions on the tombs replaced with other more commendatory ones. Among inscriptions of this kind, most famous are those of Pope Damasus for their artistic value and for the testimony of living historical memory which they hand down and orientate. Over some of the tombs basilicas are built, to serve as places of prayer and memorial, permitting the anniversary celebrations to assume a solemn character. The tombs of the martyrs become places of pilgrimage (Cf Paolinus Nolanus, Carmen 26 vv. 387-388; Prudentius, Peristephan. Hymn XI, vv. 195-210).

An ulterior development of devotion to the martyrs in the Roman liturgy will take place when this is extended to "cenotaphs" or votive tombs not containing the martyr's body or to "relics", either objects held in contact with the bodies or the tombs of the martyrs, or actual parts of the mortal remains. The mentality arising from the Roman law offered considerable initial resistance against dismemberment and even only the transfer of the martyrs' remains. Although discovery and transfer of the relics of the saints are noted by the end of the IV century in Rome, nevertheless, the general phenomena is later (Cf St Gregory the Great in a negative answer to the Empress Constantina). But since many graves of the martyrs were outside the city, it was not long, in Rome and elsewhere, before Christians began in the 7th century to transfer the bodies of the martyrs within the city to save them from neglect and possible looting. This was accentuated after the first invasions of the Longobards and the Saracens.

Although starting from the 4th century, not all the spreading of devotion to relics, the construction of "memoriae", the custom of celebrating anniversaries was immune from falsification and abuse which the bishops reproved and corrected (Cf for the relics and also for wrestling at fraternal agapes, the works of Saint Augustine), the fervour of initiatives testifies clearly a great desire on the part of the Christians to render honour to the martyrs. In the time of Saint Augustine, next to the "Martyria" or "Memoryae" of the local martyrs of Christian Africa, "Martyria" or "Memoriae" for "reliquiae" from other Churches were built. These "martyria" also became places of veneration richly decorated and widely frequented. What we know of Africa, from the writings of Augustine, also took place, although in different forms, in almost all the Churches in Italy, Spain and Gaul.

By the end of the 4th century, the Roman calendar was almost complete. Later, the different local Churches will share their calendars and this leads to ulterior extension. Not long after, the various calendars were combined to compile "martyrologies", lists of names and brief details of a certain number of martyrs belonging to different local Churches, whose anniversary occurred on the same day. Standing out among these is that of Saint Jerome, which is at the basis of all those which followed and were diffused in the ambit of the Roman liturgy, used in the Divine Office, as well as in private reading.

Comparing the Philo calendar, St Jerome's Martyrology and the calendars of the Church of Rome of the 11th century, we see that the first records only the martyrs of Rome, indicating the place where the anniversary was celebrated, and this is true generally also of St Jerome's Martyrology. Documentation on the devotion to martyrs in Rome, as it appears in Roman calendars and early Capitulars, from the late Middle Ages to the 13th century, continues to testify that in Rome only authentic Roman feasts were admitted and that normally every Church celebrated the feasts of its own martyrs. In the time of Pope Adrian I, the indication of the place began to be omitted, also because most of the celebrations took place in the Vatican Basilica. But the Ordo Romanus of Canon Benedict of the 12th century informs us that the Pope still went regularly to the "stationes" on the relative "martyria" and this is why their memory has come down to us.

In the 4th and still in the 5-6th centuries, the celebration of anniversaries at the tombs of the martyrs was diffused and the faithful organized "vigiliae", called also "pannuchis" because they passed the night in prayer. There was a growing custom, which at times was even authorised, (Cf Council of Hippo 393, c 5; Council Carthage 397 c. 36b) to listen to hagiographic readings relative to the martyr and his or her martyrdom. From these readings will then be born a hagiographic literature, that of the "Passiones" which was to serve as a basis for liturgical celebration, but, straying into the field of imagination, of legend, at times this distorted the meaning and focused on the amazing, the incredible, rather than historical truth.

In these celebrations, and outside them, the invocation of the martyrs spreads throughout the Churches. Saint Ambrose will exhort his people to address their prayers to the martyrs that they may intercede for the forgiveness of sins. Saint Augustine reveals to us that although the invocation of the martyrs was a consolidated fact in the Christian communities of the 4th century, the liturgical expression of devotion to them was still very discreet.

Very early on the memory of martyrs became part of the great Eucharistic Prayer in the Roman liturgy and the Roman Canon bears witness to this tradition. The bond between the blood of the martyrs and the Eucharist is seen also from traditions regarding the altar which, from the early times, was to contain relics of martyrs carried in solemn procession for the consecration-dedication of a new church. However the custom later became hidden, with the use of portable altars and holy stones to be inserted into altars, and was extended also to the relics of other saints, considered martyrs in spirit, although they did not have, as with Saint Martin, occasion of martyrdom.

The earliest eulogistic texts used in the memories of martyrs that we have today, date to the Verona Sacramentary which contains formulas of Mass for the celebration of the "dies natalis" of true martyrs. In the early sacramentaries each martyr is celebrated with a proper formula. With the sacramentaries called Gelasian of the 8th century we begin to find Commons for martyrs, as well as Commons for other categories of saints. These Commons of martyrs develop further until they are fixed as found in the Saint Pius V reform, and in their later revision.

Devotion to the martyrs in the reform of the liturgical books of the Roman Liturgy

When the new general Roman Calendar was presented more than one voice was raised to lament an estrangement from devotion to the saints and martyrs due to the fact that their number had diminished and some of them had been put aside for facultative celebration in local Churches. But they failed to notice that, a diminishing of the number of early saints and martyrs opened the door to celebrations of important martyrs of the various continents where the Church began to be present after the Middle Ages and after the Tridentine reform.

Still today the celebration of martyrs continues to be a crown of jewels, alongside the Proper of Seasons, demonstrating by means of some «examples aptly chosen from the immense field of our hagiography, how the life and the mystery of Christ can be re-lived and realised by believers» (Blessed Ildefonso Schuster, Liber Sacramentorum, VI, c. II). Martyrs in fact always refer to Christ, "Rex et caput martyrum" whose passion they imitate, struggling, strengthened by the Eucharist, filled with the Holy Spirit, with love for Christ and for their fellow men, to testify fidelity to the revealed word, truth and justice, to God's law, and this could not be limited only to the early martyrs, or those of more famous times.

With the liturgical reform the Roman liturgy desired to embrace to other martyrs and other forms of martyrdom and this is seen from the new Calendar which sets the figures of the Canadian Martyrs, the Martyrs of Vietnam, Saint Maximilian Kolbe alongside those of early Christian times. The aim was to achieve a balance because in every era the Church, the bride of a crucified Lord, is by her nature a Church tending to martyrdom.

Preparing the present-day Liturgy of the Hours, the reform set norms for the choice of the hagiographic readings which, for the martyrs, represents a summary of the most outstanding elements of a long tradition based on historically reliable facts, in order to free devotion to the martyrs from any legend it might have assumed, particularly in the time of the popular Passiones constructed for devotion and religious piety, rather than based on true historical facts.

In this way the eulogy for the martyrs, in the Missal and in the Liturgy of the Hours, harmoniously deriving from and connected with that of tradition, bears witness to an enrichment of theological sensitivity in the present-day ecclesial period and also awareness of the necessity for the life of the Church of the memory of her martyrs.

Besides the texts proper to certain martyrs already existing in the rich eulogy contained in the early Sacramentaries, the Common of Martyrs has a still wider variety of texts: for one martyr, for several martyrs and, unique among the Commons of Saints, a Common for a Martyr in the Easter Season. All this demonstrates how the Roman Liturgy still esteems the concept of and devotion to martyrs for whom the Common of Martyrs indicates not a levelling, but a necessity to highlight their concept in the heart of the whole Church, the individual Churches and indeed among all those who by virtue of their Baptism, are called to imitate them in their daily lives.