Saturday, January 21, 2023

Ss Fructuosus and Companions, Spanish Martyrs of the Third Century

The feast of St Agnes is one of the oldest and most universal among those of the ancient martyrs; it is kept on this day in the Roman, Byzantine and Ambrosian Rites, and several of the Fathers preached or wrote about her, including Ss Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine. The importance of her cultus is also demonstrated by the presence of her name in the canon of the Roman Mass, and the fact that her church in Rome on the via Nomentana was one of the first six built by the Emperor Constantine in the earliest years of the peace of the Church.

At the church of St Agnes, lambs are blessed on the patronal feast day, and their wool shorn to the make the pallia worn by archbishops as part of their liturgical regalia. This photos was taken by our Roman pilgrim friend Agnese in 2020 - Tanti auguri!
One of the works in which St Augustine mentions her is a sermon preached on her feast day in the year 396; however, it is titled “On the feast of Ss Fructuosus the bishop, and the deacons Augurius and Eulogius,” with whom it is principally concerned, who were martyred on the same day as Agnes, but roughly forty-five years earlier, at Tarragona in Spain, during the persecution of Valerian and Gallienus. Spanish liturgical books of the Roman Rite traditionally keep St Agnes on this day, and either transfer or commemorate the martyrs, but in the Mozarabic Rite, the native rite of Spain, they take precedence over Agnes, as a feast which is both older and more proper to the rite. The same is true in Tarragona, where they are honored the principal patron Saints. 

The original account of their martyrdom survives, and is one of a fairly small number of such documents which are universally recognized to be authentic, even by the most skeptical among scholars of hagiography. These acts contain a record of the trial, such as it was, of Fructuosus and his companions before the Roman governor Emilian, who begins the interrogation.

“You have heard what the emperors have commanded?”
“I do not know what they have commanded, but I am a Christian.”
“They have commanded that the gods be worshipped.”
“I worship one God, who made heaven and earth, the sea and all the things therein.”
“Do you know that there are (other) gods?”
“I do not.”
“You shall know hereafter.”

This last statement was effectively a threat of torture, at which Fructuosus “looked to the Lord and began to pray.” Emilian declared, “Who will be heard, who will be feared, who will be adored, if the gods are not worshipped, and the images of the emperors are not adored?” He then turned to Augurius and said, “Do not listen to the words of Fructuosus”, at which the latter replied, “I worship the almighty God.” Emilian then asked Eulogius, “Do you also worship Fructuosus?”, five words which fully betray a mystified incomprehension of Christianity very typical of the Romans. The answer was, “I do not worship Fructuosus, but the same (God) whom he worships.”

Turning back to Fructuosus, Emilian asked him “Are you a bishop?”, and to the answer “I am”, replied with a single word in Latin, “Fuisti – you were”, a very curt way of saying “You shall soon be dead.” He then gave the order that they be burnt alive.
The chapel dedicated to Ss Fructuosus, Augurius and Eulogius in the cathedral of Tarragona. (Image from Wikimedia Commons by Turol Jones, CC BY-SA 2.0)
As the Saints were taken to the local amphitheater, the ruins of which still stand to this day, not only the Christians, but also the pagans expressed their grief, for they also loved Fructuosus. These acts contain an interesting witness to the antiquity of the Church’s discipline of fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays, which is also mentioned in one of the very oldest Christian documents outside the New Testament, the Didache. On his way to the amphitheater, Fructuosus was offered a cup of wine, but he would not drink it, saying that “it was not yet the hour to break the fast”, being only mid-morning. And thus, having kept the “statio” [1] of Wednesday in prison, “he hastened to complete that of Friday with the martyrs and prophets in the paradise which the Lord hath prepared for them that love Him.”

Another episode right before the execution, one of several such known to us, bears witness to the great veneration in which the martyrs were held by the early Christians. A man named Felix came forward, took the bishop’s right hand, and asked him to remember him, the clear implication being that the martyr would certainly stand in God’s presence very shortly, and thus be able to plead for him. To this Fructuosus replied, “I must keep in remembrance the Catholic Church, spread (through the world) from East to West.” He then addressed his flock as follows: “You will not now lack a shepherd, nor will the Lord’s charity and promise fail, either now or in the future; for what you see now (i.e. their execution) is but the weakness of an hour.”

The remains of the Roman amphitheater at Tarragona, constructed at the end of the 2nd century. (Image from Wikimedia Commons by José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro, CC BY-SA 3.0)
Burning at the stake usually killed more by smoke inhalation than actual burning, and this seems to be the case with these martyrs, since the acts say that the fire loosened the bonds which held them, in such a way that they were able to kneel in prayer before they died, “certain of the resurrection.” The author then reports that “the customary miracles” took place, a standing rebuke to those skeptics who are wont to treat excessive reports of miracles as a sign that the written life of a Saint is not authentic. Two of Emilian’s servants, Babylas and Mygdonius, who were also Christians, as well as his own daughter, saw the heavens open and the Saints ascending with crowns on their heads. Many of the persecutors focused their energies entirely on the clergy, and ignored the laity, and Emilian seems to have been such a one, since the two Christian servants were able to invite him to “come and see those whom you have condemned today, how they are restored to heaven and their hope”, but Emilian “was not worthy to see them.” The faithful then collected the relics, in accordance with the custom also attested in many other ancient accounts of martyrdoms.

In St Augustine’s time, the acts of the Martyrs were often read at Mass on Saints’ days, if they were available, and the sermon mentioned above is one of several that refers to this custom. “When we hear how the martyrs suffered, we rejoice, and glorify God in them. … You heard the persecutors’ interrogation, you heard the answers of those who confessed (Christ), while the passion of the Saints was being read.” Further along, he introduces St Agnes by saying, “Blessed are they whose passion was read. Blessed is Saint Agnes, the day of whose passion is today.” This custom never obtained in the Roman Rite, which had only two readings at the Mass, the Epistle and Gospel; hence the passions of the Saints found their place in the Divine Office instead. In the Ambrosian Rite, on the other hand, which has three readings on Sundays and feasts, the custom is still preserved to this day, even in the post-Conciliar form, by which the life of a Saint (in a fairly succinct version, to be sure) may be read in place of the Old Testament reading on certain feast days.

The following video was taken in 2014 in the basilica of St Ambrose in Milan, on the feast of the Martyrs Ss Protasius and Gervasius; after the Gloria and Collect, the passion of the two martyrs is read.

The cause and manner of the death of these martyrs naturally suggested to the author of their acts a similarity with the three children in the fiery furnace in the book of Daniel; this was a Biblical story near to the heart of every Christian in antiquity, since the Romans’ principal reason for persecuting them was their refusal to worship the statue of the Emperor, just as the three children would not worship the statue of the Babylonian Emperor. He therefore wrote that “they were like Ananiah, Azariah and Misael, in such wise that the divine Trinity was also seen in them, once they were set in the fire of the world, so that the Father was not far from them, and the Son came to help them, and the Holy Spirit walked in the midst of the fire.”

The Mozarabic liturgy makes many references to this idea in its liturgical texts for their feast day, as in this prayer at Matins. (The great veneration in which these Saints were held is also indicated by the fact that Mozarabic Matins normally has three prayers, but on their feast day, twenty-one, of which this is the sixth.) “Ananiah, Azariah, Misael, the three children tested by the fire of Babylon, were a great sign, o Lord, to Thy holy martyrs, to whom their august victory offered an example. In the case of the former, the fire fled, lest they die; in the case of the latter, it was let in, that they might be crowned. With the former, since also the time of the passion was not yet ripe, the fire of punishment could not touch their holy bodies; with the latter, in the acceptable time, when the way to paradise was opened by the death of Christ, it destroyed the bodies that were touched to the fire, once the door of paradise was now opened to the blessed. Therefore, we bless Thee, o God, who delivered the former from the flames, and crowned the latter after the flames; Who also, to deliver the former, didst sprinkle (dew) upon the fires, but allow them to take the latter up (to heaven). Grant us therefore, by the examples and prayers of them all, that we may so be delivered from the fire of carnal vices, that enkindled by the fiery sweetness of Thy words, we may merit to come to Thee in peace.”

The adoration of the statue of Nebuchadnezzar, and the Three Children in the furnace. From a manuscript known as the Saint-Sever Beatus (mid-11th century), an illustrated commentary on the book of the Apocalypse by the Spanish monk St Beatus of Liébana (ca. 730-800). This copy also includes St Jerome’s Commentary on the book of Daniel and a treatise by St Ildephonse of Toledo on the perpetual virginity of Mary. (Bibliothèque nationale de France. Département des Manuscrits. Latin 8878)
In a similar vein, the preface of their Mass (which, like many Mozarabic prefaces, is exceedingly long) ends with the words “Full worthy was it, that a divine voice should mark them, like unto that which marked the Hebrew children, Azariah and his companions, who walked in the furnace of the king of Babylon safe and sound, singing Thy praises with a new song, and in the heavenly office of the Angels cried out and said: Holy, holy, holy…”

Each year since 1990, a cultural association based in Tarragon and named for St Fructuosus has performed a passion play by Andreu Muñoz Melgar in honor of the three martyrs, in conjunction with the schola cantorum of the city’s cathedral. The story sticks very closely to that of the ancient passion, and in 2018, it was staged in the very amphitheater where the actual martyrdom took place, and at the same time of day. Here are links to two videos (not embeddable, for some reason) of the performance of it, the first from 2014 in Catalan, and the second from 2015 in Castilian.

[1] “Statio” meant the keeping of a fast until the mid-afternoon, which would later become the time for the canonical hour of None. This reference from 259AD shows us as an early form of the custom, later developed more fully, by which the Mass on penitential days was celebrated after None, and followed by Vespers, and the breaking of the fast.

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