During Mass for the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ (Corpus Christi), which we recently celebrated, the words spoken by the priest during the Liturgy of the Eucharist resounded in my mind. In particular, as the priest prayed the Eucharistic Prayer I (the Roman Canon), I was drawn to the several holy men and women mentioned specifically by name.
It struck me that, although I had heard these names hundreds if not thousands of times in the Mass over the years, I did not know much about their significance or even who some of them were. This moved me to spend some time studying the lives of these holy Saints whom the Church holds so prominently in her life, to the point of inserting them into the heart of the Mass itself.
The Saints in the Communicantes (“In communion with…”)
During the Eucharistic Prayer I, before the consecration, the priest calls to mind all members of the Church, including the Saints in heaven, acknowledging we are all united in praise and worship of God. As the priest prays, he mentions some of these holy men and women by name. Appropriately, the first mentioned are Jesus’ mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and his adopted father, Joseph. Then eleven of the Apostles and Saint Paul are listed, followed by five popes, a bishop, a deacon and five laymen. These Saints chosen gave special witness to the faith in their lives and some were involved in establishing local Christian communities throughout the world.
The Five Popes
Pope Linus was the first successor of Peter in Rome according to the earliest traditions. Though we cannot be certain, Irenaeus suggests Pope Linus is the same man referred to by Saint Paul in 2 Timothy 4:21. Some reports say Linus was a martyr but evidence to support this is lacking.
Cletus (who was also known as Anacletus) and Clement were the next two successors of Saint Peter in Rome after Linus, in this order respectively according to Irenaeus while some, such as Augustine, reverse the order. Pope Cletus died a martyr for the faith at the end of the first century but little else is known about him. With Pope Clement I, we have one genuine letter he wrote to the Christians in Corinth from Rome. There is debate as to his death with some sources holding he was martyred by Emperor Domitian and others claiming he died in exile.
The next pope listed in Mass is Pope Sixtus. Though the sixth successor of Saint Peter in Rome had this name, the Catholic Encyclopedia says that the Saint referred to in the Eucharistic prayer is Pope Sixtus II, who was elected as pope in 257 AD and martyred in Rome in 258 AD. He was executed under the reign of Emperor Valerian after an edict was issued declaring all bishops, priests, and deacons of the Church to be put to death if discovered. Pope Sixtus was apprehended while addressing the people at the cemetery of Praetextatus outside of Rome along with four deacons. These five men, plus two other deacons who had been captured separately, were killed on August 6 (which is their feast day). The tomb of Pope Saint Sixtus II is in the Saint Callistus cemetery in Rome.
The fifth pope on our list is Pope Cornelius. Elected in 251 AD against his will and with much trepidation, he courageously took the chair of Peter at a time when the Emperors hated all bishops and were making unspeakable threats. During his short episcopacy of just over two years, he had to address the Novatian heresy and be a witness of hope as the Christians in Rome faced constant distress. In 252 AD, Pope Cornelius was exiled to Centumcellae and later executed.
A Bishop, a Deacon, and Laymen
The next Saint referenced is Bishop Cyprian of Carthage. He was a pagan who converted to Christianity and eventually ordained a bishop who was known as an eloquent orator and writer. He lived during the middle of the third century and was a witness to severe persecutions of the Christians in the Roman Empire, as this was a time when bishops were frequently found and put to death, children were tortured and men and women were burned alive. Many Christians went into hiding while sadly others apostatized due to their fear of persecution. He defended the faith against the Novatian heresy, wrote many letters of correspondence to various people (of which we have 81) and wrote many treatises. His writings speak clearly on baptismal regeneration, infant baptism, the Sacrifice of the Mass and the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist among many other doctrines. He was the first great Latin writer until Jerome and Augustine. St. Cyprian died a martyr for the faith in 258 AD.
Saint Lawrence was a deacon in the Church who was executed August 10, 258 AD and is one of the most honored martyrs in the Church. The accounts of his death say he was captured during the persecutions of Emperor Valerian and was ordered to bring the Roman soldiers the great riches possessed by the Church. When he returned, he brought with him many of the poor people of Rome as they were truly the most valuable treasures of the Church. The soldiers then martyred Lawrence and the most popular accounts of his death claim he was burned to death on a gridiron. In the fourth century, Constantine built an oratory over his grave site that was enlarged by Pope Pelagius II (579-590). Later, Pope Sixtus III (432-440) built a large basilica adjacent to the original building and, finally, Pope Honorius III in the thirteenth century built a basilica that merged these two buildings into one (the Basilica of Saint Lawrence Outside the Walls which remains to this day).
During the Diocletian persecutions, Chrysogonus was a layman who suffered martyrdom in a former city of the Roman Empire called Aquileia (situated at the head of the Adriatic Sea in Northern Italy). Some accounts hold he taught a daughter of a Roman nobleman and was later arrested and beheaded. The records show that a church in Trastevere, Rome, was dedicated to him (Titulus Chrysogoni) and, because he was highly regarded by the faithful, this happened less than one hundred years after his death.
The last laymen mentioned in the Mass are two pairs of brothers. Saints John and Paul were martyred under the reign of the Emperor Julian the Apostate (361-363 AD) but the details of their deaths are uncertain. The legend holds they were eunuchs assigned to the court of Constantina (the daughter of Constantine the Great) and were asked by the Emperor to sacrifice to idols. When they refused, they were beheaded in their own home and then buried. A church was later built over this site on the Caelian Hill. The rooms on the ground floor of this house have been discovered under the basilica decorated with frescoes and the original tomb of these two Saints has been found covered with paintings. These men have been honored since the fifth century and their feast day is June 26.
The other pair of brothers are the twins – Cosmas and Damian. Both men were Christian physicians born in Arabia and practiced their art of healing in Asia Minor. They accepted no money for their services and, through their ministry, led many to the Catholic faith. During the Diocletian persecutions, they were both arrested. The accounts note that miraculously, despite torture with water, fire, air and placed on the cross, they suffered no injury. They were finally beheaded with the sword around the year 287 AD. They also had three brothers – Anthimus, Leontius, and Euprepius – who were martyrs with them.
The Saints in the Nobis Quoque (“To us also…”)
After the consecration, the words of the Roman Canon direct us to remember all those who have gone before us and to pray for the dead. We also pray for ourselves, asking that we too may share in the fellowship that exists between God and the Saints in heaven, with some being mentioned by name. The priest prays:
To us, also, your servants, who, though sinners,
hope in your abundant mercies,
graciously grant some share and fellowship with your holy Apostles and Martyrs:
In this prayer, we hear the name of John the Baptist, the cousin of Our Lord (Luke 1:36), who called people to faith and repentance and was eventually beheaded by Herod (Matthew 14:1-12). We then recall Saint Stephen, the deacon and first martyr of the Church (Acts 6-7). Next, we hear of Matthias who filled the office of Apostle held once by Judas Iscariot until he betrayed our Lord without returning to the fold (Acts 1:15-26). Barnabas was a Jewish convert to Christianity who was born in Cyprus and a cousin to John Mark – the author of the Gospel of Mark (Colossians 4:10). He was also a frequent traveling companion of Paul early in his ministry (Acts 13:2-4). His given name was Joseph but was surnamed “Barnabas” by the Christians which meant ‘son of exhortation/encouragement/consolation’ – likely given to him because of his talent of preaching persuasively (Acts 4:36). Details of his death are uncertain, but tradition holds Barnabas was martyred in Cyprus around 61AD.
We then recall Saint Ignatius of Antioch, a bishop, and martyr for the faith. Ignatius was born around 50AD and died in the early part of the second century. He was a disciple of Bishop Polycarp who was taught directly by the Apostle John. Ignatius, who became the third bishop of Antioch, was ever-faithful and always trying to inspire hope and courage among Christians amid persecutions. Under the reign of Emperor Trajan, a wave of great persecution broke out and Ignatius was arrested. He was taken from Syria to Rome and, along this journey, Ignatius wrote seven letters to various Christian communities. He discussed matters of faith but also offered words of encouragement and strength for the people (these letters can still be read today). On reaching Rome, the Emperor ordered him to be thrown to the wild beasts as food and to be a spectacle for the people. His martyrdom happened sometime between 98-117 AD.
We then call to mind Pope Alexander I, whose pontificate is variously dated – either 106-115 or 109-116 AD. Early writings document that he was the fifth successor of Saint Peter in Rome. According to the Liber Pontificalis, he suffered martyrdom by decapitation on the Via Momentana in Rome.
Not much is known about the next two men – Saints Marcellinus and Peter – but they were highly venerated by the early Church. Tradition holds that Peter was an exorcist imprisoned for the faith under the reign of Emperor Diocletian around 303 AD. While confined, he exorcised a demon from the daughter of Artemius, the prison-keeper. As a result, he and his entire household were converted to Christianity and a Roman priest named Marcellinus baptized them. When Romans became aware of this act, Marcellinus was captured, beaten and stripped of his clothes and then imprisoned for refusing to recant his faith. Peter and Marcellinus were then secretly executed in a forest to prevent the faithful from gathering in their honor. The burial site, initially unknown, was eventually discovered and their bodies re-interred in the Roman Catacombs. Pope Damasus I composed on epitaph to mark their tombs as he was devoted to these men after he had been personally told of their lives by the executioner himself after his conversion to the faith.
The Seven Women Saints
The last Saints listed by name are seven women who were all martyrs.
Under the reign of the Emperor Septimus Severus, a decree was passed forbidding conversion to Christianity with severe penalties. Despite this, Perpetua, a well-educated noblewoman and mother of an infant son, along with Felicity, a pregnant slave, and three others in North Africa entered the catechumenate to become Christian. When they were discovered, they were immediately arrested. Before being sent to prison, all were baptized. They remained fearless Christians refusing to renounce their faith even though they endured great suffering in their final days. All five were martyred for the faith in the amphitheater – first scourged, then attacked by wild beasts and then killed by the sword. The two children of Felicity and Perpetua were spared. Two days prior to this execution, Felicity gave birth to a daughter who was adopted by a Christian woman and Perpetua’s son was cared for by her parents. Their feast day is March 7. (Their story is documented in The Passion of the Holy Martyrs Perpetua and Felicity.)
Agatha is a highly venerated virgin and martyr of Christian antiquity, and it is likely her death was during the reign of the Emperor Decius (250-253 AD). Though we are certain of her life and martyrdom, there is no reliable information to provide us with any details. Lucy is another virgin and martyr who was born around 283 AD to rich and noble parents. She had consecrated herself to God and, after being unwillingly betrothed, this man denounced her to the governor of Sicily. Happening during the Diocletian persecutions (303 AD), Lucy was captured and an attempt was made to burn her alive. When she remained unharmed, she was executed by the sword.
Tradition holds that Saint Cecilia, born to a senatorial family and Christian since her infancy, was given in marriage by her parents to Valerianus, a noble pagan youth. On her wedding night, Cecilia told the young man that she wished to remain a virgin. Not long after this, Valerianus was baptized as was his brother. They became zealous for the faith and the two men were eventually arrested and executed. The Roman officers eventually found Cecilia as well. They first attempted to suffocate her, but she remained unharmed. An officer then attempted to decapitate her yet, after striking her with the sword three times, she remained alive but critically wounded so he left her to die. She succumbed three days later and, though the exact date of her death is unknown, she has been venerated since the fourth century. It is likely she died sometime between the end of the second century and middle of the third century.
Though there is no reliable narrative of the life and death of Saint Agnes, all accounts extol her as a virgin with heroic virtue who was martyred for the faith around age 12 or 13. The last Saint named in the Roman Canon is Anastasia. There is great uncertainty about her life but one tradition holds she was a student of Saint Chrysogonus (mentioned earlier in the Eucharistic Prayer). After his martyrdom under Diocletian, she went to the town of Sirmium to visit the Christian faithful and was herself beheaded for not renouncing Christ. What is certain is that her name was inserted into the Mass in the fifth century and she has been venerated since.
Witnesses of Christ
These saints are only a handful of those in heaven but all are praying for us and cheering us on as we journey towards our Promised Land (Hebrews 12:1). But the Church calls to our minds these members of the Church, now are now perfectly united to Christ, because they are great witnesses for Christ. By the grace of God, they exhibited heroic virtue in their lives and most of these Saints were martyrs who, in their deaths, remind us that we are all called to love Christ more than life itself.