May 12: Saints Nereus and Achilleus, Martyrs—Optional Memorial
Died c. 98
Liturgical Color: Red
Nereus and Achilleus the martyrs joined the army and carried out the cruel orders of the tyrant, obeying his will continually out of fear. Then came a miracle of faith. They suddenly gave up their savagery, they were converted, they fled the camp of their evil leader, throwing away their shields, armor, and bloody spears. Professing the faith of Christ, they are happy to witness to its triumph. From these words of Damasus understand what great deeds can be brought about by Christ’s glory. ~Pope Saint Damasus
Not long after Jesus’ death and resurrection, Saint Stephen, a deacon of the Church in Jerusalem, became the first Christian martyr. Then came James, the son of Zebedee; James the brother of the Lord; Saints Peter and Paul; and other apostles. Before the turn of the first century, dozens would follow. It is believed that today’s martyrs were among these first witnesses to the faith who shed their blood for Christ.
Very little is known for certain about Saints Nereus and Achilleus. Today theirs are among the 140 statues of saints towering over Saint Peter’s Square, Rome. In 1874, when the Catacomb of Domitilla was discovered and excavated, a fourth-century basilica dedicated to Saints Nereus and Achilleus was found. In that basilica was discovered a well-preserved pillar with the name Achilleus on it, images depicting the men’s decapitation, and the above inscription from Pope Saint Damasus (c. 304–384). In the sixth century, the relics of these saints were moved to another Roman church built in their honor in which they lie today.
Though details are uncertain, Saints Nereus and Achilleus might have been soldiers in the army of the Roman Emperor Domitian. They might have been brothers who were eunuchs responsible for the protection of Emperor Domitian’s niece, Domitilla. Domitilla and Clemens, to whom she was betrothed, were arrested by the emperor for “sacrilege or godlessness,” because they rejected the Roman gods and converted to Christianity. Clemens was put to death and Domitilla was exiled. Her guards, Nereus and Achilleus, also converted and fled their post, and might have even been responsible for converting Domitilla and Clemens. The brothers were arrested and sent into exile. Emperor Domitian died in 96 and was succeeded briefly by Emperor Nerva and then by Emperor Trajan in 98, who is believed to have ordered the beheading of the brothers while they were in exile. Their bodies were later buried in the family catacomb of Domitilla, one of the earliest Christian cemeteries in existence. One tradition states that Saint Peter himself baptized the brothers in Rome.
On May 12, 592, Pope Saint Gregory the Great celebrated Mass at the tomb of these martyrs and said in his sermon, “These saints before whose tomb we are assembled, despised the world and trampled it under their feet, when peace, plenty, riches, and health gave it charms. And this world, which was still so flourishing in itself, was already withered in their hearts.”
Regardless of the lack of certainty regarding the historical details of the lives of these saints, it is certain that they were greatly honored in the early Church. Their witness inspired Christians of their time and for centuries to follow. They are among the earliest witnesses to Christ and with the blood they shed, undoubtedly planted the seeds of faith in the hearts of many. Today, their influence is hard to estimate, but in Heaven the veil will be lifted and we will be in awe of the effect that their sacrifice had not only on the early Church, but also on the Church throughout the ages.
As we ponder these great saints today, reflect upon the important fact that the seeds you plant in the hearts of others is not only for them, it is also for everyone that they will touch with God’s grace. The seeds we plant do grow, and though we might not always be able to point to the fruit that is borne, we can be certain that God will reveal this to us with great joy in the glories of Heaven.
Saints Nereus and Achilleus, you chose exile and death rather than serve an evil tyrant by denying the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Your courage and martyrdom inspired many in the early Church, and the seeds of faith that God sowed through your blood have grown throughout the centuries, producing an army of soldiers for the Kingdom of God. Please pray for me, that I will never cower in the face of persecution, but will accept all for the glory and honor of Christ. Saints Nereus and Achilleus, pray for me. Jesus, I trust in You.
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