THE FIRST CHRISTIANS were rejected by the world and were persecuted unto torture and death, fulfilling Christ’s prophecy: If the world hate you, know that it hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love his own, but because you are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, the world hates you (John 15:18). To escape persecution Christians fled to the catacombs—underground caves where they buried their dead—and conducted their secret prayer services there in hiding, totally cut off from the world. They lived in constant expectation of martyrdom and so were always vigilant, preparing themselves for the other world. Earthly wealth, comfort, and honor had no meaning for them since suffering stripped them hare of such things.
The spread of the Christian Faith among the pagans provoked persecution against the early Christians because they refused to worship any God other than the One living God. Thousands of men and women died by courageously undergoing the cruelest forms of torture imaginable. They were beheaded, burned, drowned, lacerated and crucified for their Faith; the countless records and histories of the martyrs attest to their undying love for God. The early 4th century historian Eusebius wrote: “I myself was an eyewitness of it. The iron implements would become blunt and broken, and the executioners themselves would become wearied and have to take turns to relieve each other.”
The call to a violent death was a great reality for those who believed in God and His Christ. Martyrdom was considered the ultimate act of renunciation of the world and the highest form of confession of one’s Faith. While in the world’s eyes it was total dishonor, in the eyes of the believers it was the greatest glory. For the early Christians, the body, which is a temple of God, could also become a sacrifice for God in enduring unto death for the Truth. Only God and His Spirit dwelling deep within the martyrs enabled them to overcome a death that was for them True Life.
From the world’s point of view it seemed that the Christian Faith was dying along with its martyrs, but this was not so. Many pagans, seeing the faith and confession of the martyrs and the miracles that they performed, were themselves convinced of the Truth of the Christian Faith and became Christians. The more the Christians were persecuted, the more the Christian Faith grew.
The earliest account of martyrdom is that of St. Stephen who was a deacon of the Church (Acts 6:5). He was stoned to death for preaching in the Jewish temple that Jesus Christ was the Messiah. As he was about to die he looked up towards Heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing on the right hand of God (Acts 7:55).
Another account of a martyr of the catacomb period of Christianity is the life of St. Catherine (305). She was the daughter of a ruler in Alexandria, Egypt. From childhood she was well educated. She loved the wisdom of this world until she encountered Christ, Who is True Wisdom. She then became a Christian and fearlessly taught others of the one true God Who became incarnate to save the world.
For this she was placed under heavy guard to be tortured. When the arena was filled with spectators, she was brought out before the wisest men of the empire in order for them to challenge her in her Christian Faith. Her answers left everyone speechless, and many believed her words, becoming Christians themselves. This enraged the emperor to such an extent that he had everyone burned alive who was found to be a Christian. After imprisonment Sr. Catherine was taken to the place where she would be executed. She then prayed: “Stretch out Thy hand, which was nailed to the Cross for my sake, and receive my soul.” After enduring much torture she was finally beheaded.
The number of martyrs who died in these first centuries of the Church is endless, attesting to the vitality and convictions of the first Christians. Many of the actual accounts of the lives and deaths of these martyrs still exist thanks to the believers who courageously preserved their memory in the catacombs.