Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs – Veneration of Martyrs

Article

In addition to the Biblical saints, Christians immediately began to honor the memory of those who died in the persecutions. This was done on a local scale within each Christian community. The tombs of the martyrs were held in high veneration. On the anniversary of their deaths Mass was celebrated over their graves and a sermon preached. Thus it happened, for instance, that Saint Pionius and his companions were seized by Roman soldiers while conducting the anniversary service at the tomb of Saint Polycarp of Smyrna (Asia Minor) in 250 and were themselves put to death and became martyrs of Christ.

The custom of calling the death date of a martyr his “birthday” (Dies Natalis) originated in the early centuries. It expresses the truth that any Christian who remained loyal to the Lord unto the death of martyrdom is truly born into eternal glory at the hour of his execution. The official calendars of both the Eastern and Western Churches have retained this practice to our day. When they announce the “birthday” of a saint it means the day of his death. The only exceptions are the natural birthdays of the three persons who were born into this world without original sin: Christ, Mary, and John the Baptist. Of these three the Church celebrates their earthly nativity as well as the day of death.

During the persecutions in the Roman Empire each community commemorated only its local martyrs. Their names and the dates of their execution were carefully recorded, and each church kept the official list of its heroes. In larger places like Rome, Christian notaries were appointed for the various districts (regiones) of the city. It was their task to observe and record all cases of executions of Christians in their particular district. Thus came into existence the venerable catalogues of martyrs in the various cities of the Roman Empire. They were not only read at divine service, but were often engraved on tablets of marble and set up as a public notice for the faithful, to remind them to honor and venerate their local saints.

Concerning the graves of the early martyrs, there is no doubt that the great majority of them remained well identified. According to Roman law, up to the time of Diocletian (305), even executed criminals were entitled to an honorable burial, for earthly justice was satisfied by the death of the guilty person. The body usually was granted to relatives or friends to be duly buried. Thus the tombs of the saints were naturally well known to the bishops and faithful, for in many cases they themselves had selected the burial place, given the last honors to the sacred bodies, and laid them to rest with their own hands. A tradition based on the certitude of such direct evidence is not easily lost even in the course of centuries. This was confirmed by the results of recent research and excavations in various places.

However, with the increasing number and scope of persecutions, many martyrs remained unlisted, and all anniversaries could not be kept even within a particular community. For this reason, only the outstanding few received an established annual feast of memorial services. All the others shared one great feast in common, to give due honor and recognition to their memory every year. This was the “Feast of All Martyrs,” instituted in the Eastern Church in the fifth century, and adopted by Rome in the seventh century. Its title was later changed to “Feast of All Saints.”

MLA Citation

  • Father Francis Xavier Weiser, SJ. “Veneration of Martyrs”. Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs, 1952. CatholicSaints.Info. 15 February 2017. Web. 12 December 2017. <>