Legends of the Blessed Sacrament – Martyrdom of Saint Sixtus II

Article

It was the year 258. The Emperor Valerian, under the pressure of the fanatical clamours against the Christians, which the misfortunes of the empire had excited, had the year before renewed the persecution of the Church with greater severity than had been exercised even by Decius. For the first time the sanctity of the tomb was no refuge for the persecuted followers of Jesus. The imperial decree of 257 forbade the Christians to frequent ‘what they called their cemeteries.’ But the apostolic precept, ‘not to forsake the assembly’ (Hebrews 10:25), was a law superior to the Emperor’s edict, and in the narrow subterranean chapels of the Catacombs the faithful assisted at the Holy Sacrifice. The satellites of the Emperor jealously watched the entrances to the principal cemeteries. The great cemetery of Saint Callixtus was naturally a special object of their attention; consequently on the 6th of August the Holy Pontiff Sixtus II, selected the cemetery of Saint Preetextatus as the place where he would celebrate the Sacred Mysteries. It was a spot consecrated already by more than one hundred years of sacred associations. There had the tribune Saint Quirinus, who suffered for the Faith in the time of Adrian, been laid to rest. There had the noble matron Marmenia built a vaulted chamber underground, in which she buried the sacred remains of Saint Januarius, the eldest of the seven martyred sons of Saint Felicitas, whose epitaph by Pope Damasus has been brought to light only of late years. There had Valerian, the martyred spouse of Saint Cecilia, with his brother Tibertius, and Maximus their companion in martyrdom, been carried to the grave; and the holy Bishop Urban, who had instructed them in the Faith in this very Catacomb, was soon afterwards buried in one of its chapels. And now a procession of future Martyrs passes along the unusually spacious corridor of this ancient cemeteiy.

The most noted shrine in this cemetery was the tomb of Saint Januarius; and thither, we may well presume, the procession bent its way. The deacons Felicissimus and Agapitus prepare the altar, while the archdeacon Laurence attends closely upon the venerable Pontiff. Preeminent for his manly beauty, ardently loved by all the poor and afflicted among the faithful, the finely-cut features of the archdeacon glow with an unwonted halo of sanctity as he assists the Pope to vest and to commence the Holy Sacrifice. The Mass proceeds, the faithful have received from the hands of Sixtus the Bread of Heaven, and the Pontiff, with his deacons around him, is seated in the stone chair beside the altar, and begins to address the faithful. Suddenly a distant scream of alarm is heard — the clatter of arms and the trampling of many feet approach hastily along the corridor. Those who are unable to escape are encouraged by the calm serenity of the sacred ministers, while their ‘hearts are strengthened by the almost inspired words of the Pope. A traitor has led the myrmidons of Valerian into the recesses of the Catacomb; and now they seize the seven deacons, and’ lay their sacrilegious hands upon the sacred person of the Vicar of Christ. He entreats them to take his life, but to spare his flock: ‘If you seek me, let these go their way.’

When they reached the city, the guards who held Saint Lawrence proceeded to separate him from the rest; and now, for the first time, a bitter cry of sorrow burst from his heart. It seemed as though the glorious crown of martyrdom were about to be snatched from his grasp, and he alone of the deacons of Rome was not to share the honour of joining their beloved Pontiff in the last great sacrifice. ‘Father,’ he cried to Saint Sixtus,’ whither are you going without your son? Whither are you going, O priest, without your deacon? You were never wont to offer sacrifice without me as your minister. Wherein have I displeased you? Have you found me wanting to my duty? Try me now, and see whether you have made choice of an unfit minister for dispensing the Blood of the Lord.’ Saint Sixtus, touched to the heart at the appeal of the noble youth, consoled him in words that showed how thoroughly he appreciated the character of his favourite deacon. ‘I do not leave you, my son,’ he said; ‘but a greater trial and a more glorious victory are reserved for you, who are strong and in the vigour of youth. We are spared on account of our weakness and age. In three days you shall follow me.’ He then privately gave the archdeacon a charge to distribute among the poor all the treasures of the Church, and even the gold chalices and silver candlesticks, which had excited the cupidity of the prefect. Sixtus was then conducted before the judges, and condemned to death for disobeying the edict of the Emperor. In order to give greater emphasis to the prohibition against frequenting the Catacombs, Sixtus and four of his deacons were condemned to be executed in the very chapel where they had been apprehended.

Again the cemetery of Praetextatus echoed with the tramp of armed men. Again did the faithful timidly throng the entrance to the subterranean chapel, which remained just as it had been left when the sermon of Saint Sixtus had been so rudely interrupted. But Saint Laurence was no longer by the side of the Pope. He was preparing for his own glorious martyrdom. The venerable Pontiff was thrust into his episcopal chair, and a soldier struck off his head, so that the chair was stained by his blood. Felicissimus and Agapitus, and two other deacons, received their crown at the same time, and were afterwards buried by the faithful in the chapel of Saint Januarius. The precious remains of Saint Sixtus were reverently conveyed in the darkness of the night to the adjoining cemetery of Saint Callixtus, and deposited in the most honourable position in the crypt, where so many of the martyr-Popes already lay. The chair, red with his blood, was either now, or at a later period, removed also; and recent explorations have brought to light some fragments of the inscription set up over it by Pope Damasus, of which the following is a translation:

‘At the time when the sword of persecution pierced the tender heart of our Mother the Church
I, the Pontiff huried here, was teaching the heavenly precepts.
All at once they come; they seized me seated on my chair —
The soldiers had been sent. Then did the people give their necks to the slaughter.
The old man soon perceived who wish’d to bear away the palm,
And was the first to offer himself and his own life,
That the impatient fury of the heathen might not injure any of his flock.
Christ, who gives the rewards of life, manifests
The merit of the pastor; and He Himself defends the multitude of the flock.’

Saint Cyprian of Carthage, in a letter which he desired to be circulated throughout Africa, describing this persecution of Valerian, which he daily expected to foil upon himself, says: ‘But know that Sixtus was martyred in the cemetery on the eighth day of the Ides of August, and with him four deacons.’ The plaster of the entrance to this Papal crypt is covered with the graffiti of pilgrims of the third and fourth centuries, and no name is so frequently invoked as that of Saint Sixtus II. One example must suffice:

‘Sancte Sixte in mente habeas in orationes Aureliu Repentinu
(Holy Sixtus, bear in mind in thy prayers Aurelius Repentinus)

On the plaster of a loculus cut in the arch above the altar-slab in the chapel of Saint Januarius, probably about the time of Saint Damasus, is still to be seen a rude inscription: ‘Januarius Felicissimus, Agapitus, refresh the soul of…’ – the unknown person buried there; while more than one sepulchral stone in the same Catacomb of Saint Preetextatus bears the figure of an episcopal chair rudely engraven upon it, to show how vividly the memory of the holy Pontiff martyred at his post was preserved on the spot consecrated by his blood.

MLA Citation

  • Emily Mary Shapcote. “Martyrdom of Saint Sixtus II”. Legends of the Blessed Sacrament, 1877. CatholicSaints.Info. 27 November 2014. Web. 24 September 2017. <>