Emperors’ persecutions of Christians failed

Bishop identifies worst of baleful group

ROME, ITALY Christians have been persecuted throughout history and are still getting kicked around in some parts of the world, but their worst tribulations were under the Roman emperors who did their best to destroy Christianity.

The Most Rev. Michael J. Sis, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of San Angelo, says the most brutal emperors were Nero, Decius and Diocletian and that Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega is one of the worst on the current world scene.

“The New Testament recounts many instances of persecution of the early Christians,” Bishop Sis said. “Jesus Christ warned his followers that they could face persecution, Mark 10:39 and Matthew 10:16-25, and the first Christian martyr was Stephen, who was stoned to death, Acts 7:58-60.

“Peter was put in prison and Paul persecuted Christians before he became one himself. Then he suffered opposition, beatings and stoning. Paul and Silas were scourged and chained at Philippi, Acts 16:22-24.”

Sis said the Roman government considered Judaism a “religio licita” or a religion that was legal. “The first Christians came from the Jews and the Romans did not distinguish the earliest Christianity from Judaism,” he said.

“However, Christians eventually were cast out of the Jewish synagogues and persecuted by the members of the Jewish establishment. When Christianity gained more Gentile converts, the Romans were able to distinguish it from Judaism as a separate, unauthorized religion.”

Sis said the emperors “considered the worship of their polytheistic array of gods to be necessary for maintaining public order.

“It was expressive of the character and aspirations of Roman society,” he said. “Because the Christians refused to worship the pagan gods of the Romans, they were considered by the Romans to be atheists and a danger to the stability and unity of the empire. Christians worshiped only their own God. They did not participate in the social rituals or religious ceremonies of the Romans.

“They refused to worship the emperor because they could not worship anyone other than God. This was considered by the Romans to be disloyal and rebellious because emperor worship was a powerful means to unify the empire.”

Sis said Christians tended to keep to themselves rather than mingle with pagans in the temple or the theater. “And because the Christians professed to consume the body and blood of Jesus Christ in their celebration of the Eucharist, the Romans accused them of cannibalism,” he said.

“Part of the reason the Romans worshiped their gods was to ask them for divine protection from harm. When things went wrong in their world such as natural disasters, famine or plagues, it was easy to scapegoat the Christians as the reason because their refusal to worship the Roman gods was viewed as a threat to the peace and prosperity that those gods brought to the empire.

“There are three Roman emperors whose names tend to appear on the top of the list as the most brutal persecutors of Christians: Nero, Decius and Diocletian. Nero, who ruled from 37 to 68 A.D., was the first Roman emperor to persecute the Christians. In July of 64, more than half of Rome was destroyed by fire.

“There were rumors that it was Nero who had set the fires and many say that Nero shifted the blame by accusing the Christians as convenient scapegoats. He carried out a full-blown slaughter of them in Rome from 64 until his death in 68. He threw them into amphitheaters to be torn to pieces by wild animals and he tied them to hay and burned them, but the persecution under Nero was limited to the city of Rome.”

Ruling from 249 to 251, in 250 Decius instigated the first general persecution to destroy Christianity in the whole empire.

“Decius ordered all inhabitants to obtain a certificate proving that they had performed some act of pagan worship such as offering a libation, participating in a sacrificial meal or burning incense before a statue of the emperor,” Sis said.

“Christian worship was prohibited throughout the empire and this persecution was continued by Decius’ successors in office.

“Diocletian ruled from 284 to 305 and his Great Persecution began late in his term of office in the year 303. It was considered the last and worst of the Roman persecutions of Christians. Its aim was to eliminate Christianity. Diocletian began by purging the military and forcing Christian soldiers to renounce their faith or be dismissed or executed.

“He destroyed church buildings, burned Christian books, prohibited Christian worship, expelled Christians from public office and imprisoned the clergy. Many of the most famous Roman martyrs were killed in this brutal period. If I were to pick one of the emperors to put at the top of the list of persecutors, I would say Diocletian because his persecution was so systematic and so widespread.”

Sis said the persecution of Christians continued long after the fall of the Roman Empire. “Over the centuries there have been many waves of persecution by Goths, Vandals, Muslims, Communists and many more.” he said.

“It continues even up to today. For example, in Nicaragua President Daniel Ortega is pursuing a blatant persecution of the Catholic Church, taking possession of Church properties, expelling religious leaders and putting clergy into prison.

“The kingdom of Jesus Christ is not of this world. Those who choose to follow him will not always be tolerated by those in charge of worldly governments. This is part of the perennial cost of discipleship.”

In Rome, Italy, from April 15-21 to visit North American College, his alma mater, and Odessa High School graduate Mauricio Romero, who is studying there to become a priest, Sis said he had written about the emperors “in the same area where many of those early Christians lost their lives as martyrs.

“Rome is full of reminders of the heroic witness of those early martyrs,” he said. “Tomorrow morning (April 16) I will celebrate Mass at the tomb of Saint Peter right next to the place where Peter’s bones are buried in the basement level of St. Peter’s Basilica.”