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The sound of Alleluias fills the 50 days of Easter Sunday to Pentecost as we give thanks for the gift of our salvation. The Easter Triduum recalls the passion and resurrection of Christ in the sacred journey from Holy Thursday to Easter Vigil. "Dying he destroyed our death. Rising he restored our life."
Achilleus and Nereus, Martyrs, c. First Century
As with many of the early martyrs, little is known with certainty about these two saints and many of the accounts are conflicting. What is not disputed is the site of their graves, the catacomb of Domitilla in Rome. But, with that as a starting point, we can surmise the most likely history of their martyrdom.
Persecution of Christians occurred over much of the first three centuries of the Church; however none of the early harassment matched that which began with the ascension of Trajan to Emperor in 98 A.D. An elite unit assigned to the emperor was charged with hunting down Christians and killing those who would not apostatize. Achilleus and Nereus were members of this unit.
While it is not known how long Achilleus and Nereus participated in this persecution, it is believed that, witnessing the strong faith of those who suffered martyrdom at their hands, these two were converted to Christianity and resigned their commissions. As had their victims, Achilleus and Nereus refused to offer sacrifices to the pagan gods which would have spared their lives. For this, they were beheaded in about 100 A.D. Their bodies were recovered and placed in the catacomb of Domitilla where many of their victims had been buried.
Pope Damasus (366-384 A.D.) was extremely interested in the history and tombs of the martyrs of the early Church and had an epitaph inscribed near the tombs of these two soldiers which praised these two praetorian soldiers who volunteered for military service and were carrying on their “cruel” duty, but suddenly laid aside their madness, “cast down shields, helmets, and bloodstained weapons,” were converted, and “bear with the triumph of Christ, they were put to death with the sword.”
An optional memorial honors these two martyrs on May 12.
Achilleus and Nereus’ message today: While it is never easy to stand up for what is right in the face of strong opposition, and few of us would face death for our position, we must not back down when we know that our view is correct.