The Emperor Valerian (253-60) had a hatred for the Church, and he didn’t hesitate to vent his rage. He mandated that all Christians had to take part in state religious ceremonies, and not only that, he forbade them to assemble for any worship whatsoever in the catacombs. Although the catacombs were constructed as places for the burial of the dead, because even the pagans had respect for burial places, they did become locations where Christians could assemble in relative safety during times of persecution.
So it was that during the reign of Valerian, he issued a decree ordering the execution of all bishops, priests and deacons. The Bishop of Rome at this time was Sixtus II, who had been elected to succeed Stephen I. For nearly a year after the emperor’s decree, Sixtus managed to evade the Roman authorities. Pope Sixtus found that it was a bit safer to gather with his clergy and people in the small private cemetery of Praetextatus. Although it was near the better-known and larger cemetery of Calixtus, the authorities tended not to watch it as closely; however, that could last only for so long.
Early in August of 258, while Sixtus was teaching from his episcopal chair, surrounded by four of his seven deacons and with a congregation of the faithful gathered to hear him, Roman soldiers burst in, arresting Sixtus and the deacons who were there. They dragged him off to force him to offer incense to the pagan gods, which of course he would not do. He was then returned to the place where he had been arrested, thrust brutally onto his chair, and was beheaded on the spot. The four deacons who were with him, Januarius, Vincentius, Magnus, and Stephanus, also were martyred, and very soon afterwards (probably that same day) two other deacons, Felicissimus and Agapitus, were put to death – leaving only the chief deacon, Lawrence, whom the Romans spared temporarily in the hope of having him turn over anything in the Church’s treasury.
When we get to the story of St. Lawrence in a few days, we’ll see how that worked out for the Romans!
Almighty and Everlasting God, who didst enkindle the flame of thy love in the heart of thy holy martyrs Pope St. Sixtus and his Holy Deacons: Grant to us, thy humble servants, a like faith and power of love, that we who rejoice in their triumph may profit by their example; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.