A patron saint for martyrs

If you attend the traditional Latin Mass (also known as the extraordinary form), or attend a Mass where the priest prays the first eucharistic prayer (also known as the Roman Canon), you will hear St. Anastasia invoked in the list of martyrs recited after the consecration. Centuries ago she was renowned and venerated among the Christians of Rome, a city particularly blessed with famous martyrs, including St. Agnes, St. Cecilia, St. Lawrence and St. Sebastian, not to mention St. Peter and St. Paul.

Among such sublime company, how did St. Anastasia become the patron of martyrs? It is not just because she herself died a martyr - there are thousands of other martyr-saints to choose from; it is because of her heroism in risking her own life to bring food, clothes, medicine and comfort to Christians who were in prison awaiting martyrdom. The Christians of Rome remembered her great acts of courage and charity. After her death they honored her as especially exalted among the countless martyrs of the early Church.

Details of Antasia's life are sketchy. There is no end of legends, which over the years have attempted to fill the void. It is said that Anastasia was a patrician, a member of one of Rome's aristocratic families. When Emperor Diocletian began his ferocious persecution of the Church, Anastasia began visiting imprisoned Christians. Anastasia's husband, Publius, was a pagan; fearing that she would be arrested and executed, he not only ordered her to stay away from the prisons, he forbade her to leave the house. Soon thereafter Publius died and Anastasia renewed her charitable work among the martyrs. Her spiritual adviser at this time was St. Chrysogonus, a Roman official who may have been secretly a Christian priest. When Chrysogonus traveled north to serve Christians in Aquileia, near present-day Venice, Anastasia came along. There Chrysogonus was arrested and beheaded.

Legend tells us that after the death of her spiritual director, Anastasia moved to Thessalonika in Greece where she stayed with three sisters, Ss. Agape, Chionia and Irene. After the sisters were martyred Anastasia moved once again, this time to the Christian community in Sirmium, present-day Mitrovica in Serbia. Here she was arrested and condemned to be burned alive - at last becoming a martyr herself. After the persecutions ended, a portion of St. Anastasia's relics were taken back to Rome. They rest today in the Basilica of St. Anastasia at the bottom of the Palatine Hill, a short walk from the Coliseum.

At the time of St. Anastasia's martyrdom, Dec. 25 was not Christmas - it was not until the fifth century that the Church began to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ Dec. 25. A century later the popes adopted a new tradition: At dawn the pope celebrated Mass at the Church of St. Mary Major, where is venerated the relic of the manger in which the Blessed Mother laid the Christ Child. Later in the morning he celebrated Mass at St. Peter's Basilica. Between these two Masses, the pope went in procession to the Basilica of St. Anastasia to offer Mass over the tomb of the famous martyr who shared her feast day with Our Lord's Nativity. Until Pope Paul VI introduced the new order of the Mass in 1969, St. Anastasia was still specially commemorated in the second Mass of Christmas Day.

Craughwell is the author of numerous books about the saints, including Saints Preserved: an Encyclopedia of Relics (Image Books, 2011) and Saints Behaving Badly (Doubleday, 2006).

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2011