Catholic News Herald

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st nereusSo often we hear people or even ourselves excuse an action by saying “I was only following orders.” But for Nereus and Achilleus this excuse could not stand in the face of the cross.

Nereus and Achilleus were Roman soldiers of the Praetorian Guard (the emperor’s bodyguards) who were martyred at the end of the first century, and were said to have been baptized by St. Peter himself.

When they became Christians they gave up their posts, which they saw as immoral, and were exiled and then killed under the reign of the emperor Trajan.

Everything we know from authority about the two first-century martyrs comes from a testimony written by Pope St. Damasus in the fourth century and inscribed on a memorial tablet that commemorates their lives. But even this commentary comes 300 years after they died.

The epitaph written by St. Damasus says the following: “Nereus and Achilleus the martyrs joined the army and carried out the cruel orders of the tyrant, obeying his will continually out of fear. Then came a miracle of faith. They suddenly gave up their savagery, they were converted, they fled the camp of their evil leader, throwing away their shields, armor, and bloody spears. Professing the faith of Christ, they are happy to witness to its triumph. From these words of Damasus understand what great deeds can be brought about by Christ’s glory.”

As participants in the persecution they knew perhaps better than any other Christian what pain awaited them. Faith, however, had triumphed over fear of death and the victory of faith was the sweetest they had known. We are told they were martyred, but Damasus doesn’t mention how.

Later legend had it that they served Flavia Domitilla, the great-niece of Emperor Domitian, and were exiled and executed with her when she converted. This legend probably originated in the fact that the martyrs were buried in what was later known as the cemetery of Domitilla.

St. Pancras, or Pancratius, was a Syrian boy of pagan origin who went to Rome and was converted to Christianity. He was beheaded in 304 at the age of 14 during the persecution of the Emperor Diocletian. He is buried on the Via Aurelia in Rome and the Church of St. Pancratius, which still stands today, was built on his grave in the fourth century.

Sts. Nereus, Achilleus and Pancras have been honored together on May 12 since the fourth century.

— Catholic News Agency and Catholic Online