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Five Saints are buried at Santa Susanna, here are their stories:

[Susanna and Gabinus] [Felicity] [Eleutherius] [Genesius]

Saint Susanna and Saint Gabinus
(martyred 293 AD)

Beneath the present floor of the church are the ruins of a Roman house that was constructed about the year 280 AD. These were relatives of the General Gaius Aurelius Diocletian, who would become Emperor in 284 AD. Like the Emperor, they were from Dalmatia or what is now modern Croatia. The family included four brothers. Caius and Gabinus and Gabinus’s daughter, Susanna who lived here and two other brothers, Maximus and Claudius, who lived elsewhere in the city, and were a part of the Roman government. The family’s religious beliefs were divided. Caius, Gabinus and Susanna were Christians, while Maximus and Claudius remained followers of the old religion of Rome. Caius and Gabinus were not only Christians, they were priests. In December 283, Caius was elected Bishop of Rome. He would serve as Pope until his death in April, 296 AD. If the clergy of Rome elected Caius because of his relationship with his powerful cousin, Diocletian, they would be greatly disappointed. In 303 AD the Emperor Diocletian would launch the last great persecution against the Christian faith. From 280 AD when the house was completed until 293 AD this family residence served as a “domus ecclesia,” or house church. As the Christian Church was not legally recognized by the Roman state, homes and other large private buildings belonging to community members, served as the first churches.

After becoming Emperor in 284 AD, and in order to insure peace and stability, Diocletian adopted a form of government called tetrarchy, or divided rule. Diocletian ruled primarily in the east, and a joint Emperor, Maximian, another general who Diocletian had promoted, ruled in the west. In turn, each Emperor or “Augustus” was to appoint a junior ruler or “Caesar,” who had the right to succeed him. Maximian named Constantius (the father of Constantine), and Diocletian named Maxentius Galerius. In the year 293 AD in order to guarantee Maxentius’s succession, Diocletian prepared to marry this young general into his immediate family. Diocletian’s daughter, Valeria was married. The only unmarried young female in the family was Susanna, his cousin. So in the Spring of 293 AD, Diocletian announced the engagement of Maxentius Galerius to Susanna. This would lead to a family crisis and to martyrdom.

The story of what occured between members of the family comes from a 6th century account. Susanna refused the marriage proposal. Her father Gabinus and her uncle Caius supported this decision and encouraged her to keep her commitment to Christ. Her non-Christian uncles, Claudius and Maximus tried to persuade Susanna to marry Maxentius, after all this would make her Empress one day. In a conversation between the four brothers, Claudius and Maximus were converted to Christianity. The General Maxentius then came to the house, believing he could persuade Susanna to marry him. Susanna’s refusal soon led to the suspicion that she and other members of her family might be Christians. The Roman Consul Macedonius then called Susanna to Roman Forum and asked her to prove her loyalty to the state by performing an act of worship before the God Jupiter. She refused, confirming the fact that both she and other members of her family might well be Christian, There was no attempt to arrest her however, as she was a member of the Emperor’s family.

Susanna refused the marriage proposal, not only because she was a Christian but in addition, she had taken a vow of virginity. When Diocletian on the eastern frontier learned of his cousin’s refusal and the reasons why, he was deeply angered, and ordered her execution. A cohort of soldiers arrived at the house and beheaded her. Her father Gabinus was arrested and starved to death in prison. Maximus and Claudius, together with Claudius’s wife Prepedigna and their children, Alexander and Cuzia are all martyred. Ironically the only survivor was Pope Caius, who had escaped and hid in the catacombs. These murders within Diocletian’s own family would foreshadow the last great persecution against the Christian church which the Emperor began in 303 AD. Diocletian’s daughter Valeria was divorced, and in June 293 AD married Maxentius who would succeed Diocletian in 305 AD.

In the year 330 AD, a basilica was built over the site of the house of Susanna. It was first named San Caius in honor of the pope who had lived here. The bodies of Susanna and Gabinus were brought back from the catacombs and buried in the church. In the year 590 AD, Pope Saint Gregory the Great, in recognition of the cult of devotion that had grown up around the tomb of Santa Susanna, renamed the church in her honor. Saint Susanna’s feastday is August 11.

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Saint Felicity of Rome
(martyred 138-161):

Patron Saint of Parents who have lost a child in death

Felicity and her seven young sons were martyred during the reign of the Emperor Antonius Pius (138-161). This Emperor while considered a philosopher and and scholar had no regard for Christians and sought religious conformity among his subjects. During his reign the Venerable Polycarp and eleven of his followers were put to death in Smyrna. His nephew and successor Marcus Aurelius (161-180) disliked Christians because of their contempt for death and considered them impius and obstinate.

Persecution of Christians happened sporadically during this period. The Romans believed that the Christian refusal to accept the gods, angered them and therefore led to disaster and misfortune. Christians practiced their religion in secret and so when something terrible occurred, the Romans believed it was necessary to expose the Christians and force them to sacrifice to the gods. Through this act, the Romans hoped that the forces of the universe represented by the gods, would once again fall into balance and things would return to normal. So when a tragedy struck, whether small or large event, accusations were made and Christians were brought before the local or regional magistrates and commanded to sacrifice to the gods.

It was such an event that brought the widow Felicity and her seven young sons before the magistrate Publius. The death of her husband had left this young wealthy widow a fine catch for any Roman noblemen, but Felicity preferred to devote herself to the raising of her young sons, prayer and works of charity. Her example and care for others, led friends and neighbors to convert to Christianity, and this upset many people within her class in Roman society. It is said that the priests of the Roman Forum complained directly to the Emperor Antonius Pius, because her popularity caused her neighbors to shun the old gods.

Publius in the strongest language threatened Felicity, predicting that great harm would come to her young sons if she did not sacrifice to the gods. She responded, “ Do not threaten me! The spirit of God is with me and will overcome every assault you make.” “Unhappy women,” Publius said, “if you wish to die, so die, but do not destroy your children in the process.” “My young children,”said Felicity, “will live forever.”

The next day when Felicity and her sons again refused. She addressed them saying, “Children look up to heaven where Jesus Christ with his saints awaits you. Be faithful and courageous!” Publius was so upset by her speech, that he had her beaten and removed from the room. He then called the sons forward one at a time and began first with promises to set them free, and when this failed, he threatened them. They all refused to sacrifice to the gods. Publius imprisoned them all. The next day they were all executed. The oldest son Januarius was whipped until he died. Felix and Phillip were beaten to death. Silvanus was thrown into the Tiber and drowned. Alexander Vitalis and Martial were all beheaded. Finally Felicity having witnessed the death of her children, was beheaded.

On the life and death of Saint Felicity of Rome, Saint Augustine wrote, “Wonderful is this sight set before they eyes of our faith. A mother choosing for her children to finish their earthly lives before her, contrary to all our human instincts. She did not send her sons away, she sent them on to God. She understood that they were beginning life, not ending it. It was not enough that she looked on, but that she encouraged them. She bore more fruit with her courage than with her womb. Seeing them be strong, she was strong and in the victory of each of her children, she was victorious!

Saint Gregory the Great wrote, “She was as much afraid of leaving them behind here on earth, as mothers are of surviving their children. In each of their deaths, she was of sorts herself a martyr. The eighth in the order of time, but the first to the last in her anguish. She began her own martyrdom with her eldest son and it finished with her own death. She received the crown of martyrdom not only for herself, but for her children. Seeing them in torment, she both felt their agony as their mother, but rejoiced for them in her heart by faith.”

Pope Saint Leo III (795-816) who had been the pastor of Santa Susanna, brought the body of Felicity from the catacombs and interred her in the church next to Saints Susanna and Gabinus some time after 800 AD. It is said that she is interred in the crypt of Santa Susanna with one of her youngest sons, Vitalis. Her feast day was November 23 and is now July 10.

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Pope Saint Eleutherius
(martyred in 189 AD):

Eleutherius was a Greek from Nicopolis in Epirus and had come to Rome to serve as deacon to Pope Anicetus (155-166). It was probably Anicetus who built the first small wall and altar around the tomb of the Apostle Peter which is now incorporated into the present tomb. Following the papacy of Saint Soter (166-175) Eleutherius was elected Bishop of Rome and the twelfth successor of Saint Peter. For a more extensive history, see his biography under the Popes of Santa Susanna.

In 1591, the body of Saint Eleutherius was reinterred in the chapel of Saint Lawrence in the Church of Santa Susanna. The great fresco cycle around his tomb by Giovanni Pozzo shows Eleutherius dragged by horses and then burned upon a grill like Saint Lawrence. His feast day is May 26th.

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Pope St. Eleutherius

Saint Genesius
(martyred 303 AD):

Patron Saint of Actors

Saint Genesius was an outstanding actor, playwrite and comedian in late Imperial Rome. Christians were often discouraged from becoming actors during this time because ancient Roman comedy was highly sexual, crude and offensive! In the year 303 AD, the Emperor Diocletian launched what would be the last great Roman persecution against the Christian Church. Genesius was a comedian of some reknown and decided to use the opportunity presented by the persecution to write a comedy about Christianity. He thought it might well attract the attention of the Emperor, increase his fame and make some good money in the process.

Genesius approached leaders of the Christian community in Rome and presented himself as a catechumen, seeking baptism. He was then invited into a period of instruction in the faith, in order to learn the beliefs of the Christians. He was particularly taken by the idea of Christian baptism which he discussed at great length with his teachers. When he had learned enough for his purposes, he deserted the catechumenate and returned to his acting troupe in order to compose his comedy. But a strange thing happened to Genesius as he began to work on his play which was to be a comedy on baptism. Theater pieces were collaborative were often performed without scripts by actors spontaneously interacting with each other. As Genesius began teaching the other actors about baptism, he began to believe, and a desire to be baptized grew within his heart.

The opening night of the play was a great success with the Emperor Diocletian and much of his imperial court in attendance. The first act opened with Genesius playing a sick man confined to bed with his friends gathered around him. He said, “Oh my friends, I feel a great weight and would like to be enlightened.” This line would lead to many cruel and ribald remarks on the part of the other actors. One responded by saying, “If you want to be lighter, I can use my pruning knife!” At this point he was touched by the Holy Spirit, and no longer acting, but speaking from his heart, he said, “You fools, I wish to die a Christian.” When the other actors asked him why, he said, “All my life I have been a fugitive, and only today have I found God.” Everyone, especially the Emperor laughed as Genesius spoke.

Two actors then entered, one playing a priest and the other an exorcist. When they asked Genesius what he wanted, again he repeated his heart’s true desire for baptism. He said, “I wish to receive the grace of Christ. I long to be reborn and set free from all the sin that lies around me.” The actor priest then baptized Genesius. The Emperor Diocletian could not stop laughing, and began to send small gifts of gold, food and wine up to the players. Genesius was then dressed in white and led before an actor playing a Roman judge. As other actors played soldiers, Genesius was now interrogated just like an actual Roman trial of Christians. But Genesius was no longer acting.

Genesius standing in a pulpit designed to look like the goddess Venus, began to preach to the audience. “Oh Emperor and his soldiers. Listen also people of Rome, especially if you have a mind of your own and know how to use it. Before today, whenever I heard the name Christian, it would make me sick and angry. I would make fun of them and encourage others to abuse them. Over and over I insulted them and encouraged others to be violent towards them. I so hated Christians, that I deserted my own family as a child when I realized that there were Christians among them. So much did I hate them, that I went secretly among them to learn their secrets.

O great Diocletian, I started this play as a way to deride the Christian mysteries in which I did not believe. Yet lying on that make believe sick bed and having an actor-priest, pour water over me, I found that the words I was speaking were true. I wrote this play, these are my words. But now they are the words of my heart. I believe and when I said these words today, I saw the very angels of God surround me. The angels told me that my sins were really forgiven and that water that washed over me, washed away all the evil I have done.

I came here today to please an earthly Emperor but what I have done is to please a heavenly King. I came here to give you laughter, but what I have done is to give joy to God and his angels. From this moment on, believe me, I will never mock these great mysteries again. I now know that the Lord Jesus Christ is the true God, the Light, the Truth and the Mercy of all who have received his gift of baptism. O great Emperor, believe in these mysteries! I will teach you, and you will know the Lord Jesus Christ is the true God.”

Diocletian was furious at the speech. He stopped the play and had the troupe arrested. He ordered that they all be beaten. Genesius’s fellow actors cursed the name of Jesus and cried out that Genesius was the only Christian among them and that he was a mad man! Genesius was condemed to be tortured until he sacrificed to the gods. Through all of his sufferings, he continued to confess that Jesus was God. When this failed to break his spirit, Diocletian ordered Genesius be beheaded. His final words were, “Our Lord Jesus Christ is God and we shall have life in His name.”

Saint Genesius was originally buried in the Church of San Giovanni delle Pigni near the Pantheon. In 1591 the church was in bad shape and Princess Camilla Peretti, the sister of Pope Sixtus V arranged for the body of Saint Genesius to transfered to the Church of Santa Susanna. The martyr was interred in the chapel of Saint Lawrence, built by the princess to commemorate her brother the pope. A special cycle of frescos by Giovanni Battista Pozzo depict Genesius’life and matyrdom and decorate his wall tomb. His feast day is August 25.

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