Notebook

Martyrium

Rome’s Pontifical Minor Seminary moved to its present quarters on the Via Aurelia in 1933. The apse painting in the principal chapel is a scene straight out of Sienkiewicz. It bears the inscription, ‘Hail flowers of the martyrs, sons of the apostles; by whose outpoured blood and by flames Rome was lit up’. The reference is to Nero’s ghastly action after the city fire of 64, when the emperor, who had probably been behind it, blamed the nascent Church and had crucified believers lit as torches round his garden. It strikes one that not so long ago it was considered opportune to raise young people in the faith by putting before their eyes the witness of the martyrs. Indeed, the lads who first prayed before this scene would, a decade on, as young priests, have to make courageous choices. Are young Italian Catholics now invited to contemplate themselves in the protomartyrs? I think of an English parallel. Just thirty years ago, I’d say, the witness of the martyrs was central to the self-image of English Catholics. Today that memory seems to have been eclipsed. One wonders how that happened. And why.