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St Rufina and Secunda
(entered heaven in 247)
You won’t believe this, maybe, but it’s true nonetheless: your sufferings make me suffer even more than yourself. I know that your fidelity is costing you a lot right now. Abandonment by those you love is perhaps the worst thing we can suffer in this life – as Jesus himself experienced when Judas kissed him goodbye (in more ways than one) in the Garden of Gethsemane. But never forget that you’re a Christian, and so you suffer with meaning. “Blessed are you when they persecute you for my sake…” our Lord explained. Maybe the example of today’s saints will give you some encouragement.
Rufina and Secunda were sisters, daughters of a Roman Senator (the Senators were still the most important Romans even in the third century – a truly privileged class) named Asterius. They were both Christians. Christianity was spreading at the time, but it was still a dangerous faith to hold. Officially, the laws forbade the new religion as an affront against State authority (Christians wouldn’t worship State gods), but those laws were only intermittently enforced. Most of the time, the officials didn’t actively go after the Christians, but if a neighbor turned you in, you could be prosecuted, tortured, and executed.
Asterius was a wise father, and arranged for his daughters to marry two respectable young men of the same social class as himself, who shared the Christian faith: Armentarius and Verinus. Life was billowy. Unfortunately, before the weddings could take place, the Emperor Valerian initiated (for reasons still unbeknownst to historians – probably egged on by evil counselors) a systematic hunt for Christians, hoping to rid the economically unstable Empire of their supposedly pernicious influence by forcing them to convert or die.
The two brave young men showed their true colors when word of the persecution spread. They counted their earthly lives and comfort more valuable than their souls (and than the truth) and burned incense before the pagan altars, showing their allegiance to the Roman State (and their betrayal of the One True God). Then they tried to use their masculine wiles to convince their beautiful fiancées to do the same. You can imagine the conversations: you don’t have to deny Christ in your hearts, just burn a bit of incense and pretend that you mean to worship the gods; we will be safe then and we will be able to do so much good for the Church; don’t risk losing your life when you are so young… And so on. The prattle of cowards never varies.
But Rufinas and Secunda would have none of it. Christ was their Lord, and no earthly Emperor (or fiancé) could make them betray him. Not knowing what else to do, they fled the city hoping to escape the authorities. But they were captured and brought back to Rome for trial.
Junius Donatus, the Roman Prefect of the City at the time, devised a cruel torture for them. He had Rufina scourged while Secunda looked on. But instead of making Secunda cave in to his impious desires, she cried out: “Why do you honor my sister and not me? We both proclaim Jesus Christ as God; scourge us both!” Poor Junius recognized (to his credit) that nothing he could do would budge these Christian warriors, so he condemned them and had them taken twelve miles outside the city to the Black Forest, where they were beheaded. Some fellow Christians buried them nearby, and soon the forest was renamed the White Forest. A chapel went up over their tombs, but in the wake of barbarian destruction, their remains were relocated to the Lateran Basilica in Rome, where they can still be venerated today.
Of course you will have opposition, and others may eve have to suffer because of your faith. That’s why it’s so important to remember the big picture: we’re not about building heaven on earth; we’re about traversing earth to get to heaven.
Your loving uncle,