In Galatians 2:11-14, we read “And when Kephas (Peter) came to Antioch…”, where Paul rebuked him for treating Gentile converts as inferior to Jewish Christians.
The Liber Pontificalis (9th century) mentions Peter as having served as bishop of Antioch (near modern day Antakya, Turkey, bordering northwestern Syria) for seven years and having potentially left his family in the Greek (culturally, due to the conquests of Alexander the Great) city before his journey to Rome. [Claims of direct blood lineage from Simon Peter among the old population of Antioch existed in the 1st century and continue to exist today, notably by certain Semaan families of modern-day Syria and Lebanon.]
Historians have furnished other evidence of Peter’s sojourn in Antioch. Subsequent tradition held that Peter had been the first Patriarch (bishop) of Antioch, before departing for Rome to become Patriarch of Rome, and the first Pope, where he, like nearly all of the Apostles, except John, would suffer martyrdom. Electii to the papacy have always had the words spoken to them after their election, “Tu es Petrus…”, as in “…you are Peter…” Mt 16:18.
In the first century AD, Apollinaris, tradition holds, accompanied Peter from Antioch to Rome. Peter consecrated him a bishop and appointed him to proclaim the Gospel in the city of Ravenna, Italy. Apollinaris, like the Apostles, dedicated his time to public preaching and soon won many converts to Christ.
The story goes Apollinaris’ first miracle was on behalf of the blind son of a soldier who gave him hospitality when he first arrived in the city of Ravenna. When the apostle told him of the God he had come to preach and invited him to abandon the cult of idols, the soldier replied: “Stranger, if the God you preach is as powerful as you say, beg Him to give sight to my son, and I will believe in Him.” The Saint had the child brought and made the sign of the cross on his eyes as he prayed. The miracle was instantaneous, to the great amazement of all, and news of it spread rapidly. A day or so later, a military tribune sent for him to cure his wife from a long illness, which again he did. The house of the tribune became a center of apostolic action, and several persons sent their children to the Saint to instruct them there. Little by little a flourishing Christian assembly was formed, and priests and deacons were ordained. The Saint lived in community with the two priests and two deacons.
Nobody likes competition. The pagan priests grew angry. They attacked Apollinaris, beat him senseless, and left him for dead on the beach. He was cared for by members of the small Christian community he had founded and recovered.
Apparently, Apollinaris was not one to take a hint, or be easily dissuaded. A young girl whom he cured after having her father promise to allow her full liberty to follow Christ, consecrated her virginity to God. It was after this he was arrested, interrogated, again flogged, stretched on the rack and plunged into boiling oil. Alive still, he was exiled to Illyria, east of the Adriatic Sea.
He remained three years in that country, having survived a shipwreck with only a few persons whom he converted. Then he evangelized the various districts, with the aid of his converts. When a pagan oracle ceased to speak during his sojourn in one of these regions, the pagans again beat him and threw him and his companions on a ship which took them back to Italy. Soon imprisoned, he escaped but was seized again and subjected to another flogging.
A third time he returned to Ravenna. Again he was captured, hacked with knives, had scalding water poured over his wounds, was beaten in the mouth with stones because he persisted in preaching, and was flung into a horrible dungeon, loaded with chains, to starve to death.
He and his flock were again exiled from Ravenna during the persecutions of Emperor Vespasian. A fourth time, he returned to Ravenna. On his way out of the city he was identified, arrested, and martyred by being run through with a sword.
He died on July 23rd of the year 79. His body lay first at Classis, four miles from Ravenna, and a church was built over his tomb; later the relics were returned to Ravenna. Pope Honorius had a church built to honor the name of Apollinaris in Rome, about the year 630 AD. Centuries after his death, he appeared in a vision to Saint Romuald.
Saint Apollinaris was Bishop of Ravenna for twenty-six years.
Following Jesus involves risks—sometimes the supreme risk of life itself. Martyrs are people who would rather accept the risk of death than deny the cornerstone of their whole life: faith in Jesus Christ. Everyone will die eventually—the persecutors and those persecuted. The question is what kind of a conscience people will bring before the Lord for judgment. Remembering the witness of past and present martyrs can help us make the often-small sacrifices that following Jesus today may require.