On November 8, 2017, at his general audience, Pope Francis began a new catechesis series on the Eucharist. He referenced The 49 Martyrs of Abitinae. “The Mass isn’t a show…”, said the pope chiding those who take cell phone pictures during liturgy.
A group of 49 Christians found guilty, in 304, during the reign of the Emperor Diocletian, of having illegally celebrated Sunday worship at Abitinae, a town in the Roman province of Africa, the group was surprised by soldiers in Octavius Felix’s home. The town is frequently referred to as Abitina, but the form indicated in the Annuario Pontificio (and elsewhere) is Abitinae. The plural form Abitinae is that which Saint Augustine of Hippo used when writing his De baptismo in 400 or 401 AD.
On February 24 of the year before, Diocletian had published his first edict against the Christians, ordering the destruction of Christian scriptures and places of worship across the Empire, and prohibiting Christians from assembling for worship.
Though Fundanus, the local bishop in Abitinae, obeyed the edict and handed the scriptures of the church over to the authorities, some of the Christians continued to meet illegally under the priest Saturninus. They were arrested and brought before the local magistrates, who sent them to Carthage, the capital of the province, for trial.
The trial took place on February 12 before the proconsul Anullinus. One of the group was Dativus, a senator. He was interrogated, declared that he was a Christian and had taken part in the meeting of the Christians, but even under torture at first refused to say who presided over it. During this interrogation, the advocate Fortunatianus, a brother of Victoria, one of the accused, denounced Dativus of having enticed her and other naive young girls to attend the service; but she declared she had gone entirely of her own accord. Interrupting the torture, the proconsul again asked Dativus whether he had taken part in the meeting. Dativus again declared that he had. Then, when asked who was the instigator, he replied: “The priest Saturninus and all of us.” He was then taken to prison and died soon after of his wounds.
The priest Saturninus was then interrogated and held firm even under torture. His example was followed by all the others, both men and women. They included his four children.
When the Proconsul asked them if they kept the Scriptures in their homes, the martyrs answered courageously that “they kept them in their hearts,” revealing that they did not wish to separate faith from life.
During their torture and torment, the martyrs uttered exclamations such as: “I implore you, Christ, hear me,” “I thank you, O God,” “I implore you, Christ, have mercy.” Along with their prayers they offered their lives and asked that their executioners be forgiven.
“The term ‘dominicum’ has a triple meaning. It indicates the Lord’s day, but also refers to what constitutes its content — His Resurrection and presence in the Eucharistic event.”
One of the responses of the accused has been frequently quoted. Emeritus, who declared that the Christians had met in his house, was asked why he had violated the emperor’s command. He replied: “Sine dominico non possumus” – we cannot live without this thing of the Lord. He was referring to the celebration of the Holy Eucharist that the emperor had declared illegal, but in which they had chosen to participate even at the cost of being tortured and sentenced to death.
In the commentary that the writer of the Acts of the Martyrs made to the question posed by the Proconsul to martyr Octavius Felix: ‘I am not asking you if you are a Christian, but if you have taken part in the assembly or if you have a book of the Scriptures,’ the commentator wrote these provocative words:
“O foolish and ridiculous question of the judge! As if a Christian could be without the Sunday Eucharist, or the Sunday Eucharist could be celebrated without there being a Christian! Don’t you know, Satan, that it is the Sunday Eucharist which makes the Christian and the Christian that makes the Sunday Eucharist, so that one cannot subsist without the other, and vice versa?”
Saint Restituta is sometimes considered one of the Martyrs of Abitinae,
List of the Martyrs of Abitinae, all tortured to death
The feast of the Martyrs of Abitinae is on February 12. Under that date the Roman Martyrology records the names of all forty-nine:
Saturninus, son of Saturninus, Reader
Felix, son of Saturninus, Reader
Maria, daughter of Saturninus
Hilarion, infant son of Saturninus
Dativus, also known as Senator
Benignus, infant son of Ampelius
Maximianus or Maximus
Telica or Tazelita
yet another Rogatianus
Victoria, a virgin from Carthage