Home > Supplements > SPIRITUAL READING > The martyrdom of Saints...

The martyrdom of Saints Nabor and Felix

12 July

297 A. D. Two soldiers of the imperial army arrived in Milan from Africa.
They were martyred in Lodi. Even though they were foreigners and guests, Ambrose considered them the mustard seed from which the Church of Milan arose

by Lorenzo Cappelletti

“One can easily imagine the surprise and joy” (he himself expressed it like this) of Giovanni Battista Montini, Archbishop of Milan, when, on Christmas Eve 1959, he received news from the Bishop of Namur that the skulls of the martyred saints Nabor and Felix had fortunately been found there. Montini continued: “We must declare ourselves lucky for this outstanding event that recalls us to the study of our religious history, joined, by the same knot which St Ambrose tied, to the memory of these saints, and invites us to consider the importance that the veneration of these relics has had in our Ambrosian spirituality and encourages us to renew our devotion to these pignora of our faith”. They were pignora of Christian Milan, in fact, those two soldiers; who were at the same time sure signs, deposits and hostages, according to the different meanings of the Latin term. On the foundations of the Church of Milan, still small at the time of Diocletian’s persecution and sterilem martyribus (without martyrs), as St. Ambrose was then to say, some names were finally written. Finally in those bodies it began to have the deposit of its faith.

To that Church of Milan a pledge from the distant lands of Western Africa was given. They were Mauri genus, that is they came from Mauritania and perhaps belonged to that tribe of Gaetuli that constituted one of the reserves which the armies of the Lower Empire drew on in preference. They were stationed in Milan, then residence of the Augustus Maximian Herculean and also of his choice troops. “Solo hospites terrisque nostris advenae / guests of our soil, and passing through our lands”, St Ambrose says of them. Yet they are par excellence the Mediolani martyres (the Milan martyrs), because their true birthday (dies natalis) did not occur in the Gaetulianblood of their bodily mother, but in the blood of martyrdom (two small glass containers still conserve traces of the blood that, with care, as so often happened, some Christians had gathered).

They were slain by the sword, after being identified as Christians, in that anticipation of Diocletian’s persecution of 297 involving the purging of the army, or in any case by degrading methods for those who refused idolatrous worship.

Nothing of the fabulous or fabricated in this and many other martyrdoms of soldiers.

The army had been for some time then, at least since the mid-third century, the fulcrum of imperial power, and along with it, the other power point considered essential by the imperial power of the moment was the recovery of ancient religious traditions: fidelity to which was now recognized as the sole criterion of truth, morality and order. Not by chance had Diocletian and Maximian, the two Augustus’, heads of the Empire, assumed the titles since 289 respectively of Iovius and Herculius, wanting to base their authority through auto-adoption into the family of traditional Roman divinities. On the one hand, some philosophers given to politics, such as Teotecnus or the neo-Platonic Hierocles, with furious impatience, gave theoretical coverage and more refined reasons to that religious policy. On the other hand, the powerful caste of diviners, traditional custodians of the Etruscan-Roman paganism, fomented this same religious policy by denouncing the presence of Christians as a reason for the “silence” of the divinity, that is, the ineffectiveness of the oracles.

So, Nabor and Felix – who seem to have been Christians already, as their Passio of the fifth century recounts: and therefore they didn’t even receive the faith in Milan, as on the other hand St Ambrose seems to suggest in his Inno (hostages yes, pignora, but totally donated, not due) – underwent the ritual of interrogation and were pressed into sacrificing to the gods of the Empire. Their refusal involved capital execution in Lodi, where perhaps an even more conspicuous Christian community to terrorize existed. Their remains, however, removed surreptitiously by a matron, were brought back to Milan (also as victims they were again donated to this community) and began to be objects of great veneration. Until, that is, Ambrose discovered close to their graves the bodies of Saints Gervasius and Protasius, whose traces had been lost, even though not entirely unknown to the memory of the oldest among the Milanese Christians. “Senes repetunt audisse se aliquando horum martyrum nomina, titulumque legisse. Perdiderat civitas suos martyres quae rapuit alienos / The old repeat that they have heard the names of these martyrs [Protasius and Gervasius] and read an inscription. The city that stole the martyrs of others had lost its own [Protasius and Gervasius]”.

The cult of the re-found martyrs supplanted Nabor and Felix and so did the new Basilica, built by St Ambrose for Protasius and Gervasius, compared to the small and ancient Naborian Basilica, of which then in modern times, the very traces themselves were lost.

They couldn’t have had any other other fate, those pignora. “Granum certe sinapis res est vilis et simplex: si teri coepit vim suam fundit... Granum sinapis martyres nostri sunt Felix, Nabor et Victor: habebant odorem fidei sed latebant. Venit persecutio, arma posuerunt, colla flexerunt, contriti gladio per totius terminos mundi gratiam sui sparsere martyrii, ut iure dicatur: in omnem terram exiit sonus eorum. / A mustard seed is indeed a very humble and simple thing: only if you take and break it does it spread its power... A grain of mustard seed are our martyrs Felix, Nabor and Victor: they possessed the fragrance of faith, but in secret. The persecution came, they laid down their arms, bent their necks; killed by the sword, they spread the grace of their martyrdom to the ends of the world, so that it can be rightly said: in each land their voice was spread”.

But whereas Victor took permanent residence in Milan and separate from his companions in the militia and in martyrdom, the grain of the saints Nabor and Felix had not finished spreading its strength to the ends of the world.

The place where they still reposed, increasingly downgraded, had become by 1200 home to a church and then a Franciscan monastery. In the autumn of 1797 it was used as a barracks first for the Cisalpine cavalry and then for the French troops passing through. Nabor and Felix, “torn away from impious barracks” – as Saint Ambrose says in the Inno dedicated to them – ended up there once again! But very soon they were stolen away, in the midst of the indescribable confusion of those years, hidden (latebant, as in the past) in their precious busts with which some soldier became infatuated, or from which he wanted to derive profit. And so they came to Namur, then French as most of Europe, that Namur which has such a strange similarity with the Latin name Nabor or Navor according to another writing. To be reconsigned to that Archbishop of Milan who as Pope would have to cultivate much other than “the religious history” or “Ambrosian spirituality,” as he expressed it in 1959. Reduced to skin and bones and his voice broken by tears, Paul VI would have to shout out his allegiance to Jesus Christ, renouncing the precious cultural shell in which he had been formed and that had become a suffocating cocoon, to make of him an empty chrysalis. That cry freed his flight, beyond any conceivable imagination of his, making him a disciple in the present and in the flesh of those holy martyrs. Jesus said to Peter: “Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go. He said this signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God” (Jn 21, 18-19).

Italiano Español Français Deutsch Português