Every Catholic knows the four distinguishing marks of the only true Church founded by Jesus Christ. She is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. However, from her earliest history Christ's Church has been also marked by persecution. In various times and places, she has enjoyed periods of peace and tranquility. But, those periods have been relatively few in her history compared to the episodes of persecution which she has suffered and continues to experience even in our days. As Christ's innocent, physical body suffered while He dwelt on earth, so does His Mystical Body suffer now. Persecutions of the Catholic Church have varied in their intensity, duration, and severity, but they have been and are almost always present in her life and in the lives of her children. From the first centuries of her existence, Church Fathers and other attentive observers have noticed this fact and sometimes have called persecution the fifth identifying mark of the Church.
Our divine Lord prophesied persecution for His followers so we, who are His disciples, should not be unduly amazed by it. Jesus said, "If the world hates you, know that it has hated Me before you. If you were of the world, the world would love what is its own. But, because you are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore, the world hates you" (John 15:18-19). Our Savior also said, "Yes, the hour is coming for everyone who kills you to think that he is offering worship to God. And, these things they will do because they have not known the Father nor Me" (John 16:2-3). Christ predicted, "You will be hated by all for My Name's sake. If they call the Master of house Beelzebub, how much more those of His household" (Matthew 10:22-39). Indeed, part of the initial and satisfying promised reward for following the Lord and sacrificing oneself for Christ will, however, also include persecutions (Mark 10:31).
The Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament, a book written by Saint Luke, is the divinely inspired account of the first days and years of the Catholic Church. It shows, among other things, how the predictions of Jesus about future persecutions almost immediately were fulfilled. Saints Peter and John were arrested (Acts 4:1-21). The Apostles were beaten (Acts 5:40). Saint Stephen was stoned to death, the first martyr (Acts 7:54-59). The Church was persecuted and men and women were thrown into prison for the faith (Acts 8:1-3). Herod beheaded Saint James, the first Bishop of Jerusalem, and again imprisoned Saint Peter (Acts 12:1-17). Saint Paul suffered enormously for the faith (Acts 16:19-29; 20:27-40; 21:22-30; 23:12-35; 2 Corinthians 11:23-30).
Eventually in A.D. 67, Saint Peter was martyred for the faith in Rome, where he was the first Bishop, having come from Jerusalem and Antioch, by being crucified upside down by the pagan Emperor Nero in the Circus (the chariot race track) built by Caligula, while Saint Paul, evidently in the same year, was beheaded near Rome on the Ostian Way outside the city walls. Saint Peter was buried on the Vatican Hill where his body now rests beneath the high altar of the great Basilica there that bears his name. Saint Paul's body awaits the resurrection of the just at the end of world underneath the high altar of the great Roman Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls.
We know that there were people from Rome present in Jerusalem for the Pentecost event (Acts 2:10). Faith in Jesus and in his Church herself must have been brought back to that city by them. The controversial nature of the Gospel, it seems, must have caused an uproar in the Jewish community there. The Roman historian, Suetonius wrote that in A.D. 49 (about 19 or 20 years after our Lord's death and resurrection) the Emperor Claudius expelled all the Jews from Rome, where their presence had been previously tolerated by the imperial government. The reason was their continuous riots, said Suetonius, involving a certain "Chrestus". Among the expelled Jews were two Jewish Christians, Aquila and his wife, Priscilla. Because the Jews' nationality coincided with their religion, the pagan Roman government did not require them to conform to the imperial religion, but they were, by way of exception, permitted to practice their own religion relatively unmolested.
It appears that the successor of Claudius as Emperor, Nero, allowed the Jews to return to Rome. It was under Nero that the first great persecution of the Christians began and it began in Rome. Nero was sixteen years old when he became the Emperor. He was the son of the second wife of Claudius, Agrippina, by her previous and rich husband. Claudius killed his first wife Messalina, a lascivious woman, and then in turn, Agrippina killed him with a plate of poisoned mushrooms. Under his mother's influence Nero became by all accounts a man of "monstrous cruelty, abandoned profligacy, and insane vanity." He arranged to have his mother killed and then executed his nineteen year old wife with horrible tortures. He married his mistress, whom he then kicked to death in his depravity.
He wrote poetry and played the harp and sang. He studied Greek literature and introduced Greek games and arts into Rome. He constructed stadia and baths and gymnasia. On July 18, 64, a huge fire broke out in Rome and spread throughout the city, leaving it almost all in smoldering ruins. It is doubtful that Nero, although he was insane enough to have started it, was responsible. He probably did not "fiddle" or play the harp during the fire, and even may have tried to stop it. However, he was blamed for it because of his degenerate reputation, and gigantic revolts broke out in the Empire. Eventually the Roman Senate declared him an outlaw, his guards deserted him, and he committed suicide in 68.
However, the year before, to deflect blame from himself, he accused the Christians (a sect that he had heard about and that appeared to be growing in number in Rome) of having set the fire. He then had Christians arrested in large numbers and condemned them to dreadful deaths, the more notorious form of which was to coat them with tar, tie them in bundles of straw, attach them to poles, and set them afire to light up his gardens. It was in that persecution that Saints Peter and Paul were martyred.
Saint Paul talking about the Catholic Church in Rome had written previously that it was "known for its faith throughout all the world" (Romans 1:8). At the time of Nero then, the community must have been strong and able to sustain the horrors of that initial persecution. Paul himself was released from his Roman imprisonment in A.D. 63, after which he probably journeyed to Spain and then returned to Rome and his martyrdom (Acts 28:11-30; Romans 15:24-28).