The first-century martyrs Saints Nereus and Achilleus were Roman soldiers and members of the elite Praetorian Guard, entrusted with the responsibility of defending the Roman Emperor. Upon converting to Christianity, they were arrested, taken to the island of Terracina, and martyred. Aside from this, nothing else is known about them.
Three centuries later, Pope St. Damasus (d. 384) wrote of them: “The martyrs Nereus and Achilleus had enrolled themselves in the army and exercised the cruel office of carrying out the orders of the tyrant [the Emperor], being ever ready, through the constraint of fear, to obey his will. O miracle of faith! Suddenly they cease from their fury, they become converted, they fly from the camp of their wicked leader; they throw away their shields, their armor and their blood-stained javelins. Confessing the faith of Christ, they rejoice to bear testimony to its triumph.
“Learn now from the words of Damasus what great things the glory of Christ can accomplish.” According to St. Damasus, the two martyrs were buried in the cemetery of Domitilla on the Via Ardeatina near Rome.
1. Sts. Nereus and Achilleus were not the first enemies or persecutors of the Church to undergo a dramatic conversion and then join the group they had been persecuting; Saul of Tarsus, who vigorously opposed the early Christians, shocked many people (including the Christians themselves) by becoming not only a Christian, but the Church’s greatest missionary. Unexpected conversions such as these are a vivid reminder of the power of the gospel and of divine grace. No matter how bleak a situation may appear, God is able to bring about amazing changes in fortune, validating Jesus’ promise that the gates of hell shall not prevail against the Church (cf. Matthew 16:18).
2. Pope St. Gregory the Great (d. 604) said on the feast of Nereus and Achilleus, “These saints, before whom we are assembled, despised the world and trampled it under their feet when peace, riches and health gave it charms.” Like them, we are called to seek God’s Kingdom first, and not the wealth and success this world offers (cf. Luke 12:31-34).
From Johnnette Benkovic’s Graceful Living: Meditations to Help You Grow Closer to God Day by Day
The believer who has seriously pondered his Christian vocation, including what Revelation has to say about the possibility of martyrdom, cannot exclude it from his own life’s horizon. The two thousand years since the birth of Christ are marked by the ever-present witness of the martyrs.
— Pope John Paul II, Incarnationis Mysterium
Should circumstances require it, am I willing to suffer martyrdom for the sake of the church?
Other Saints We Remember Today
- St. Domitilla (2nd Century), Virgin
- Blessed Imelda Lambertini (1333), Virgin, Religious, Patron of First Communicants
- St. Pancratius (304), Martyrs
photo: Saint Domitilla with Saint Nereus and Achilleus by Niccolò Circignani,