This a story we’ve heard many times, a story of persecution, constancy, and martyrdom. When the story involves a young person, it seems more heart-wrenching and the constancy more miraculous. On December 3, we mark the feast day of St. Bibiana (or Viviana) of Rome, whose story mirrors that of so many young martyrs in the first centuries of the Church.
This story began when the governor of Rome, Apronianus, newly-appointed to his position by the Emperor Julian (the “Apostate”), was on his way to begin his duties. He had an accident which caused him to lose an eye and anger over this life-changing event led him to seek some sort of retribution. The perfect object for his anger was the Christians, who had been given freedom to practice their faith openly by Julian’s uncle, the Emperor Constantine I. Julian rejected Christianity and tried to take the Empire back to its pagan practices. His Roman governor could gain favor by making public examples of Christians. A well-placed family would make ideal public examples.
Bibiana’s father, Flavian, was an official in the city government of Rome, and he was singled out first. He was told to renounce his Christian faith and when he refused, was branded in the face with a hot iron. Sent into exile, he died very soon of this injury. Flavian’s wife, Dafrosa, was under house arrest for some time, but was soon taken outside the city and beheaded.
Apronianus’ anger was not yet sated. The daughters of this family – Demetria and Bibiana – remained and since the parents had not recanted, surely the young women would. All the money in the house was taken away, any belongings they could sell were removed, and the women were left confined to a nearly empty house. Consoled by prayer and fasting and their charitable work among the even more needy of the city, the two were being watched by the governor and his representatives.
Apronianus’ persecution of this family was not working and his rage was inflamed even more. He now ordered the sisters to court, calling Demetria first. She boldly declared herself a Christian who would never renounce Christ, and she immediately died at the feet of the governor! So that this scenario might not be repeated, Apronianus ordered Bibiana to move to the home of Rufina, a notorious woman of the city, who was given the task of turning this young woman from her faith.
At first, Rufina tried gentle persuasion, using all the arguments the world can offer against the truth of Christian teachings. She also tried the temptations of the world which she thought would be appealing to someone who had been deprived of everything. When none of these tactics were effective in breaking the resolve of Bibiana, Rufina beat the young woman, but to no avail.
Finally, Bibiana was ordered by Apronianus to be tied to a stake and beaten with metal-studded straps. No doubt remembering the scourging of our Lord, Bibiana held fast and continued to pray during her ordeal. When she passed from this life to the next, her body was thrown into the street to be eaten by the wild animals. Even this didn’t work according to Apronianus’ plan. The animals would not touch the body and a Christian priest was able to secretly retrieve it and bury it near the young woman’s home where her mother and sister had been buried. Later, when Christians were once again free from persecution, a church was built over this site and the women were recognized as saints by those who knew them and had witnessed their steadfast faith.
We give thanks for St. Bibiana and the thousands of other young women who have suffered and died for following Christ. We ask for her intercessions for those who are still suffering and for the persecutors that their hearts may be turned to the love of Christ.