Saints Chrysanthus & Daria: A Love Story

In 1969, two martyrs, traditionally held to have been a young married couple, were removed from the General Roman Calendar along with dozens of other early saints.

The Congregation for Divine Worship was very clear and concise in explaining the deletions. A few of these saints were taken off the universal calendar (and, in some cases, even removed from the Roman Martyrology, the Church’s official listing of the saints and beati) because of insufficient proof of their existence or significant questions regarding the details of their lives and deaths (e.g. St. Ursula, St. Domitilla, and Sts. Modestus and Crescentia). A majority of those saints removed from the calendar, but whose names are still included in the Roman Martyrology, were simply selected because they did not seem to have universal significance.

Although a number of these individuals were members of religious communities or early popes, most were martyrs who were especially associated with a specific cause or place.

It was to this latter group that Chrysanthus and Daria belonged. The Norms Governing Liturgical Calendars, issued by the Sacred Congregation for Rites, simply states: “Apart from their names, all that is known about Chrysanthus and Daria is that they were buried on the Salerian Way.”

The cult of these two saints is quite ancient and is present in both the Western and Eastern Churches. Although devotion to Chrysanthus and Daria was somewhat localized, they were included in the famed Martyrologium Hieronymianum, a mid-fifth century text attributed to St. Jerome. As the Roman Martyrology observes, their shrine was embellished by a (now-lost) poetic inscription by Pope St. Damasus I, and their burial place became a destination for pilgrims. A portion of their relics was transported to Prüm in the Rhineland-Palatinate region of Germany in the ninth century. In 1011, Pope Sergius IV presented the Count of Anjou, Fulk Nerra, with more of the martyrs’ relics; these were enshrined in the abbey church of the monastery of Belli Locus, in what is today the town of Beaulieu-lès-Loches, France. The largest portion of the saints’ relics were enshrined in the cathedral of Reggio Emilia, Italy. Today, the commemoration of these martyrs is celebrated on October 25 in the Western Church and on March 19 by Eastern Christians.

Forgotten No More

Largely unknown even before the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, and all but forgotten today, the figures of Chrysanthus and Daria have emerged from the shadows. In 2008, scholars and scientists working in the cathedral of Reggio Emilia, Italy, opened a sarcophagus that had been sealed since the sixteenth century and discovered two nearly-complete human skeletons. After extensive testing (one of the first instances of the Church allowing an invasive and thoroughly modern examination to be done on the relics of saints), those involved in the study believe that they had, in fact, successfully identified the remains of Chrysanthus and Daria. The investigation and the authentication of the relics was profiled by National Geographic, bringing these saints and their story unprecedented attention.

Although devotion to Chrystanthus and Daria began immediately after their martyrdom, which is believed to have taken place around the year 283, the fifth century account of their death has been regarded, until the recent examination of the relics, to have been without historical value. Although we cannot verify or disprove with any real certainty particular aspects of this text, it does merit some consideration, based on the simple fact that for centuries it was considered an authoritative source of information for both Chrysanthus and Daria and of other martyr-saints who were later associated with the martyrs’ shrine.

Meet the Happy Couple

Tradition relates that Chrysanthus first came to Rome with his father, Polemius, who was a nobleman of Alexandria. In Rome he was introduced to the Christian Faith and received baptism from the priest Carpophorus. Outraged by his son’s conversion, Polemius tried to induce Chrysanthus to apostatize, but to no avail. Believing his son could be enticed to forsake his chastity, and thereby his faith, Polemius paid five prostitutes to try to seduce Chrysanthus. When this failed, Polemius arranged for his son to marry Daria, a priestess of the goddess Minerva (although certain texts describe her as having been one of the famed Vestal Virgins). Chrysanthus agreed to marry Daria, whom he subsequently converted to Christianity. It is said that they lived in a state of perfect chastity.

Together, Chrysanthus and Daria succeeded in winning over a large number of converts. The two were ultimately denounced to a tribune, Claudius, who had Chrysanthus arrested and tortured. Even in the face of severe torments, however, the young Chrysanthus remained steadfast in his profession of faith and his courage was so impressive that Claudius, along with his wife, Hilaria, and his sons, Maurus and Jason, and 70 of his soldiers, became Christian. This treasonous act by a Roman tribune so infuriated the emperor Numerian that he ordered Claudius, along with his wife, sons, and the soldiers, be put to death. (St. Claudius and his companions were formerly commemorated in the Roman Martyrology on December 3.)

In the meantime, the virginal Daria was sent to live in a brothel. Although the brothel is a fairly common detail in the hagiographies of early virgin-martyrs, the Acta of Chrysanthus and Daria adds the unusual detail of Daria being defended from would-be sexual partners by a lion, which had escaped from the amphitheater. The brothel was burned (apparently because of the lion, who could not be coaxed away from Daria) and Chrysanthus and Daria were taken to stand trial before Numerian, himself. Condemned to be stoned and buried alive in an old sandpit on the Via Salria Nova, their execution seems to have taken place on October 25, although the exact year is unknown.

So Great a Cloud of Witnesses

The site of the martyrs’ burial became a place of pilgrimage. On the dies natalis of the saints (i.e. the day of their death and “birthday” into heaven), it is recorded that some of the faithful gathered to pray in the shrine that had grown up over the pit. As they were praying, soldiers sealed up the entrance of the crypt with stones and earth, burying alive all those inside. This new group of martyrs, including Diodorus, a priest, and Marianus, a deacon, along with several others, was formerly commemorated on the first day of December.

What makes the figures of Chrysanthus and Daria worthwhile, however, is not the (re)discovery of their relics or the confirmation that some of the most significant details of the stories might, in fact, be true. These martyrs are significant because they are just that: martyrs. And, although, they have been largely forgotten, even within Church circles, they have, in fact, retained a significance that transcends the boundaries of time or place.

Faith’s Highest Expression

In his homily for the beatification of 498 martyrs of the Spanish Civil War on October 28, 2007, Jos. Saraiva Cardinal Martins, observed that “martyrs are not the exclusive patrimony of a single diocese or nation. Rather, because of their special participation in the Cross of Christ, Redeemer of the Universe, they belong to the whole world, to the universal Church.” This is no less true of Chrysanthus and Daria.

As witnesses of the Christian faith, we understand that each martyr, whether they lose their life in an isolated act of violence, like St. Maria Goretti or Bl. Isidore Bakanja, or as part of a group, makes a personal confession of faith in Jesus Christ. It is because of this declaration of faith that we understand martyrdom as “faith’s highest expression.” Rather than placing their trust in the powers of men and nations, the martyrs set their hope in God alone. This can be understood as a perfecting of the baptismal call of every Christian. Bl. John Paul II said

Since Baptism is a true entry into the holiness of God through incorporation into Christ and the indwelling of his Spirit, it would be a contradiction to settle for a life of mediocrity, marked by a minimalist ethic and a shallow religiosity. To ask catechumens: “Do you wish to receive Baptism?” means at the same time to ask them: “Do you wish to become holy?” It means to set before them the radical nature of the Sermon on the Mount: “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” . . . . This ideal of perfection must not be misunderstood as if it involved some kind of extraordinary existence, possible only for a few “uncommon heroes” of holiness. The ways of holiness are many, according to the vocation of each individual. (Novo Millennio Ineunte, 31)

Sts. Chrysanthus and Daria, no less than any other martyrs, fully committed to the service of God and the Church through their baptismal commitment and marriage vows, testify to all of those who desire a more perfect union with God that love will always triumph over death and destruction. Each man, woman, and child, who offers up their life as a witness to the truth of Christ’s triumph over sin and death does so with a unique voice. And it is this vast assembly of voices, united in their praise, who represent what it is that we, as the Church, are called to be.