St. Bibiana, Virgin and Martyr
In the fourth century, there lived at Rome a virgin celebrated among the Christians for her beauty and her modesty, named Bibiana. Flavian, her father, was, in the reign of the godless Emperor Julian, dispossessed of all his honors and banished from his country on account of his faith. He ended his life in misery, a true martyr for Christ’s sake. Dafrosa, her mother, was for the same reason, after her husband’s banishment, locked up in her own house, that she might starve. Bibiana and Demetria, the two daughters, shared their mother’s imprisonment.
But as neither the mother nor her daughters became emaciated by the hunger they suffered, and, on the contrary, appeared more vigorous than before, and could not be frightened into denying Christ, the mother, by the order of the governor Apronianus, was banished from the country and then beheaded.
Bibiana and Demetria were, at the same time, deprived of all their possessions, in the hope that poverty would cause them to abandon their faith. But the Christian heroines regarded it as little as those to whom St. Paul writes: “You have received the loss of your possessions joyfully, because you know that you have to expect greater goods in heaven. They said cheerfully “It is better to lose the temporal goods, which we cannot possess long, than the eternal.”
The Governor, after a time, called both of them, and promised that all that had been taken from them would be restored, if they would only worship the gods; but if they refused, he threatened them with imprisonment, a cruel martyrdom and the most painful death. The Christian virgins were as unmoved by the flatteries and promises of the tyrant, as by his menaces. “We worship the true God,” said Bibiana, “and are ready to die rather than to stain our souls by sacrificing to the gods.” Demetria spoke in the same manner, but hardly had the words left her lips, when she sank down and expired.
Bibiana was given into the charge of a wicked and cunning woman, named Rufina, who was to cause her to abandon her faith; for, the heathens knew, by experience, that none more easily denied Christ than those who had lost their purity. Rufina, the wicked woman, left nothing untried. She represented the pleasures of the world to Bibiana in such a manner, that she thought the virgin would surely drink the poison thus put to her lips; but all her wiles were of no effect. Although the maiden was kept like a prisoner by Rufina and could not escape, yet she remained unharmed by the fire of temptation.
Calling ceaselessly to God for aid and strength, she was so graciously sustained, that she not only manifested not the least pleasure at Rufina’s wicked behavior, but was more and more strengthened in virtue. Rufina, enraged at this, maltreated the innocent virgin by beating her most violently. All that her rage suggested was employed to gain her end; but the virgin, upheld by the Almighty, remained true to her resolution, rather to lose her life by the most cruel martyrdom, than to stain her purity.
WE are informed by Ammianus Marcellinus, a pagan historian of that age, and an officer in the court of Julian the Apostate, that this emperor made Apronianus governor of Rome in the year 363, who, while he was on the way to that city, had the misfortune to lose an eye. This accident he superstitiously imputed to the power of magic, through the malice of some who excelled in that art; and, in this foolish persuasion, to gratify his spleen and superstition, he resolved to punish and exterminate the magicians; in which accusation, Christians were involved above all others, on account of many wonderful miracles which were wrought in the primitive ages. Under this magistrate, St. Bibiana received the crown of martyrdom.
This holy virgin was a native of Rome, and daughter to Flavian, a Roman knight, and his wife Dafrosa, who were both zealous Christians. Flavian was apprehended, deprived of a considerable post which he had held in the city, burned in the face with a hot iron, and banished to Acquapendente, then called Aquæ Taurinæ, where he died of his wounds a few days after. Dafrosa, by an order of Apronianus, who had thus treated her husband for his constancy in his faith, was, on the same account, confined to her house for some time; and, at length, carried out of the gates of the city, and beheaded. Bibiana and her sister Demetria, after the death of their holy parents, were stripped of all they had in the world, and suffered much from poverty for five months, but spent that time in their own house in fasting and prayer. Apronianus had flattered himself that hunger and want would bring them to a compliance; but seeing himself mistaken, summoned them to appear before him. Demetria, having made a generous confession of her faith, fell down and expired at the foot of the tribunal, in the presence of the judge. Apronianus gave orders that Bibiana should be put into the hands of a wicked woman named Rufina, who was extremely artful, and undertook to bring her to another way of thinking. That agent of hell employed all the allurements she could invent which were afterwards succeeded by blows; but Bibiana, making prayer her shield, remained invincible. Apronianus, enraged at the courage and perseverance of a tender virgin, at length passed sentence of death upon her, and ordered her to be tied to a pillar, and whipped with scourges loaded with leaden plummets till she expired. The saint underwent this punishment cheerfully, and died in the hands of the executioners. Her body was left in the open air, that it might be a prey to beasts but, having lain exposed two days, was buried in the night, near the palace of Licinius, by a holy priest called John. Peace being soon after restored to the church, a chapel was erected over her tomb; and a hundred years after, in 465, Pope Simplicius built there a fair church, as Anastasius mentions in his life. This church was called Olympina, from a pious lady of that name, who defrayed the expenses. It was repaired by Honorius III, but being fallen to decay, was afterwards united to St. Mary Major, till it was sumptuously rebuilt by Urban VIII. in 1628, who placed in it the relics of SS. Bibiana, Demetria, and Dafrosa, which were discovered in that place which has been sometimes called St. Bibian’s cemetery. 1
The only affair which a Christian has in this world, and in which consists all his happiness and joy, is to seek God, to attain to the perfect possession of his grace and love, and in all things most perfectly to do his will. By this disposition of heart he is raised above all created things, and united to the eternal and unchangeable object of his felicity. He receives the good things of this world with gratitude to the Giver, but always with indifference and leaves them with joy if God requires that sacrifice at his hands; and, in his abundance, fears not so much the flight of what he possesses as the infection of his own heart, or lest his affections be entangled by them. Such attachments are secretly and imperceptibly contracted, yet are ties by which the soul is held captive, and enslaved to the world. Only assiduous prayer and meditation on heavenly things, habitual self-denial, humble distrust and watchfulness, and abundant almsdeeds proportioned to a person’s circumstances, can preserve a soul from this dangerous snare amidst worldly affluence. To these means is that powerful grace annexed. This disengagement of the heart, how sincere soever, usually acquires a great increase and perfection by the actual sacrifice of earthly goods, made with heroic sentiments of faith and divine love, when God calls for it. Such an offering is richly compensated by the most abundant spiritual graces and comforts at present, and an immense weight of eternal glory in the next life. 2
Source and Notes