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A martyr like Praxedes

We were the “odd ones out” in an organized group which had just finished the guided visit to the four major basilicas. She was black, really black, with pleasingly regular features and a beautiful body clad in a simple white polo shirt and a pale blue skirt.I was the only Roman, perhaps in search of myself. I noticed her and wondered how she had ended up among the usual tourists, all the same and all different, dripping with sweat in the Roman summer.

Apse mosaic in the Church of Santa Prassede. On page 26, “St Praxedes”, a painting attributed to Jan Vermeer (c. 1655)

When the visit to St Mary Major was over, to my astonishment she turned to me asking where the Church of Santa Prassede was. An uncertain pronunciation and my ignorance prompted me to ask “Saint who? Sorry”. “Pra-sse-de”, she repeated, articulating each syllable. “Ah, that of The Betrothed”. “Not a bride, no! A virgin and martyr! A martyr at a very early age. Her church is near here. Excuse me, if you don’t know I’ll ask...”. “Wait, let’s ask at the bar while we have something to drink: it’s July 21, and it’s hot”. She accepted and we exchanged a few words.

She came from Biafra and taught there at secondary school. Catholic and strong with a profound faith, she venerated the Roman saint as an example and had come here to fulfil a vow. She asked me: “What do you do and why are you here?”. “I’m a doctor and I don’t know why I am here; curiosity or boredom, and also because I don’t believe in anything”. She looked at me pityingly. “Let’s go, come with me to the church”. I smiled at her: “Thank you, but I have to be on duty. You will convert me some other time”. Close by there was an insignificant doorway which led to an unexpected marvel. I did not go in. “I’m off to the clinic, I shall leave you to your saint”. She turned a gentle gaze on me answering my “Goodbye” with “See you again”, and entered the church.

At the clinic I sought out the Sister on duty: “Sr Maria, do you know anything about St Praxedes?”. “Of course I do, her feast is today and everything is written here, even that she may never have existed. If you want to read it, give it back to me later”. “OK Sister, thank you. Are there any seriously ill patients?”. “No, it looks as though we’ll have a quiet night, you will sleep in peacefully.

I started reading. A daughter of Pudens, a Roman senator who had converted to Christianity, Praxedes lived in the second century during the persecutions under the Emperor Antoninus Pius.... I read, slept, dreamed and lived. “Timotheus has written that we may use our father’s legacy and share it with the presbyter Pastor and with the Pope. First we shall make a baptismal font in our parents’ church. What do you say, brother?”. Novatus nodded. “We shall continue preaching the Gospel and sharing our bread. The Emperor Antoninus thinks he can defeat our faith by killing our holy brethren in Christ. For every martyr there are dozens of conversions! They have killed our sister Pudentiana, still a child. We shall bury her by Pudens in the cemetery of Priscilla. Who could ever explain the reason for so much hatred and relentlessness?”.

Praxedes, which means “woman of action”, was indeed so and not only in name. She resembled Savinella, her mother, who had transformed her house into a church where even Pope Pius i celebrated and preached. Together with Pius and with the help of the priests Pastor and Demetrius, Praxedes had another two churches built. For two years she experienced a respite from the persecutions during which period pastoral activity was tolerated and bore good fruits.

The persecution of thousands of Christians was then harshly resumed. Although Praxedes was prey to immense suffering because of all the slaughter, she did not stop her work of conversion. On that day Novatus, already ill, rushed in and shouted in alarm: “Let’s escape, run, they are coming to capture you. Antoninus himself has given the order for it. They will torture you before killing you. Remember Pudentiana, come on, let’s get away from here. Someone has betrayed us and Demetrius is already dead! But what are you doing kneeling down? Stand up, come now...”. “You go brother, flee immediately, avoid suffering and death! I do not fear torture and, even less, death. They can torture the body to the point of taking its life. They will obtain the exaltation of my soul in union with the sufferings of Christ and of my fellow martyrs in the faith. The most atrocious death becomes eternal sanctification in the embrace of God and in the Communion of Saints. Go, and let me pray for them so that, as happened to Paul, they may be enlightened and saved”.

They entered shouting with swords in their hands. Someone pointed to Praxedes. The girl stood up, opened her arms and pressed her breast to the weapon that transpierced it. I see her beautiful, radiant face while she is dying. What is this face I see? I don’t understand, it is the face of the woman from Biafra and then, then I see the face of the person who betrayed and killed Praxedes.

I hear myself screaming and feel myself shuddering, rigid with tension and I can’t wake up. “Doctor, stop it! Wake up!”. Sr Maria accompanied her words with a loud slap which brought me back to reality. I was still screaming but I stopped and stood up. “Thank you Sister, I am fine and I really didn’t kill her. It was me I but I would never have betrayed her. Then as to killing her…”. “Doctors always kill someone!”. “Don’t make fun of me, I have been having a nightmare”.

For days I couldn’t apply myself to anything. My brain was occupied with the image of my arm holding the sword that was thrust into the breast of a black woman. I realized how many “feminicides” occur with continuing frequency. I decided to see a psychiatrist. I didn’t get there in time. The news hit me like a thunderbolt. A school in Biafra had been attacked; several teachers had been killed, and her photo was among the others.

A martyr like Praxedes. My mind had, as it were, been ripped open to reveal to me an infinite horizon.

I was in a church, in Santa Prassede. On my knees I wept and prayed prayers that I didn’t even know. I prayed to Praxedes who prays every day for those who kill her and for those who, in the face of massacres, clothe themselves with indifference. 

Beniamino Baldacci

Beniamino Baldacci has been a family doctor in Rome for many decades, beloved by his patients – which is not often the case in large cities. They all recognize, besides his high professional level, his ability to understand the souls of the sick and his patience in coming close to each one of them, ready to listen to them, to see the burdens of suffering, defeats and weariness that are often the cause of illness. He has six children and six grandchildren and has written various medical articles, as well as a historical novel, Leone. Donne e tradimenti (2014), which was awarded a prize at the Spoleto Festival Art that same year.

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