The martyrdom of St. Apollonia of Alexandria, while acclaimed then, raised issues for later theologians.
Scholars dismiss a legend that Apollonia was a miracle baby born to an elderly couple after seeking the intercession of Mary.
The real story of this 3rd-century saint is much better and comes from an eyewitness — her bishop, St. Dionysius — in a letter to Fabius, bishop of Antioch, and preserved in Eusebius’ book of church history.
During the last year of Emperor Philip’s reign, a poet in Alexandria predicted dire consequences for the city if something wasn’t done about the Christians. An angry mob seized Metras, an old man, who refused to worship their gods. They tortured him before stoning him to death.
Next they carried Quinta, a Christian woman, to a temple to make her worship an idol. Quinta not only refused, she insulted and made fun of the idol. Her captors dragged her by the heels over the rough stone street, then scourged and stoned her.
Meanwhile, the Christians offered no resistance. They watched from a safe distance as their houses were looted. Dionysius said, it brought them joy for they were focused on heaven and not earthly goods.
Next they seized Apollonia, an elderly deaconess and consecrated virgin, whom they hit repeatedly on the mouth, knocking out her teeth. They made a bonfire and threatened to throw her on it if she didn’t deny Christ. She asked for a minute to think about it. Her captors, apparently believing they had triumphed, released their grip and took a step back. Before they could react she leaped onto the flames. Last was Serapion, whom they tortured before throwing him to his death.
The persecution ended only when a civil war broke out among the pagans, although it flared up again a year later.
An ancient church in Rome is dedicated to St. Apollonia, patron of dentists. During the Middle Ages tooth relics, said to be from Apollonia, were venerated in chapels and churches. Pope Pius VI (1775-1799) ordered the seizure of all such teeth in Italy. They were placed in a case, weighing about three pounds, and thrown into the Tiber.
Back to Apollonia’s martyrdom: Because Christians believe life is sacred and people are not allowed to voluntarily end it, theologians have wrestled with the issue. St. Augustine, in his “Confessions,” decided that Apollonia acted in response to a directive of the Holy Spirit.
Sources: “Butler’s Lives of the Saints”; heiligen-3s.nl; katolsk.no; saints.sqpn.com; saintpatrickdc.org; and “The Catholic Encyclopedia.”
Staley is a retired editor of The Compass.