Reprinted from Magnificat (www.magnificat.com)
GREAT CONVERSION STORIES
Christian apologists in the Roman Empire often stressed that the persecution of the early Church actually fueled her growth. Tertullian famously coined an expression that has come down through the centuries and resonated wherever and whenever Christians have died for their Faith: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”
Even though general, imperially mandated efforts to wipe out Christianity didn’t come until the 3rd and 4th centuries, local authorities frequently attacked the churches in their jurisdictions from Apostolic times. The Gospel made no sense to the half-cynical, half-superstitious minds of rulers in late antiquity, who were dedicated to accumulating and preserving power and hoarding wealth. They inevitably regarded as suspicious and threatening this unconventional, rapidly growing movement of people from all classes of society whose motives and way of life they didn’t (or refused to) understand. Though there were frequent periods of widespread toleration in different times and places in pagan Rome, it was hard to predict when a local magistrate or governor might seize on some pretext for initiating a reign of torture and terror over the local Christian people.
Such was the situation in Alexandria in Egypt in the late 2nd century. A long period of toleration had given the local church space to grow. People searching for meaning in life found much wisdom in Clement’s episcopally sponsored “catechetical school.” At the beginning of the 3rd century, however, a persecution began in the city. Clement’s brilliant successor Origen continued to run the school “underground,” and men and women of many backgrounds risked their lives to follow his teaching, so that they might follow Jesus Christ.
Shortly after these events, Basilides was required to perform one of the pagan ritual oaths that were a common part of a Roman soldier’s duty. He refused and declared to his fellow soldiers that he had become a follower of Jesus Christ. Realizing that he was serious, they imprisoned him. Christians, when they learned of his testimony, visited him that night. Basilides was baptized and, the next day, gave his life for Christ.
Eusebius recounts how it was Potamiena’s witness and intercession that brought Basilides from the position of being an admiring observer to that of a courageous and committed Christian. Before his baptism, Basilides told the Christians who came to him that Potamiena had appeared to him three days after her death, holding a crown and telling him that God had granted her prayer, and that the soldier would soon join her in heaven. After that, he had no fear of embracing Christ.