Pope Peter

(Seal of the Martyrs)

The year 284 was the year Diocletian became emperor, and ordered the longest and fiercest persecution the Christians ever experienced. He remained in office until 305. The Copts who lost their lives under Diocletian, were over eight hundred thousands. Then in the wake of his atrocities Diocletian became blind and mentally deranged. Ironically, when his own people deserted him, an old Christian woman nursed him. By so doing, she obeyed our Lord who commands us to love our enemies and bless those who persecute us.

To keep alive the memory of the martyrs who laid down their lives for their faith, the Coptic calendar commenced with the year 284 A.D as its starting point. The Copts follow the same calendar system of the ancient Egyptians. The Coptic year begins on September 11th and has twelve months of thirty days each, and a short month of five days (or six days on leap years.)

During the celebration of the martyrdom of the apostles Peter and Paul, Sophia entered the church. Deeply in her heart, she asked the Lord, before his holy altar, to give her a child. That night she saw in a vision two old men dressed in white telling her that her prayers were answered, and she would be given a son, and he would be called Peter, after the apostle, for he would be a Father of a whole nation.

In due time Peter was born and when he was seven years old, his parents offered him to the patriarch Abba Theonas, just like the Prophet Samuel had been offered. He became like the patriarch's own son, and was consecrated by him first as a reader, then a deacon, then a priest. He grew up to be learned, chaste and upright, and in due time his knowledge, wisdom and understanding earned for him the surname of "Excellent Doctor of the Christian religion".

When the patriarch Abba Theonas was dying, he counseled the church leaders to choose Peter as his successor. Thus Peter, the son of promise, became the father of a nation and the seventeenth successor of St. Mark in the year 285 A.D.

The years in which Abba Petros guided the church were years of excessive stress. Storms raged from outside, in the form of the most terrible persecutions the Christians were subjected too, and storms from inside in the form of the Arian heresy that was equally dangerous to the Christian faith. Like the able captain of a ship, Peter did his utmost to cope with both storms.

The persecutions that were unleashed against the Christians when Abba Petros became patriarch were those ordered by Emperor Diocletian. They lasted over ten years and did not end until the Patriarch himself was martyred. Since he was the last one to lose his life for the faith under Diocletian, he is called to this day in church history "The seal of the Martyrs".

The tortures and executions were carried on day in and day out, year in and year out, without respite. The Copts who lost their lives in this seventh persecution, and suffered under Diocletian, were over hundred thousands. During the fourth year of the persecutions, Abba Petros felt it necessary to pass special regulations concerning the acceptance of repentant apostates back into the communion of the church. So, he drew up fourteen canons which came to be considered as veritable monument of church disciplines. One of the principals set in the canons was that a Christian could be baptized only once. The truth of this principle was confirmed by an incident which took place at the time.

A Christian woman who lived in Antioch had two sons whom she had been unable to baptize because their father had obeyed the Emperor and gave up his faith. Quietly, she boarded a ship to Alexandria and took them with her. While yet off shore, the ship ran into a storm, and she was afraid that her sons might die without having been baptized. So, she wounded herself, and with her blood made the sign of the cross upon the foreheads of her two sons, and baptized them in the name of the Holy Trinity. However, the ship arrived to Alexandria, and she took them to church to have them baptized with other children. When their turn came, and Abba Petros attempted to immerse them in the Holy Water, the water froze. He tried three times, and the same thing happened. The Patriarch in surprise asked the mother, and she told him what she had done on the way. He was astonished and glorified God, "Thus, says the church that there is only one baptism ".

When Diocletian realized that after so many years of persecutions, the Christians of Egypt were not exterminated, but were increasing in number because of the heroism of the martyrs, he became very angry. He ordered that the religious leaders be arrested and tortured, thinking that by doing so, he would break the spirit of the people. Six of the Bishops were arrested but as no amount of torture would induce them to renounce their faith, they were martyred. When Abba Petros heard of their martyrdom, he fell on his knees and offered thanks to God for having kept them steadfast until the end.

Finally, it was decided that it was Abba Petros' turn. The Emperors soldiers laid hands on him and led him to prison. When news of his arrest went around, a large crowd of his devoted people gathered together and went to the prison in one big mass and there clamored for his freedom. Hearing their loud shouting and fearing that their behavior might bring calamity on them, Abba Petros decided to interfere. He told the officers if they granted him the opportunity to speak to them and pacify them, he would immediately give himself up so that there would be no more trouble on his account. The officers complied and led him to where he could address the crowd. In words of compassion and assurance, he spoke to the multitudes and pleaded with them to depart in peace. They obeyed him. After they dispersed, Abba Petros signalled to the officers that they could now take him as he was ready.

On the way to be executed, he was asked if he had any special request to make. He replied that he would like to be allowed to visit the church of St. Mark. His request was granted, and he was permitted a few minutes there. He went in, knelt in prayer and fervently asked God to accept his life as a ransom for his people. Soon after he ended his petition a voice was heard saying "Amen".

The soldiers then led him to be executed. For a while no one dared raise a hand against him, for they beheld his face like that of an angle. Then one of the officers took out twenty five pieces of gold and said, "this I will give to the one who dares behead this sage". The sight of gold made one of the soldiers take courage and strike the Saint's head off.

Having beheaded him, the soldiers went away, leaving him where he fell. Soon after that, the faithful heard the news and came rushing in tears, and carried away the remains of their pleased Patriarch and buried him in St. Mark Church. The martyrdom of Abba Petros inaugurated a period of peace, that is why he is called "The Seal of Martyrs".

May the prayers and supplications of St. Petros be with us.

 

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