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Rev. Alban Butler (1711–73). Volume III: March. The Lives of the Saints. 1866.

March 24

St. Irenæus, Bishop of Sirmium, Martyr

        From the original authentic acts of his trial in Henschenius, Ruinart, p. 403. Tillemont, t. 4. p. 248. Ceillier, t. 3. p. 497.

A.D. 304.

ST. IRENÆUS, bishop of Sirmium, capital of part of Pannonia, (now Sirmisch, a village in Hungary, twenty-two leagues from Buda to the South,) in the persecution of Dioclesian was apprehended and conducted before Probus, the governor of Pannonia, who said to him: “The divine laws oblige all men to sacrifice to the gods.” Irenæus answered: “Into hell fire shall he be thrown, whoever shall sacrifice to the gods.” PROBUS—“The edicts of the most clement emperors ordain that all sacrifice to the gods, or suffer according to law.” IRENÆUS—“But the law of my God commands me rather to suffer all torments than to sacrifice to the gods.” PROBUS—“Either sacrifice, or I will put you to the torture.” IRENÆUS—“You cannot do me a greater pleasure; for by that means you will make me partake of the sufferings of my Saviour.” The proconsul commanded him to be put on the rack; and whilst he was tortured, he said to him: “What do you say now, Irenæus? Will you sacrifice?” IRENÆUS—“I sacrifice to my God by confessing his holy name, and so have I always sacrificed to him.” All Irenæus’s family was in the utmost concern for him. His mother, his wife, and his children surrounded him. His children embraced his feet, crying out: “Father, dear father, have pity on yourself and on us.” His wife, dissolved in tears, cast herself about his neck, and, tenderly embracing him, conjured him to preserve himself for her, and his innocent children, the pledges of their mutual love. His mother, with a voice broken with sobs, sent forth lamentable cries and sighs, which were accompanied with those of their servants, neighbours, and friends; so that all round the rack on which the martyr was hanging, nothing was heard but sobs, groans, and lamentations. Irenæus resisted all these violent assaults, opposing those words of our Lord: If any one renounce me before men, I will renounce him before my Father who is in Heaven. He made no answer to their pressing solicitations, but raised his soul above all considerations of flesh and blood to him who was looking down on his conflict from above, waiting to crown his victory with immortal glory; and who seemed to cry out to him from his lofty throne in heaven: “Come, make haste to enjoy me.” The governor said to him: “Will you be insensible to such marks of tenderness and affection? Can you see so many tears shed for you without being moved? It is not beneath a great courage to be touched with compassion. Sacrifice, and do not destroy yourself in the flower of your age.” Irenæus said: “It is that I may not destroy myself that I refuse to sacrifice.” The governor sent him to prison where he remained a long time suffering divers torments. At the second time of examination, the governor, after having pressed him to sacrifice, asked him if he had a wife, parents, or children alive? The saint answered all these questions in the negative. “Who then were those that wept for you at your first examination?” Irenæus made answer: “Our Lord Jesus Christ hath said: He that loveth father or mother, wife or children, brothers or relations, more than me, is not worthy of me. So, when I lift up my eyes to contemplate that God whom I adore, and the joys he hath promised to those who faithfully serve him, I forget that I am a father, a husband, a son, a master, a friend.” Probus said: “But you do not therefore cease to be so. Sacrifice, at least, for their sakes.” Irenæus replied: “My children will not lose much by my death; for I leave them for father that same God whom they adore with me; so let nothing hinder you from executing the orders of your emperor upon me.” PROBUS. “Throw not yourself away. I cannot avoid condemning you.” IRENÆUS. “You cannot do me a greater favour, or give me a more agreeable pleasure.” Then Probus passed sentence after this manner: “I order that Irenæus, for disobeying the emperor’s commands, be cast into the river.” 1 Irenæus replied: “After so many threats, I expected something extraordinary, and you content yourself with drowning me. How comes this? You do me an injury; for you deprive me of the means of showing the world how much Christians, who have a lively faith, despise death, though attended with the most cruel torments.” Probus, enraged at this, added to the sentence that he should be first beheaded. Irenæus returned thanks to God as for a second victory. When arrived on the bridge of Diana, from which he was to be thrown, stripping off his clothes, and lifting up his hands to heaven, he prayed thus: “Lord Jesus Christ, who condescendest to suffer for the salvation of the world, command the heavens to open, that the angels may receive the soul of thy servant Irenæus, who suffers for thy name, and for thy people of the Catholic church of Sirmium.” Then his head been struck off, he was thrown into the river on the 25th of March, on which day his name occurs in the Roman Martyrology. He suffered in the year 304. He was married before he was ordained bishop; but lived continent from that time, as the laws of the church required.
  The martyrs most perfectly accomplished the precept of renouncing all things for Christ; but all who desire truly to become his disciples, are bound to do it in spirit. Many aspire to perfection by austere practices of exterior mortification and long exercises of devotion; yet make little progress, and, after many years, remain always subject to many imperfections and errors in a spiritual life. The reason is, because they neglected to lay the foundation by renouncing themselves. This requires constant watchfulness, courageous self-denial, a perfect spirit of humility, meekness and obedience, and sincere compunction, in which a soul examines and detects her vices, bewails her past sins and those of the whole world, sighs at the consideration of its vanity and slavery, and of her distance from heaven, labours daily to cleanse her mind from all idle thoughts, and her heart from all sin, all irregular attachments, and superfluous desires, flies the vain joys of the world, and often entertains herself on the bloody passion of Christ. If the affections are thus purified, and this cleanness of heart daily more and more cultivated, the rest costs very little, and the soul makes quick progress in the paths of holy love, by the assiduous exercises of contemplation and prayer, a constant fidelity in all her actions, and the most fervent and pure attention to the divine will and presence. Voluntary imperfections and failings, especially if habitual, both blind and defile the soul, disquiet her, extremely weaken her, and damp the fervour of her good desires and resolutions. They must therefore be retrenched with the utmost resolution and vigilance, especially those which arise from any secret vanity, sensuality, or want of the most perfect sincerity, candour, and simplicity. An habitual attachment to any failing, how trifling soever it may appear, how subtle and secret soever it may be, and under whatever pretences it may be disguised, exceedingly obstructs the operations of the Holy Ghost, and the effusion of divine grace in a soul.  2
Note 1. Meaning the Boswethe, which runs through Sirmisch, and falls into the sea five leagues lower. [back]