St. Crispina, Martyr

(Died December 5, 304 A.D.)

Crispina was a Roman woman of rank who lived at Thacora, in Numidia, North Africa. We can learn much of her deep Christian conviction from the minutes of her court trial which, fortunately, have been preserved.

In 304 A.D., the persecution of Emperor Diocletian was well under way. In an attempt to reach a “final solution” with regard to Christians, Diocletian had imposed on everybody the “patriotic” duty of offering sacrifice to the pagan gods. Proconsul (governor) Anullinus sat as magistrate in the city of Thebessa on December 5. We give key passages from his dialogue with Domina Crispina.

The clerk announced to Anullinus: “Crispina, a lady of Thacora, is to be tried at your good pleasure. She has spurned the laws of our lords the emperors.”

“Bring her in,” said the proconsul. When she stood before him, he first made sure that she understood the decree demanding sacrifice.

“I have never sacrificed,” said Crispina, “and I shall not do so, save to the one true God and to our Lord, Jesus Christ, His son, who was born and died.”

“You are a stubborn and insolent woman,” Anullinus rejoined, “and you will soon begin to feel the force of our laws against your will.”

“Whatever happens,” Crispina replied, “I shall be glad to suffer on behalf of the faith which I hold firm.”

“I will have you beheaded. All Africa has offered sacrifice, as you are well aware.”

“May they never find it easy,” she answered, “to make me offer sacrifice to demons; but I sacrifice to the Lord who has made heaven, the earth, the sea, and all things that are in them”’ (Acts 4:24).

“You utter blasphemy,” said Anullinus, “in not honoring what is conducive to your safety.” To bring pressure, therefore, he ordered his aides, “Let her be completely disfigured by having her hair cut and her head shaved with a razor till she is bald, that her beauty might thus be brought to shame.” Apparently this was done, but Crispina’s attitude remained unchanged. So the pro-consul repeated his threat: “If you despise the worship of our venerable gods, I shall order your head cut off.”

“I should thank God,” she retorted, “if I obtained this. I should be very happy to lose my head for the sake of my God. For I refuse sacrifice to these ridiculous deaf and dumb statues.”

“So you absolutely persist in this foolish frame of mind’?”

Crispina responded with feeling: “My God who is and who abides forever ordered me to be born; it was He who gave me salvation through the saving waters of baptism. He is at my side, helping me, strengthening His hand-maid in all things so that I will not commit sacrilege.”

Anullinus asked wearily, “Why should we suffer this impious Christian woman any further?” He commanded that the court record be read back to him. Then he wrote his sentence on a tablet and read it aloud: “Seeing that Crispina has persisted in infamous superstition and refuses to offer sacrifice to our gods in accordance with the heavenly decrees of Augustan law, I have ordered her to be executed with the sword.”

Crispina was exultant: "I bless God who has designed to free me from your hands. Thanks be to God! " A Christian hand later added to these minutes: “And making the sign of the cross on her forehead and putting out her neck, she was beheaded for the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, to whom is honor for ever. Amen.”

The notes of Crispina’s trial are the record of a monstrous act of cruelty, couched in bureaucratic language. But out of this banal dialogue there shines forth the utter faith of a woman who believed in the God revealed by the Holy Scriptures, and who trusted, not in vain, that when called upon to bear witness to Him, “it would not be herself speaking, but the Holy Spirit.” (Mk 13:11).

--Father Robert F. McNamara