St. Maximilian

(Died A.D. 295)

The trial and death of St. Maximilian because of his refusal to bear arms is recorded in the actual records of his trial.

Soldiers in the Roman Army in the days of the persecutions were generally not draftees but volunteers. The sons of veterans, however, were obliged to serve in the imperial army.

In March 295, Maximilian, aged 21, was summoned to be inducted, and his father, Fabius Victor, was called on to be present. Fabius, an official connected with the military, was himself a veteran, it appears. The background of the summons is not indicated in the court record, but one can judge that father and son had already been arguing before the day of his induction arrived whether the young man could refuse to serve as a soldier.

Proconsul Dion’s first question to Maxmilian was, “What is your name?” Maximilian’s answer showed his determined frame of mind: “Why do you wish to know my name? I cannot serve, because I am a Christian.” He resisted measurement of his height, but the staff measured him anyhow. “Five feet ten,” they reported.

When they tried, however, to hang the military seal–a sort of ‘dog tag’–about his neck, he resisted more effectively. “I shall not serve. You may cut off my head; I will not serve this world, but only my God.”

“Speak to your son,” Dion begged Fabius Victor. The father declined: “He is aware and can take his own counsel on what is best for him.” Maximilian explained, “I am a Christian. I cannot wear a piece of lead around my neck after I have received the saving sign of Jesus my Lord.”

Dion then tried to cajole him. In the very bodyguard of the emperors, he pointed out, there were soldiers who were Christians. They had no such compunction about serving.

Maximilian replied, “They know what is best for them. But I am a Christian and cannot do wrong.” “What wrong do they commit?” the proconsul asked. “Why, you know what they do,” said the young man.

Since the inductee continued to refuse, Dion, accusing Maximilian of civic disloyalty, and desirous of setting an example to others who might imitate him, condemned him to beheading.

“Thank God!” cried Maximilian. He urged bystanders also to be eager to win a similar crown. He asked his father to give to the executioner the new clothes he had just bought for his son. After the execution, a devout Christian woman named Pompeiana asked the body from the magistrate, and buried it in Carthage next to the body of St. Cyprian.

And the reaction of Fabius Victor to all this? Thrilled with his son’s constancy, he returned home “in great joy, giving thanks to God.”

What are we to conclude from the Church’s veneration of this young objector as a saint? The Catholic faith does allow for conscientious objection to military service in some instances. Certainly a soldier can, and must, refuse to do something obviously sinful commanded by his military superiors, no matter what the cost to him. However, the Church has never adopted a policy of absolute pacifism. It is part of the citizen’s duty to aid in the defense of his homeland; and if actual combat is repulsive to an individual, there are other forms of civic service he can perform.

Maximilian himself seemed to be aware of this, when he admitted that his contemporary Catholics in military service might reach conscientious conclusions different from his. In the era in which St. Maximilian lived, there was considerable disagreement among Christians as to how much the service of the Prince of Peace implied. Maximilian was convinced that “he who took up the sword would perish by the sword”. If his conscience erred on the rigorous side, nevertheless he offered his life out of Christian conviction and thereby won a martyr’s crown.

--Father Robert F. McNamara