Today is the feast of two Roman Saints named Nereus and Achilleus. An inscription placed over their burial place by Pope St Damasus I (366-84) tells us that they were soldiers who were forced to participate in the persecution of the Christians, but threw away their weapons and armor, and were in turn martyred for the Faith. The date of their death is uncertain, and the various details later added to their story are considered legendary, but there can be no doubt of the authenticity of their martyrdom, or that their feast is very ancient. They were buried in part of the Christian cemetery complex now known as the Catacomb of Domitilla, about 1½ miles from the Aurelian Walls down the via Ardeatina. Pope Damasus built a small basilica on the grounds over this cemetery, and it was here that Pope St Gregory the Great preached his 28th homily.
Around 800 AD, Pope St Leo III built a church in honor of these Saints right next to the Baths of Caracalla. When Pope Clement VIII elevated the great Church historian Cesare Baronio, a priest of the Roman Oratory and close friend of its founder, St Philip Neri, to the rank of cardinal in 1596, he gave him this church as his cardinalitial title. Baronio immediately set about giving the building a much-needed top-to-bottom restoration. At the time, it was mistakenly believed that this was the church in which St Gregory had preached the aforementioned homily, and the cardinal therefore had the full text of it carved onto the episcopal throne in the apse, where it can still be seen today.
Here is the conclusion as an excerpt which shows how beautifully St Gregory could write. If it seems very pessimistic about the state of the world, one must remember that Rome was in a terrible state after the Gothic wars of the sixth century, and he would have walked through roughly 2 miles of ruins to get to the place where he preached it. Assuming he took the shortest route from the Lateran, where the Popes lived at the time, he would have passed by at least one broken aqueduct, an abandoned bath complex, and a good many large but long empty houses.
“Ecce mundus qui diligitur fugit. Sancti isti, ad quorum tumbam consistimus, florentem mundum mentis despectu calcaverunt. Erat vita longa, salus continua, opulentia in rebus, fecunditas in propagine, tranquillitas in diuturna pace; et tamen cum in seipso floreret, jam in eorum cordibus mundus aruerat. Ecce jam mundus in seipso aruit, et adhuc in cordibus nostris floret. Ubique mors, ubique luctus, ubique desolatio, undique percutimur, undique amaritudinibus replemur; et tamen caeca mente carnalis concupiscentiae ipsas ejus amaritudines amamus, fugientem sequimur, labenti inhaeremus. Et quia labentem retinere non possumus, cum ipso labimur, quem cadentem tenemus. Aliquando nos mundus delectatione sibi tenuit; nunc tantis plagis plenus est, ut ipse nos jam mundus mittat ad Deum. Pensate ergo quia nulla sunt quae temporaliter currunt. Finis temporalium ostendit quam nihil sit quod transire potuit. Casus rerum indicat quia res transiens et tunc prope nihil fuit cum stare videretur. Haec ergo, fratres charissimi, sollicita consideratione pensate, in aeternitatis amore cor figite; ut dum terrena culmina adipisci contemnitis, perveniatis ad gloriam, quem per fidem tenetis, per Jesum Christum Dominum nostrum, qui vivit et regnat Deus cum Patre in unitate Spiritus sancti, per omnia saecula saeculorum. Amen.
Behold, this world which is loved flees away. These saints at whose grave we stand trampled the flourishing world with contempt. They had a long life, continual health, material riches, many children, tranquility in long-lasting peace, and yet, though it flourishing in itself, this world had already withered in their hearts. Behold, now this world is withered in itself, and still, it flourishes in our hearts. Everywhere is death, everywhere mourning, everywhere desolation; on all sides we are struck, on all sides we are filled with bitterness; and yet, in the blindness of our mind, we love the very bitterness tasted of fleshly desire, we pursue what flees, we cling to what falls. And since we cannot hold onto that which falls, we fall with what we hold onto. Once, the world captivated us for itself with its delight; now it is now full of such misfortunes that already it sends us back to God, Consider, therefore, that what happens in time does not count. For the end of all temporal things shows how meaningless is that which can pass away. The collapse of things shows us that something which passes away were almost nothing, even when it seemed to stand firm. Dearest brothers, think of these things with careful consideration; fix your hearts in the love of eternity; so that, while you disdain to reach the heights of earth, you may come to that glory which you hold by faith, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who is God, and lives and reigns with the Father in unity of the Holy Spirit, through all the ages of ages. Amen.”