Agnes smiled brightly as she walked down the narrow cobbled streets of Rome. Why would she not be smiling? She was young, the sun was shining, and she was in love. And she was in love with not just anyone, but Titus, the handsomest young man in the city. And he loved her back! Yes, he did! She could hardly believe it. But it was true – and she knew it was true because he had asked her to marry him. They planned to marry in only a few days. She could hardly wait until the time would come until she and Titus were at last man and wife. In fact she was on her way to meet Titus now. He was waiting for her at a small square near the forum. There was much planning to do for the wedding, but today they planned to take just a little time for themselves and walk, holding hands, down the banks of the mighty Tiber, the river that ran through Rome, as all young lovers liked to do.
So she nearly skipped her way through the streets. She hardly saw the slaves in thread-bare tunics who rubbed shoulders with merchants in rich robes along the way. She did frown a little when one merchant whistled her as she passed. She did not think it right that men with wives and children at home should be looking at pretty young women in the streets. But her smile quickly returned – soon she would be with her Titus!
And when she came in sight of the square she almost ran, so eager was she to see her beloved Titus. But then she slowed herself down to a gentle walk. She didn't want to arrive all red-faced and sweaty! So she strolled the last few yards to the square, then paused at the end of the street which opened on to it, looking around to spot her fiancee.
The square was filled with people – senators in their white togas, hurrying to the senate to do the business of the state; shopkeepers, setting out their wares outside their shops; men and women of all sorts going about the business of life. She soon saw Titus sitting at a small table outside a little shop which sold sweet pastries. He was staring down at the table, ignoring the plate of delicious treats that sat in front of him. She was surprised to see he did not look happy. Fear gripped her heart. She was bursting with happiness at the thought of seeing him. But Titus looked sad. Why did the thought of seeing her not make him smile also? Did he no longer love her? Was he planning to tell her that he no longer wished to marry her? Her heart fell within her. She almost turned and ran away home. She could not bear the thought that he might tell her that he wanted to cancel the wedding. But she forced herself to have courage. Titus was the man she loved. And she did not just love him because he was handsome. He was also a good and honourable man – and a Christian just as she was. She knew he did not love her just because of her beauty, but because he knew her to be a good woman and a faithful follower of Christ. He would never do such a terrible thing to her as to break her heart only days from the wedding. So she gathered up her courage and called out to him.
He glanced up. Seeing her, at once the sadness left his face. A smile lit it up. Agnes' heart lifted. Whatever was troubling Titus' soul, it was was not that he no longer loved her. She ran to him. He stood up. When he reached her, he took her into his arms and embraced her.
'Oh, Titus,' she cried. 'I was so worried when I saw you looking so sad. I thought something must be wrong, something terrible.' She felt him stiffen in his arms. Gently he let her go. As he looked down at her, she saw that once more great sadness was written on his face.
'It has,' he said. Agnes' heart sank again. She knew it must be something awful indeed for Titus to look so wretched, so grief-stricken. His face seemed like that of a man who had lost his dearest friend or if some close and much loved relative had died.
'Sit, my darling,' he said. She sat, trembling. She could not imagine what could be wrong. But she knew it must be serious. Not a death, for if that was the case he would be at home, helping arrange the funeral, and he would have sent her word that they could not meet that day. But what could it be? Titus took a deep breath.
'We can not be married my love,' he said. Agnes froze and then she burst into tears.
'Oh, Titus,' she said. 'I feared it was that when I first saw you sitting here looking so sad. But why? Why don't you love me any more?' She began to sob. Titus took her hands.
'Never believe such a thing!' he said. 'I do love you – I love you more than life itself! I would die for you. Please don't cry – I can't bear to see it.'
'But why Titus?' asked Agnes through her tears. 'Why can we not marry? You love me, I love you. We are engaged and all is arranged for the wedding. Why do you say it can not now happen?'
Titus glanced around to see who else was sitting near. Christians had to be careful what they said. They were often persecuted in the empire. It was worse at some times than at others. Often they were left in peace for many years. But the current emperor, a war loving madman called Claudius, hated Christians and had started up the persecutions again. They were liable to be arrested for their belief in Christ at any time – and not just arrested, but tortured and killed. So Titus could not afford to let any stranger hear a careless word in case he informed on them for hope of a reward from the cruel emperor. There were two old men sitting nearby at separate tables. Agnes knew that Titus would have to be careful in what he said, and not let slip any hint that they were Christians.
'It is the emperor,' he said. 'He has only this morning made a new decree. Until he says otherwise, no weddings are allowed to take place.'
Agnes gasped in horror.
'But why?' she said. 'Why would he do so awful a thing?'
'It's all these wars he wants to fight,' he said. 'Wars need soldiers.'
Agnes shook her head.
'I don't understand. The army is full of married men. Why stop all the weddings?'
Titus shook his head sadly.
'Because men who are just married are excused from military service. And there are many cowards out there, men who are afraid to fight to protect their country from danger. So they marry just so they can save their skins. Some have paid girls to marry them – fake weddings. And even worse, some are divorcing their wives, leaving them and their children, and entering into these fake marriages to get out of being in the army!'
Agnes gasped in horror. She could well understand why a man might not want to join the army. But to do such a terrible thing as leave his wife for such a reason and marry someone else! It was worse than being a coward – surely it was a sin, she thought! But, of course, Romans didn't think that way. They thought it fine to end a marriage for any reason. When someone once said to the great Julius Caesar that his wife Calpurnia had had an affair he divorced even though he knew she was innocent, saying 'Caesar's wife should be above suspicion.' His reputation mattered more to him than his wife. Why wouldn't men in a society that thought like that think it reasonable to divorce a woman so that they might avoid the army?
'And so the emperor has decreed that no marriages at all should take place,' she said sadly. Titus nodded, looking sadder than ever. Agnes could not bear to see him so upset. She wanted to tell him not to worry, that God would find a way to make things right, that they should trust in him. But she did not dare say a word in case someone would overhear, someone who would tell others, those who would hurt them, that they were Christians. Just then two soldiers strolled by, their breastplates gleaming, their sharp swords sheathed at their sides. Men in the service of the emperor who would receive a rich reward for handing in a couple of Christians. So instead she did the only thing she could - she reached her hand out to him. Gently she traced a small cross on the back of his hand with her forefinger. Titus understood what she was trying to tell him. He smiled and nodded. They must trust in God.
The old man at the next table began to laugh.
'Cheer up, young ones,' he cackled. 'No need to look so glum! So the emperor has banned weddings? So what. Just go and live with one another! That's what all the other young men being called into the army will do. In a few months – maybe a few years – the emperor will change the law – or a new emperor will come along and he'll change it. Then you can marry – if you still want to, that is! And if you don't, well, you'll be spared the expense and trouble of a divorce!'
Agnes and Titus looked at each other and shook their heads sadly. What he spoke of was an old form of marriage called 'usus' – a couple came to live together without ever entering into any kind of a formal marriage. Over time they were looked upon by all as being married. And just as easily as the couple had entered into it, the could end it and move on to someone else. But Agnes and Titus would never marry in that way.
Still cackling, the old man got up and walked slowly away. Listening to his laughter grow quieted as he moved away, Agnes and Titus looked at each other sadly. What could they say? There was nothing they could do.
'So that's it then?' said Agnes.
'I'm afraid so,' said Titus. 'But don't worry, my love. As that horrible old man said, eventually the law must change. I love you enough to wait no longer how long it takes.'
'And I love you enough to wait too,' cried Agnes. 'But Titus, how hard it will be! And it is so unfair! No one, not even an emperor, should be able to tell a man and a woman who love each that they can not marry!'
'No indeed,' said a voice from nearby. 'That is something that is only in the power of God.'
Agnes and Titus both jumped. They had forgotten there was anyone else near. Agnes looked over at the man – and then she gasped again. She knew who it was. Earlier he had had his back turned to them so she had not been able to see his face. But now she could see the long white beard and smiling eyes of someone she knew well – Father Valentine, a priest of the Christian Church in Rome. He traced a little cross on his forehead with his thumb, the signum or sign of the cross that told other Christians that the person making it was a Christian also. It was a kind of secret sign. Agnes and Titus took a quick look around to make sure no one was watching. Then they made the sign also.
'No,' continued the priest. 'No man should try to prevent a man and a woman who are free to marry from doing so. This law of the emperor's is wrong – no law that goes against the law of God can ever be right.'
'I agree, Father,' said Titus. 'But there is nothing we can do. How can we marry when the emperor forbids it? Even if it is wrong, he will punish anyone who disobeys him!'
The old priest smiled and shook his head.
'You should have read the decree more carefully, my young friend. The emperor did not ban couples from marrying. That is something that not even he has the power to do – or would be foolish enough to attempt. No, he banned all those who would officiate at weddings from doing so. The priests of the various temples, the city officials who have the authority to perform weddings. People like that he, as the emperor has the power to control. But the couples themselves are still free to marry – if they can find someone willing to defy the emperor!'
A great smile broke out on Agnes' face. She could still marry her beloved Titus. But just as quickly the smile left it again. She shook her head.
'What difference does it make?' she said. 'We are free to marry – but who will marry us, knowing the emperor will punish him for doing so?'
'I will,' said the priest, smiling. Agnes gasped. But Titus shook his head.
'No, Father,' he said. 'We could not ask such a thing of you. The consequences would be too great. If a priest from one of the temples defied his ban, the emperor would put them in prison, maybe have them beaten. But you, a Christian priest? He would have you killed – after he had tortured you first!'
'I have no doubt he would,' said the priest still smiling. 'But what of it? The emperor can only kill my body. But he can not hurt my soul. And that is what would be in danger if I failed to carry out my duty to you as a priest of God's Church by refusing to marry you!'
'Oh, Father,' cried Agnes, 'thank you! But we cannot. It is too much to ask of you. The risk is too great. Would it not be just as wrong of us to put your life in danger as it is for the emperor to try and stop us from marrying?'
The old priest shook his head.
'Not at all,' he said. 'God calls men and women to marriage. If you truly feel called by him to marry each other, promising to be with each other as husband and wife as long as you both shall live, then it would be wrong of you not to marry! For then you would be refusing to answer God's call. Wicked men have no right to make evil laws; and good people not only do no wrong in refusing to obey such laws, they do wrong if they keep them! For if they do that, they allow evil to flourish in the world!'
Agnes and Titus looked at each other. Agnes hardly dared hope that they might still be married after all.
'Titus,' she said, 'do you truly love me? Do you truly believe that God is calling you to be my husband?' Titus smiled.
'My darling,' he said. 'I do love you. And I do believe that God is calling me to marry you – just as I know that you love me and that God is calling you to be my wife!' He turned to the old priest.
'Father,' he said, 'I hardly know what the say to you.'
The old man put his right hand on Titus's hand, and the other on Agnes'.
'Then say nothing,' he said. 'We have better things to do than talk anyway – we have a wedding to arrange!'
And so some days later, by the flickering light of some small oil lamps in the caves and tunnels of the catacombs deep underground in the city, the young couple gathered with their family and the old priest to pledge their love and commitment to each other. The smile on Father Valentine's face as they kissed each other for the first time as man and wife was hardly less than that on those of the happy pair. Father Valentine went on to help many other young couples who were in the same situation as they. And the emperor, of course, found out eventually. He had the old priest arrested and brought before him. His anger at him was enormous. And, as Titus had warned him, the wicked emperor first had him beaten and then killed. But the old priest went smiling to his death. He thought it a small price to pay for helping young couples and doing God's will in the world.
Titus and Agnes heard about the terrible thing the emperor had done not long after. It was several months later. Already Agnes was expecting their first child.
'Poor Father Valentine,' she said, placing her hand on her tummy. 'We owe him so much. Without him we would not be married. Without him we would not have … ' she rubbed her tummy gently. But Titus shook his head.
'He is Saint Valentine now,' he said. 'He died for the faith; he died for doing God's will. He is a saint in heaven now and forever. So there is no need to feel sorry for him ever again. Rather, it is those who killed him we should feel sorry for. The emperor and the wicked men who do his bidding. They have killed a holy man. And one day they will face judgement for it.'
'They will indeed,' said Agnes sadly. 'Titus, we must pray for them that they will feel sorry for what they have done and come to know God.'
'Of course, my love,' he said, smiling. 'You are truly a good woman.'
Agnes shook her head, also smiling.
'And Titus?' she said.
'Yes my love?'
'I think this child is going to be a boy?'
'Really, Agnes?' her husband said in delight. 'How do you know?'
'Just a feeling,' she said, still smiling. 'And if I am right, I already have a name picked out.
'You do?' he said. 'What is it? Do you wish to name him after my father? Or perhaps yours?' But Agnes shook her head.
'No Titus,' she said. 'I think we should call him Valentine.' And smiling and nodding her husband took her in his arms.
(C) Rev Patrick G Burke 2017