On a class trip last June, I came face-to-face with humility and valor, mercy, and grit. Since then, I often reflect on the quiet resolve of two second-century sisters. Their lives, inscribed by faithfulness, emblazoned by servant leadership, captured me last summer—on a side street in Rome.
Praxedes and Pudentiana’s lives captivated me as their unlikely story unfolded—a compelling portrait of trial and triumph. Their uneven path demonstrates what happens when you live unfettered by gender or status, moving firmly and fearlessly on mission. Without fanfare or commendation, these servants labored selflessly and steadfastly, teaching us to take the next faithful step—regardless of the cost. So I wondered, can we convert fear to fuel? Can selflessness swallow up self-preservation? My second-century friends took me to the schoolhouse bench one blazing hot day in June.
Nestled across the street from the prominent Basilica of Saint Maria Maggiore, the largest Catholic Marian church in Rome, stands a hidden gem. The Basilica of Saint Praxedes, a stunning fifth-century church, endures—tucked around a discreet corner atop the Esquiline hill. You could certainly miss it, the façade plain and the entry small. Pope Paschal I rebuilt it and designed it after St. Peter’s Basilica, though substantially smaller. Once inside you understand the allure. The bones of 2,300 martyrs, buried under the altar, serve as evidence of those who stood firm to the end. The fragrance of their sacrifice lingers. Pilgrims visiting today still highly esteem those who gave all for their timeless confession. Still, why such respect for Praxedes, I wondered.
History paints a complex picture of sisters Praxedes and Pudentiana. Bible readers see their father, Pudens, etched in scripture as one greeted by the Apostle Paul in his second letter to Timothy. Although debates surrounding the genealogy of the Pudens clan linger, some scholars hold that the first generation Punicus Pudens (I) welcomed the Apostle Peter as a houseguest, baptizing him during his stay at the senator’s home. The young sisters would serve as early witnesses. According to tradition, their mother, Priscilla, heralded as one baptized by Paul, also provides insight into the essence of the sisters’ early life. Their family’s legacy of service and devotion dot the ancient Roman passionaries.
After their father’s and brother’s deaths, the sisters inherited land and a measure of wealth. Along with a few faithful, they erected a baptistery and formed a house-church, a safe place for newly converted Roman Christians. There on the hill, the hunted sought rest and renewal, as they hid from the tyranny of persecution. Undeterred, these sisters, notorious for collecting the bodies of martyrs, cleaned and prepared each one for proper burial. They faithfully concealed, served, and fed (spiritually and otherwise) Christians fleeing persecution. All in ancient Rome knew well the penalty of concealment—death. Praxedes and Pudentiana risked all to bear out their legacy, looking beyond the cruel cost. Fearless by choice and leaders by default, they walked faithfully and firmly in their call to witness—one blood-stained burial garment at a time.
Praxedes and Pudentiana dedicated their lives to serve others by walking in their God-given giftedness of hospitality and servant leadership. Their jagged path exemplifies what transpires when mission and faithfulness collide. They lived, loved, and led valiantly.
It was the love of God and love for others that spurred the single-minded sisters onward, regardless of the grisly cost. They loved those they led. Moreover, they were loyal to the one who called them, true to all that was entrusted to them. Their lives demonstrated the spectacular yet subtle nature of faithfulness. A jewel clothed in the mundane, this inner commitment, is the engine of life. Their steadfast faith propelled them to labor in obscurity. Day after day, they taught and served newly converted Christians on the one hand while preparing the lifeless bodies of martyrs for burial on the other. Their daily devotion served as a constant witness. The humble heroes lead with courage and resolve. Faithful.
Wiping my brow, at the corner’s edge of the cobbled street, my heart swelled and a smile overwhelmed my face. I want to live like that. What unexpected lessons I stumbled upon that bright, humid day on a side street in Rome.
Mary M. Schaefer, Women in Pastoral Office: The Story of Santa Prassede, Rome (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 14.
Paola Gallio, The Basilica of Saint Praxedes (Genova, Italy: B. N. Marconi, 2005), 1.
Schaefer, Women in Pastoral Office, 5, 16.
Cover image by Wood Hong.