Here’s the problem that this incredible, elderly lady caused for the Church, for centuries after her death: because SHE decided the moment of her martyrdom (instead of her would-be murderers), the Church has had to do ethical gymnastics to “allow” her to be a saint while simultaneously warning everyone else, in no uncertain terms, to NEVER “do as she did”! It’s rather like when the Supreme Court of the United States decided in Bush v. Gore, 531 U.S. 98 (2000), that George W. Bush would become president but that their decision in this momentous case was NOT be considered a precedent for the future.
Here’s all we know about Apollonia: She was old, she was a virgin, she was a Christian at a time and place where Christians were being persecuted and often put to death (c. 249, Alexandria). Those who seized her, beat Apollonia until they had knocked all the teeth from her jaws. Then, having made a great bonfire outside the city limits, they took Apollonia there and told her that they would cast her into the flames unless she would, as is euphemistically described by Butler “utter certain impious words”! This toothless crone requested a moment’s delay, and her attackers thought that she was thinking over their threat. Just as they loosed her for her deliberations, she “of her own accord” (words italicized by me, not Butler) jumped into the flames and ended her life.
Well, the Church has had to struggle with that whole “of her own accord” business. Butler, ever the apologist, states that the only reason Apollonia is a saint and martyr must be because she was given a special, dispensational vision by the Holy Spirit to take these actions or that she didn’t realize what she was doing–and that hers is a special case that must not be repeated by others. Let me quote Butler’s drivel (well, apologia) at length here:
The last part of our saint’s conduct is not proposed to our imitation, as self-murder is unjustifiable. If any among the Fathers have commended it, they presumed, with Saint Austin, that it was influenced by a particular direction of the Holy Ghost, or was the effect of a pious simplicity [read “the old lady didn’t know any better”], founded in motives of holy zeal and charity. For it can never be lawful for a person by any action wilfully [sic] to concur to, or hasten his own death, though many martyrs out of an ardent charity, and desire for laying down their lives for God, and being speedily united to him, anticipated the executioners in completing their sacrifice. Among the impious, absurd, and false maxims of the Pagan Greek and Romans, scarce anything was more monstrous than the manner in which they canonized suicide in distress, as a remedy against temporal miseries, and a point of true heroism….[T]o sink under misfortunes, is the most unworthy baseness of soul.
In fact, much more space is taken by Butler to explain away Apollonia’s acting “of her own accord” than the cruelty she suffered and the moral agency she claimed for herself. (Oh, and didn’t that Jesus guy do something like concur in his own death?)
Me, I celebrate Apollonia because she was not going to be dragged or pushed into the last seconds of her own life by those who had beaten her bloody. It was not a case of a zealous, simple old woman who didn’t know any better, but a foremother who chose her moment of dignity and self-actualization at the end. Apollonia at Alexandria–the prototype for Thelma and Louise at the Grand Canyon!