Memorial; Liturgical Color: Red
Pope St. Gregory the Great reigned as the Supreme Pontiff of the Church from 590-604. His family loved Sicily and had property there, so the young Gregory was familiar with that beautiful island’s saints and traditions. When he became Pope, St. Gregory inserted the names of two of Sicily’s most revered martyrs, Agatha and Lucy, into the heart of the Mass, the Roman Canon. St. Gregory even placed these two Sicilians just before the city of Rome’s own two female martyrs, Agnes and Cecilia, who had been part of the Roman Canon for many centuries prior. It was this papal decision that has preserved St. Agatha’s memory more effectively than anything else. Liturgy is inherently conservative and protects the Church’s oldest memories. So on the lips of thousands of priests every day are the names of some of the Church’s most revered female martyrs: “Felicity, Perpetua, Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, Cecilia, Anastasia, and all the saints.”
Not much is known for certain about the life and death of St. Agatha, but long tradition supplies what primary documents lack. Pope Damasus, who reigned from 366-384, may have composed a poem in her honor, indicating how widespread her reputation was by that early date. St. Agatha was from a well off family in Sicily in Roman times, probably in the 3rd century. After dedicating her life to Christ, her beauty drew powerful men to her like a magnet. But she refused all suitors in favor of the Lord. Perhaps during the persecution of the emperor Decius around 250, she was arrested, interrogated, tortured, and martyred. She refused to renounce her faith or to give in to the powerful men who desired her. An ancient homily relates: “A true virgin, she wore the glow of a pure conscience and the the crimson of the lamb’s blood for her cosmetics.”
It is also the constant tradition that her torture included sexual mutilation. Whereas St. Lucy is shone in art with her eyeballs on a platter, St. Agatha is normally shown holding a plate on which rest her own breasts, as they were cut off by her pagan tormentors before her execution. This peculiar image is, in fact, carved into the wall over the entrance to the 6th century church of St. Agatha in Rome, a church re-dedicated by Pope St. Gregory himself so long ago.
Men commit most of the physical violence in the world. And when their victims are women, that violence can be particularly vicious because their victims are so defenseless. The stories of the early male martyrs of the Church relate tales of extreme torture by their Roman captors. But the stories of the women martyrs often relate something more – sexual humiliation. No male martyrs are known to have suffered similar indignities. St. Agatha and others were not only physically tough to endure the pain they did, but also mentally and spiritually powerful to have resisted to the death the public embarrassment and degradation particular to them as women. They were the strong ones. It was their male captors who looked weak.
It was Christianity’s exaltation of women, children, slaves, prisoners, the old , the sick, the foreigner, and the outcast that caused the vast leaven of the church to slowly rise in the Mediterranean world. The church did not create a victim class with complaints against a privileged class. It preached the dignity of persons. The church did not even preach equality of individuals or teach that governments must enact laws protecting the unprotected. That is all so modern. The Church spoke in theological language and taught that every man, woman, and child was made in God’s image and likeness and that Jesus Christ died for us on the cross. The church gave, and gives, total answers to total questions, and those answers were, and are, compelling.
The feast of St. Agatha is still massively celebrated on February 5th in Catania, Sicily. Hundreds of thousands of faithful process through the streets in honor of that island’s patron saint. The ancient traditions carry on.
St. Agatha, you were a virgin espoused to Christ himself, a bride of the Lord who preserved herself for Him alone. Your vow to love God above all else hardened you to endure temptation, torture, and degradation. Help us, your brothers and sisters in the faith, to be as determined and resolute when any type of persecution, however mild, seeks us out.
Reflection from Butler’s Lives of the Saints:
ST. AGATHA was born in Sicily, of rich and noble parents — a child of benediction from the first, for she was promised to her parents before her birth, and consecrated from her earliest infancy to God. In the midst of dangers and temptations she served Christ in purity of body and soul, and she died for the love of chastity. Quintanus, who governed Sicily under the Emperor Decius, had heard the rumor of her beauty and wealth, and he made the laws against the Christians a pretext for summoning her from Palermo to Catania, where he was at the time. “O Jesus Christ!” she cried, as she set out on this dreaded journey, “all that I am is Thine; preserve me against the tyrant.”
And Our Lord did indeed preserve one who had given herself so utterly to Him. He kept her pure and undefiled while she was imprisoned for a whole month under charge of an evil woman. He gave her strength to reply to the offer of her life and safety, if she would but consent to sin, “Christ alone is my life and my salvation.” When Quintanus turned from passion to cruelty, and cut off her breasts. Our Lord sent the Prince of His apostles to heal her. And when, after she had been rolled naked upon potsherds, she asked that her torments might be ended, her Spouse heard her prayer and took her to Himself. St. Agatha gave herself without reserve to Jesus Christ; she followed Him in virginal purity, and then looked to Him for protection. And down to this day Christ has shown His tender regard for the very body of St. Agatha. Again and again, during the eruptions of Mount Etna, the people of Catania have exposed her veil for public veneration, and found safety by this means; and in modern times, on opening the tomb in which her body lies waiting for the resurrection, they beheld the skin still entire, and felt the sweet fragrance which issued from this temple of the Holy Ghost.
Reflection.— Purity is a gift of God: we can gain it and preserve it only by care and diligence in avoiding all that may prove an incentive to sin.
Lives of the Saints, by Alban Butler, Benziger Bros. ed.