Thursday, February 6, 2014

Feast of St. Agatha

St. Agatha, depicted with the martyr's palm and the
traditional plate bearing her breasts that were cut off
during her martyrdom.
Saint Agatha lived in Catania (kuh-TAH-nya), a city on the east coast of Sicily, at the foot of Mt. Etna, in the third century. She was venerated from very early times and her feast is celebrated on February 5. (Sorry this did not get posted until late.)

The traditional account of her trials goes like this.

From an early age, the beautiful young girl from a noble family had consecrated her virginity to Christ, and resisted the advances of many suitors. A local official took advantage of a Roman persecution of Christians to have her brought before him. His real purpose was to have the chaste young woman for himself.

St. Agatha out-argued his best case for paganism, so, frustrated, he sent her to a brothel to despoil her virtue. We pass over in silence the indignities she bore, but her resistance only added luster to her virgin's crown. She proved more trouble than she was worth, and the proprietress of the brothel sent her back to the official. Next, he cast her into prison.

Neither the allure of a good marriage, the clever arguments against her Catholic faith, the humiliation of the brothel, nor the darkness of her prison cell would shake her faith or her vow of chastity. There was only one thing left to the wicked official. St. Agatha was to be tortured. The official decreed a degrading and excruciating torture for the young girl: her breasts were to be cut off.

She received the sentence calmly. This is what she prayed: "Jesus Christ, Lord of all, you see my heart, you know my desires. Possess all that I am. I am your sheep: make me worthy to overcome the devil." Turning her eyes toward her unseen Lord, she joined her sufferings to His. The infamous deed done, she was thrown back into her cell to die. However, she was tended by St. Peter himself in a vision.

Furious at yet another setback, the official determined that St. Agatha would not survive. She was rolled naked over broken glass, and thrown onto a bed of coals. Finally, with a final prayer, her soul found its release, and she received the martyr's palm and the virgin's crown which she had won through her fortitude and faithfulness.

She is invoked by breast cancer patients, and during Mt. Etna's frequent eruptions.

St. Agatha is my daughter's patron saint. At one time we lived near Catania. We feel a special bond to those early Christian martyrs, who speak so eloquently of perseverance and faith. Nor do we forget our brothers and sisters who are martyred by Moslems in Africa and the Middle East to this very day.

Prayer From the 1962 Missal

"O God, Who among the other marvels of Thy power, hast granted even to the weaker sex the victory of martyrdom: grant that we who celebrate the heavenly birthday of blessed Agatha, Thy Virgin and Martyr, may by her example be drawn nearer to Thee. Through our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen."

Women like St. Agatha, and Sts. Perpetua and Felicity, gave witness to the strength of their faith as bravely and effectively as did the men. Before we cringe at "the weaker sex," perhaps we should wonder if there was always the hint of irony in the phrase, given the importance of these early female martyrs, many of them mere girls. I recall the women in my life, their purpose and strength, and give thanks to God for their help and example.

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