Today is the feast day of Saint Agatha. Ora pro nobis.
Saint Agatha is one of seven female saints, along with Our Lady, who are mentioned in the the Roman Canon (Eucharistic Prayer 1). This indicates that quite early on historically she had a place of honour in the Roman Church. She is also depicted in the 6th century mosaics of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna. The image here is a detail from a painting by Francisco de Zurbarán (c. 1630) at the Musée Fabre, Montpellier, France. (6)
by Fr. Francis Xavier Weninger
One of the most celebrated Christian heroines who, on account of their faith, have suffered with most invincible fortitude, is the saintly virgin Agatha. She was born at Palermo, or, according to others, at Catania, in Sicily. She was of illustrious parentage, and was piously educated in the Christian faith. When Quintianus, Governor under the Emperor Decius, was commanded to uproot Christianity in Sicily, he repaired to Catania. Soon after his arrival he was informed that a noble lady, of the name of Agatha, resided there, who, for wealth and beauty, had no superior, and who was also the most fervent of all the Christians. The Governor caused her to be brought before him, and, on first seeing her, he fell so deeply in love with her that he hesitated not to try to induce her to listen to his shameful designs. Agatha, who united with beauty the most angelic chastity, was terrified at his wickedness, and would have preferred death rather than allow the least liberty with her person. Quintianus, who would not use force, deprived her of her liberty, under the pretext that she was a Christian, and gave her into the charge of Aphrodisia, an infamous old prostitute, who had led her own daughters into the path of shame and wickedness, and lived by means of their vices. He supposed that Agatha, living with a person so vile, would, by her persuasions, lose her love of chastity, and, at the same time, abjure her faith. But he soon found that he was mistaken. The chaste virgin, armed by the thought of God’s presence, by prayers and by fasting, bore a mighty shield against all flatteries, persuasions, and promises. For thirty days she had to remain upon this dangerous field of battle; but God gave her strength, and she conquered. Aphrodisia herself had at last to confess this to Quintianus, and would have nothing further to do with the maiden.
The Governor, much displeased, ordered her into his presence, and asked her from whom she was descended; and when she had answered his questions, he said: “Are you not ashamed to live the despicable and servile life of a Christian, coming from so illustrious a family?” Agatha unhesitatingly replied: “The humility and servility of a Christian is more excellent than the riches, pride, and presumption of kings.” These words provoked Quintianus to such a degree that he ordered her daring obstinacy to be punished by blows in the face, which were forthwith given with such violence that the blood streamed from her mouth and nostrils. After this, she was cast into prison, with the threat that if she did not abjure the Christian faith she should be proceeded against with the utmost rigor. This menace was, on the following day, put into execution. Quintianus ordered her to be stretched on the rack, her whole body tortured with red hot irons, and at last her breast to be torn off with hot tongs. All was done as the tyrant commanded. At the last torture the saintly virgin said to him: “Cruel tyrant, who sucked the breast of your mother, are you not ashamed to tear it so pitilessly from the body of a virgin?” But Quintianus possessed neither shame nor pity. After this horrible torture, he remanded her to prison, giving orders that she should receive no food, neither should anything be done to alleviate her sufferings.
On the following night there appeared to her St. Peter, who said that he was an apostle sent by Christ to heal her wounds. He praised her fortitude, and encouraged her to show equal strength in the trials she had yet to endure. During his exhortation, St. Agatha perceived that her torn breast was restored, and that all her wounds were miraculously healed. She felt, at the same time, in her inmost heart, so great a consolation, that she began to praise and give thanks to God with a loud voice, offering herself to Him for further torments. After four days she was again taken before the Governor, and as he was astounded to see her thus entirely restored, she said to him: ” Behold and acknowledge the omnipotence of the God whom I worship! He has healed my wounds; He has restored my breast! How, then, can you ask me to forsake Him? No! the most cruel torture, the most horrible death has no power to separate me from Him!”
Quintianus, more enraged than before, ordered that the ground should be strewn with live coals and sharp potsherds, and that Agatha should be rolled naked over them, that her whole body might be torn and burned, The suffering of this unheard-of and dreadful torture, Agatha endured, as she had all the others, with unmoved fortitude. The people who were present manifested great compassion toward the virgin, and God delayed not to punish so wicked a crime. He sent an earthquake, so terrible, that the whole town was shaken. Silvinius and Falconius, the two most intimate friends of the Governor, were crushed under the falling ruins, and all inhabitants were plunged into the wildest fear. They crowded together, saying that this was visibly a judgment of God, which the cruelty of Quintianus had brought down upon them. The Governor, fearing a general insurrection, ordered that Agatha; should once more be taken back to prison.
Arriving there she sank upon her knees, raised her hands and eyes towards heaven, and thus prayed: “O Lord, Thou who hast been my protection since my childhood, who hast taken from me the love of the world and given me grace to endure the sufferings of my tormentors, hear the supplication of Thy faithful handmaid and accept my soul.” God heard her prayers, and received the triumphant spirit of his handmaid in the year 252. The inhabitants of Catania honor this holy martyr as patroness, on account of the visible protection which she has rendered them at times when Mount Aetna, throwing up fierce frames, threatened destruction, not only to the town, but to all the surrounding villages. More than once in the present century has it happened that a torrent of lava, issuing from this mountain during a great eruption, and destroying everything in its course, has come nearer and nearer to the town. But on holding towards it a veil with which the holy body of Agatha was covered, and which was carried in solemn procession, the fiery stream not only approached no nearer, but drew back before the eyes of the people. Thus is it that His faithful handmaid is honored by God, even long after her departure from this life. (2)
About the year 460 the influential Gothic soldier Ricimer built a church for the Goths in the Suburra area of central Rome (Via Mazzarino today) and we learn from Pope Gelasius it was called the Basilica of St Agatha. As the Goths were Arians, the building was reconsecrated as Catholic by Pope Gregory the Great (590-604). It was restored in the 16th and 17th century and the façade rebuilt by Francesco Ferrari in 1729. The relief above the door shows St. Agatha holding her severed breast on a plate. From 1836 to 1926, it housed the Irish College. Sant’Agata dei Goti is also the name of a comune (town) near Naples. (6)
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. In modern times, on opening the tomb in which her body lies waiting for the resurrection, they beheld the skin still entire, and experienced the sweet fragrance which issued from this temple of the Holy Ghost. (3)
The incorrupt body of St Agatha was transferred to Constantinople in the 11th century, and then returned to Catania. The body is now preserved in different reliquaries. “The arms, legs, and breasts are preserved in a glass case in an incorrupt condition, although rather dried and dark after more than 17 centuries. The skull and principal relics are at Catania, enclosed in an effigy on which rests a costly jeweled crown. The reliquary consists of the figure of the Saint from the head to the waist and is situated in an upright position. The figure is entirely covered with precious gems, rings, bracelets, pins, chains, and jeweled flowers and crosses…” (5)
Image: St Peter Healing St Agatha, artist: Giovanni Lanfranco, circa 1614
Research by REGINA Staff