February 5th, Feast of St. Agatha
In the Roman Canon, the Church commemorates four of the most noble and pure virgins of the early Church – Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, and Cecilia. The latter two were the first inserted in the Eucharistic Prayer as they are two of the great virgin martyrs of Rome, while the former were inserted under Pope St. Gregory the Great who promoted the cult of these virgin martyrs of Sicily.
From among the seven women mentioned in the Roman Canon, these four stand out as the illustrious virgins of the early Church. We mention the other three: Felicity was a Roman mother martyred together with her seven children, Perpetua the noble married martyr of Carthage, while Anastasia was the Roman widow and martyr whose memory is especially recalled on Christmas morning.
Focusing on Agatha, we do well briefly to consider the history and cult of these four virgin martyrs.
The history of these four women
St. Agnes is venerated as a special patroness of bodily purity. She was martyred soon after the beginning of the persecution of Diocletian, perhaps in the year AD 304. While still very young, about thirteen years of age, Agnes resisted the advances of many noblemen of Rome and was accused by them of being a Christian. It is said that she ran from the arms of her nurse to embrace the sufferings and torments prepared for her.
Resisting the threats of many torments and cooling the fires into which she was thrown, Agnes showed a most manly courage. When stripped, her hair grew long to cover her pure body. As a man looked upon her with lust, he was immediately struck blind – but later was healed by the prayer of the same Saint. Finally, the true and pure Lamb of Christ was beheaded. She is honored by the Church on the 21st of January. Each year on her feast, on account of the coincidental similarity between Greek name “Agnes” and the Latin Agnus “Lamb”, the Holy Father blesses two little lambs whose wool will later be used to make the pallia vestments for metropolitan bishops.
St. Cecilia, patroness of music, suffered earlier under Marcus Aurelius and is most well known for having consecrated her virginity to Christ even in her marriage. Thus, as the choir sang at the wedding, her heart rang with the song of Divine praise which would be fulfilled only in the eternal Wedding Feast of heaven.
Having endured many torments, Cecilia suffered both fire and steam. She was finally beheaded. However, after the executioner struck her several times upon the neck, finding that his blows could not sever her head, he left her to bleed for three days before her glorious death. Her feast is kept on 22 November, though she won the victory September 16th.
St. Lucy, a virgin of Sicily, suffered under Diocletian. As men desired to make sport of her virginity they found her to be immovable and, though many strove to carry her off by the use even of ropes and oxen, she remained fixed in place. Overcoming pitch, resin, and boiling oil without harm, either she herself or perhaps a soldier plucked her eyes from their sockets. Miraculously healed, she then gave her throat to the sword. Her memory is kept on the 13th of December.
St. Agatha, the virgin and martyr whose feast we celebrate today, suffered at Catania in Sicily under the reign of Decius. After many buffets and imprisonment, together with the rack and the use of hooks to tear her flesh, the twisting of her limbs, and even the cutting off of her breasts, Agatha remained wholly steadfast in the faith of Christ. As her breasts were defiled she cried out against the Judge Quintian, “Cruel tyrant, art thou not ashamed to cut a woman’s breast, who wast thyself fed at the breast of thy mother?”
Having been healed by St. Peter, she was again summoned before the judge. Faithful to the end, she was rolled upon live coals in which were spread also broken potsherds. Suddenly, the whole city being shaken by an earthquake, St. Agatha was removed to her prison and left there to die, on this day, the 5th of February.
Their order in the Roman Canon
Dom Prosper Gueranger, in his book on the Holy Mass, makes a pleasant comment regarding the order of these virgin martyrs in the Roman Canon:
“Until the time of St. Gregory the Great, they used say: Perpetua, Agnes, Cecilia: but this holy Pontiff, loving Sicily, where he had himself founded six monasteries, inserted in the Canon the names of these two Sicilian Virgins, Agatha of Catania, and Lucy of Syracuse.
“Out of courtesy, due to strangers, he gave them the precedence of the two Roman Virgins, Agnes and Cecilia.”
What a happy example of hospitality! The two foreigners are welcomed into the Eternal City and placed before the native Saints.
The veneration of St. Agatha
A certain veil of the Saint, on more than one occasion, stopped the lava flows from the volcanic Mount Etna in Sicily. On this account, St. Agatha is invoked against every outbreak of fire.
She is likewise patroness of bell-founders, and Butler’s Lives of the Saints gives the following explanation of this patronage:
“Whether because warning of a fire was given by a bell, or because the molten metal in the casting of a bell resembles a stream of lava, the guilds of bell-founders took St. Agatha for their patroness.”
Further, as the Saint is often portrayed holding her severed breasts upon a platter, these being mistaken for loaves of bread, there is a common practice of blessing bread on her feast. Perhaps this artistic depiction is reminiscent also of bells upon a plate, which could be another explanation of her patronage to bell-founders.
The Saints of the Roman Canon
It is with good reason that the Church has inserted the names of various saints into the First Eucharistic Prayer. These saints have been commemorated daily in the Church for thousands of years, both because of their particularly heroic witness to Christ, and because of their great influence in the earliest years of the Church.
We would do well to learn at least a little something about each of these thirty-nine saints (plus the Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph). Here follows a list of their names:
Apostles: Peter and Paul, Andrew, James (the Greater), John, Thomas, James (the Less), Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Simon and Thaddeus (Jude)
Popes: Linus, Cletus, Clement, Sixtus (II)
Martyrs: Cornelius, Cyprian, Laurence, Chrysogonus, John and Paul, Cosmas and Damian
Apostolic martyrs: John (the Baptist), Stephen, Matthias, Barnabas
More martyrs: Ignatius, Alexander, Marcellinus, Peter
Female martyrs: Felicity (of Rome), Perpetua, Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, Cecilia, Anastasia
St. Agatha, Pray for us!