The Communion of Saints: St. Anthony of the Desert

st-anthony-the-greatToday’s saint is St. Anthony the Great/of Egypt/of the Desert/the Abbot.  No, this isn’t the St. Anthony you pray to in order to find your lost remote control.  If anything, I guess St. Anthony would be the one you pray to in order to become lost – lost in the love of Christ.

St. Anthony of the Desert was one of the most influential men in the early Church, but not for the typical reasons.  He wasn’t a great writer, a great speaker, or a martyr – he was the greatest of the Desert Fathers, a movement of people who sought solitude from the busy and corrupt life of the world to embrace simplicity and prayer.  Today, we would call this movement “monasticism” – monos is the Greek word for “alone.”  St. Anthony was far from alone; he just sought different company.

Most of what we know about St. Anthony comes from The Life of Anthony, a biography written by St. Athanasius, who knew and followed Anthony himself.  Anthony was born in Lower Egypt in 251 to wealthy landowners.  He was born and raised a Christian.  His parents died at an early age, and left him the wealth of the family, along with custody of his sister.

One day during Mass in 313, Anthony heard the famous quote of Christ speaking to the rich young man in the Gospel of Matthew: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” The young man in the story turned away sad, but Anthony felt compelled to take his place and do as Christ asked. He gave away part of the family estate and sold the remaining 207 acres, donating the funds to his sister and to care for the poor.  He entrusted his sister to a community of Christian women, and went off to follow Christ in the solitude of the Nitrian Desert, where he spent the remainder of his life. Anthony wandered the deserts, living in an abandoned Egyptian fortress, absorbed in prayer and entirely dependent on God.  He spent his days practicing discipline (imagine a life-long Lent!), and with fasting and purity of heart, he faced his temptations.

Even though he longed to be alone, such an extreme example of asceticism, prayer, and dependence on God attracted a lot of followers.  People followed him out into the desert for a number of reasons. Some came to ask him questions and seek spiritual counsel.  Some sought to follow his example, and he encouraged others to form supportive monastic communities. Some travelled all the way out into the desert just to argue with him about the faith.  At one point, a group bishops even journeyed into the desert to summon him to the Council of Nicaea in 325 to give witness to his faith and inspire the Church.

St. Anthony, in drawing so close to Christ in solitude, chose to leave his earthly life the same way. He wanted to die alone – not out of a loneliness or depression, but to be in his uniquely intimate relationship with the one who created him.  Two other monks, Macarius and Amatas, were helping to take care of him by this point, and Anthony left what few belongings he had to them and his followers. He then gave them a blessing, they left him, and he died in 356 at the age of 105.

The truth is, not all of us are called to be monks – some are, but not all.  Still, there is something admirable and inspiring about St. Anthony’s radical dedication to prayer and love of Christ.

The Communion of Saints: St. Dismas

"The Crucifixion" by Andrea Mantegna
“The Crucifixion” by Andrea Mantegna

Sometimes when you read the Scripture or hear it at Mass, do you ever wonder about some of the characters’ back-stories, or what happened after the Gospels?  What happened to the woman at the well?  What was the man born blind’s life like before he met Jesus? Who were the two thieves crucified with Jesus, and what did they do?  Our curiosity wants to know more!

The same was true of the early Christians.  They heard the stories of the Gospels and wanted to learn more, so to satisfy their curiosity, authors would write legends or stories about the characters of the Bible, almost like early Church comic books.  Some of these, like the Gospel of Thomas, were written by people who had an obvious agenda contrary to the authentic teaching of the Church, but others, like the Acts of Pontius Pilate, also called the Gospel of Nicodemus, are, for the most part, harmless expansions and stories.  Elements of them have become parts of our larger Tradition, and have inspired beautiful artwork and even film, as seen in the Passion of the Christ movie by Mel Gibson.

That’s where St. Dysmas (or St. Dismas, if you want) comes in.  According to the Gospel of Nicodemus, “Dysmas” was the name of the repentant thief who died at the side of Christ on Good Friday.  It’s from that document that we also receive the name of the bad thief (Gestus), and the name of the soldier who drove his lance through Jesus’ side (St. Longinus).

Really, not much is known about St. Dismas.  St. John Chrysostom cites the tradition that he lived in the desert as a robber or bandit. Pope St. Gregory the Great wrote that “he was guilty of blood, even his brother’s blood.”  Who knows?  All we truly know about him for certain is what we read in the Gospel of Luke:

Now one of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus, saying, ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us.’  The other, however, rebuking him, said in reply, ‘Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation?  And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal.’  Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’  He replied to him, ‘Amen I say to you today you will be with me in Paradise.’

There’s a lot we can learn from St. Dismas, especially during Lent, as we repent of our sins and grow closer to Christ.  This short conversation gives us the three steps to authentic conversion: 1) Awareness and acceptance of responsibility for our personal sins, 2) repentance of that sin and trying to the best of our abilities to turn away from it and avoid it in the future, 3) acceptance of Jesus’ promise of eternal life.  It also gives us three of the big steps for the Sacrament of Reconciliation, as we speak aloud our sins (confession), pray an act of repentance (contrition) and receive God’s forgiveness through the priest (absolution).

This week, as we celebrate the Commemoration of St. Dismas (March 25), let’s ask for his prayers to help us leave behind our weaknesses and sins and grow closer to Christ, even as we join him on the Cross!

Saints of the Roman Canon: St. Anastasia

aganastasiaromaiaToday we come to the last saint in the Roman Canon, St. Anastasia.  What’s that?  You’ve never heard of her?  Maybe that’s because her feast day on December 25, the same as Christmas Day!  Kind of a bummer for her, I guess, but she also gets to share her new birthday (her martyrdom day) with the birthday of Christ!

Very little is known factually about St. Anastasia.  She was the daughter of Praetextatus, a Roman citizen and nobleman, and Fausta, a Christian.  She was also the pupil of St. Chrysogonus (remember him?), from whom she learned to love and witness to her faith.  In the Eastern Church, she is called the “Deliverer from Potions” because of stories relating the healing miracle of a man who had been poisoned.

If you remember, St. Chrysogonus was summoned to Aquileia by the Emperor Diocletian to face martyrdom, so when her teacher was taken from her, legends tell us that St. Anastasia fled to Sirmium in present-day Serbia.  She stayed with and served the Christian communities there until she was captured by Roman authorities.  She was tortured, and then sentenced to death by the prefect of Illyricum (the Roman province in which Sirmium existed).  We aren’t really sure whether her death came by burning or by the sword.  In fact, the legend doesn’t really have much in the way of historical basis at all!  Still, we know that she died in Sirmium serving the people there, and that’s good enough for us!

Now remember, she died in Serbia, which is still quite a ways from Rome.  How did her name find such honor and veneration in Rome so as to be listed among the other saints in the Roman Canon?  Strangely, her devotion was introduced to Rome by means of a previously existing church!

Basilica di Sant'Anistasia al Palatino in Rome
Basilica di Sant’Anistasia al Palatino in Rome

There had been an old church on the Palatine Hill in Rome above the Circus Maximus, which had been elaborately decorated with huge mosaics by Pope Damasus, who was responsible for building many of the major churches in Rome.  The church was called the “titulus Anastasiae”, and was one of the original tituli parishes in Rome – but it wasn’t named after St. Anastasia…yet.  It’s possible that the foundation was donated to the Church by a Roman noblewoman named Anastasia (like St. John Lateran was donated by the Laterani family), or that it was an Anastasis church commemorating the Resurrection of Jesus on Easter (“Anastasis” is the Greek word for “Resurrection”).  Either way, it was already a popular church, situated near the heart of the ancient Roman government.

St. Anastasia had already become very popular in Constantinople, and as the city began to emerge as the new cultural and government capital of the Empire, some of the religious devotions filtered over to the city of Rome.  The saint’s name and intercession were then applied to the old church to make it Saint Anastasia church.  So there you go!

Well, this has been fun!  We’re finally finished with all the saints of the Roman Canon, but there are so many other interesting, important, and obscure saints to discuss!  Hopefully, I’ll be able to decide whom to write about next week!

Homily From the 1st Sunday in Lent, Year A

Fish like hotdogs.  When I was younger, I learned to fish with my dad.  And although serious fisherman would probably dispute me on this, we found live bait too nasty and expensive, so we would use hotdogs.  I mean, if you throw a small piece of hotdog in a pond, the fish immediately go for it, so…  So the fish would find a delicious morsel of cooked hotdog on our line, but deep inside of that hotdog waited a razor sharp hook.  And of course, you know the rest.  I don’t know how good Satan is at fishing, but he sure does a good job with his bait.  He shows us things that look great to us, things that are very good things, but then uses them to hook us and drag us away from God.

Today we hear the story of the temptation of Christ in the desert.  Now this was the wilderness of Judea, and it’s not a nice place to go to.  And Jesus found himself having to deal with a few things: he was surrounded by harsh conditions of the dryness, the wind, and the sands.  He was also dealing with complete loneliness, with nobody around him for miles and miles.  He had the nagging discomfort of hunger, which is way worse than fasting on Ash Wednesday.  So he had to deal with all of these things.  But then he also has to face something much worse: the temptations of the devil.  The devil’s temptations are pretty subtle, and this guy is very smart.  He’s a fallen angel, and from our tradition, along the same lines as St. Michael the Archangel.  But the thing that makes him deadly is that he knows his victims.  He knew Jesus, and he tried to use good things to tempt Christ.

So the first temptation that Jesus is presented with is to command that the stones lying around him become bread.  Satan wants Jesus to perform a miracle, something that he’s done quite often.  Jesus had performed lots of miracles, all to heal and help people believe in God.  The miracles have to do a lot with the identity of Jesus – who he is an why he’s powerful.  And so, this temptation that he’s presented with here isn’t really about bread or about filling his hungry stomach.  It’s about turning Christ away from the difficult road that the Father has chosen for him.  It makes that mission easier.  There’s no suffering, no scourging, no cross.  What harm is a little bread if you’ve got the power?  But Christ turns the devil away, because he knows that the mission he’s been given isn’t about himself, but about serving others and heroic sacrifice for them.  And so he tells the devil that we can’t live on bread alone, but on dependence on God.  We have to put God and his vocation for us first.

So the devil says, “Ah, so you’re going to play it like that, are you?”  He sees that Jesus is using Scripture, so he throws a little in himself, telling Jesus to throw himself off the cliff because Psalm 91 tells us that God will send angels to rescue him.  That seems like a good thing, right?  Trusting that God will take care of us is something we hear all the time!  But that’s not what this is about.  No, actually, it’s an attempt to control God.  He’s ultimately asking Jesus to say, “Father, if you’re really there, you’ll save me.  But if I die on the rocks at the bottom of this cliff, I’m not going to believe that you’re good.”  He’s trying to manipulate Jesus into manipulating the Father!  But Jesus won’t allow the experience of suffering that he’s having in the desert to lead him to demand things from the Father.

So the devil turns to his last resort, getting less and less subtle along the way.  He tells Jesus that he’ll give Christ power over all the kingdoms of the world, as long as Jesus falls prostrate and worships him.  Jesus is going to be a king eventually, right?  He’s going to be Lord of heaven and earth, particularly as we will remember after Easter.  It’s a good thing, right?  So basically the devil is tempting him to just take a little shortcut in getting there, one without the humiliation and torment that he’ll experience on Good Friday.  But Christ knows something very important: Easter Sunday doesn’t come without Good Friday.  He knows that bowing before Satan would not only be idolatry, but would derail him from the very thing that gives Redemption – the Cross!  Well, the devil gets fed up and leaves, but you know he must have been thinking, “Well, if I can’t have you, I guess I’ll just have to go after your followers.”

You and I find ourselves surrounded by good things – food, wealth, cars, school, work, the Cardinals, the World Cup this summer…  The devil is a smart guy – he knows the things we like, he knows the good things that we surround ourselves with, and he uses them to try to get us to bit into that hook of sin.  Take gluttony for example.  Food is a good thing, and something we need!  But if we’re using it for a crutch, something to replace our intimate relationships, it turns into something sinful.  The same is true about things such as pornography.  It takes the beauty of our human body and sexuality, something very good and a gift from God, and corrupts it, making it to objectify others, draw us away from our spouse, and leading us away from God.  But the temptation of Jesus is very good news for us.  It’s more than a personal victory for Jesus, that now he can go and do what he needs to do.  Rather, it’s a victory for all of us – Jesus overcomes his temptation by his human will and the grace of God.  He could have just smacked the devil across the lip and walked away, but he chose to go through what we deal with and defeat it as a human being, without ceasing to be the Son of God at all.  We experience the same things in our daily lives, and most of the time, we try to go through it alone.  We have the idea that we’re all alone out there, and that we just have to grit our teeth and push on through.  But Christ shows us today that he knows what we’re going through, and he wants to be there for us.  He can empower us by his divine grace to overcome those temptations.  That is what this season of Lent is all about.  We’re going off to the desert for 40 days, and we know what awaits us out there – temptation, suffering, self-denial, and all that.  But it’s not a season to torment ourselves, but to grow in our dependence on God.  We don’t do our Lenten practices just to see how well we can do if we give up chocolate or whatever, but rather to grow closer to God.  We give up things that are good, like TV or soda or candy, things that are good, but which the devil is using to draw us away from the Father.  We try to pray more and keep ourselves focused on Christ.  And we try to give of ourselves to express our love of the Father.  So as we begin this journey through the desert, fully aware that the devil is right there alongside us trying to tempt us, let us remember that the Lord is also here, especially in the Holy Eucharist, to strengthen us, and to draw us closer to himself.

Saints of the Roman Canon: St. Cecilia

St. Cecilia, Patroness of Musicians Look at the little organ she's playing!
St. Cecilia, Patroness of Musicians
Look at the little organ she’s playing!

Continuing with our string of “virgin martyrs”, this week we have St. Cecilia, a Roman noblewoman of a senatorial family.  She was baptized as an infant (see, they even had infant baptisms in the early Church!), and when she came of age, she was given in marriage to a pagan man named Valerianus.

Now after the wedding, as the couple went to their wedding chamber, Cecilia told Valerianus that she was already betrothed to Christ, and that the angels guarded her purity.  Valerianus asked to see these angels (sarcastically, I could imagine), so Cecilia sent him to meet Pope Urban I along the Appian Way so Valerianus could see why she had become betrothed to Christ.  He did as she said, and was so taken by the faith preached by Urban and witnessed by Cecilia, that he and his brother Tiburtius were both baptized into the faith.  The three of them became outstanding examples of Christian friendship, and did amazing things together.  They distributed alms to the poor and buried the bodies of those who had been martyred for Christ.

All this caught the attention of the authorities, who dispatched an executioner named Maximus to put the brothers to death.  But Maximus was so moved by their incredible faith and acts of charity, that he laid down his sword, confessed faith in Christ, and was himself martyred alongside Tiburtius and Valerianus.

"The Martyrdom of Saint Cecilia" by Stefano Maderno The sculpture is displayed in Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, commemorating the opening of her tomb in 1599
“The Martyrdom of Saint Cecilia” by Stefano Maderno
The sculpture is displayed in Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, commemorating the opening of her tomb in 1599

Cecilia was likewise captured and condemned to death by suffocation in the bath of her own home.  This is the bath as we would normally think of, but a Roman-style steam bath, almost like a sauna.  As it turned out, no matter how hot the bath became, or much suffocating steam filled the room, Cecilia resisted all day and all night.  When the executioners became frustrated, Cecilia met her martyrdom by beheading.  Pope Urban I recovered her body and buried it next to her friends in the Catacombs of St. Callistus along the Appian Way.

Today, the beautiful church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere houses her remains.  It is one of the titular churches, which as you might remember were the original parish churches in Rome.  The church has a very interesting history dating back to the saint herself.  The tradition holds that as Cecilia was facing her death, she donated her home to the Church to be used as a place of worship.  The present Church is built over that home, which as you recall, is also the site of her martyrdom.  Excavations in the 1800’s by the famous archaeologist Giovanni Battista de Rossi discovered the house’s foundations under the present-day church, confirming the tradition, at least in some part.

St. Cecilia is most commonly invoked as the patroness of musicians because it is said that at her wedding, while people were singing pagan songs in celebration, she “was singing in her heart a hymn of love to Jesus, her true spouse.”  Here at All Saints, we are reminded of her example by the painting above the organ in the choir loft of the church.  Today, as we remember St. Cecilia’s great example of friendship and devotion, let’s ask her prayers as well for our musicians, that they too would lead us in singing a hymn of love to Christ!

Homily From the 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

Still catching up on posting my homilies!  Thanks for your patience!  Note: this homily was for the conclusion of our Luke 18 retreat for our 8th graders and high school students.

screengrab_AndyI’m just going to come out and say it – Toy Story and its sequels are some of the best animated movies in the history of the world.  And it’s not just me – when the National Film Registry admitted the movie to be preserved in the Library of Congress in 2005, Toy Story was described as “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant.”  Now if you remember, one of the main protagonists is a toy named Woody, a pull-string cowboy who is the leader of the group of toys.  He is the favorite toy of his owner, a boy named Andy Davis.  And one of the most hallowed things that Andy did to mark his favorite toys was to write his barely legible name on the bottom of Woody’s boot.  It was a sign of his ownership, marking Woody as his favorite and distinguishing him from all the other toys.  And throughout Woody’s adventures with Buzz Lightyear and the other toys, that mark kept returning as a theme.  It was a constant struggle for Woody first to accept that other toys could be cared for and loved by a similar mark, and then eventually (around the 2nd movie), that he himself was still loved as much and treasured as much as before.  Throughout the three movies, Woody constantly refers back to that writing underneath his boot to give him guidance and inspiration, and to remind himself of his value to Andy, his beloved owner.

To switch gears a little bit to our readings, we see in the second reading that St. Paul did a lot of wonderful work on his missionary journeys, but he also had a lot of struggles.  That is where we find ourselves in the First Letter to the Corinthians.  The people of Corinth were split into different factions.  Many people had been swept up by the teachings of the apostles after the Resurrection of Jesus, but they were divided, because they saw their Christianity as being followers of Paul or Peter (Cephas) or Apollos.  It was as if they said to each other, “Yes, I’m a Christian, but I’m a Christian who belongs to Apollos, and because you belong to Cephas, we can’t be friends.”  That was really tough on their community.  They were being pulled one way or another to Peter or Paul or Apollos, so much so that friends and families were being pulled apart and divided.  But Paul says, “No no, you don’t belong to them, you belong to Christ!”  “Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?  Everything belongs to you,” the gifts that God has given you, “and you to Christ, and Christ to God.”

Now, while St. Paul said that to the Corinthians so long ago, the truth is that it has a lot of meaning for us too.  We belong to Christ.  The name of God isn’t written on the bottom of our shoes or on our foreheads – it was written on our hearts at Baptism.  Like Andy claimed Woody, you are claimed – you belong to someone.  You are wanted and treasured, as much as a little boy treasures his favorite toy or action figure.  That is the basic identity of who we are – we belong to Christ.  Now, our lives get pretty messy and complicated.  It’s easy to forget about our faith.  Even after going home after this Luke 18 retreat, sometimes the temptation is just to be into it for a few days, a week, maybe a month, but then we forget about it until next year swings around.  “Oh yeah!  Luke 18!  That was a great time!”  And then the cycle begins again.  We get caught up in our lives, and in some of our rather worldly relationships, and we forget about God.  And many times, that can lead us to very dark places.  We sin, we become too attached to things, and we stray far from God.

So then we hear Jesus call us in the Gospel to be perfect, just as our heavenly Father is perfect, and we think there is no possible way that such a thing is going to happen.  Nice idea, Jesus – real inspirational.  Isn’t it funny how of all the quotes that we see on bumper stickers or inspirational posters or Tim Tebow’s eye black, we never see this one?  I guess that’s partly because it wouldn’t fit on eye black, but it’s mostly because we don’t think we can live up to it!  We feel ashamed at being imperfect.  And we start to think, “I belong to my imperfection.  I belong to my sin.  I belong to my past.  I belong to my friends.  I belong to my mistakes.”

But no no, you belong to Christ!  God doesn’t claim us because we’re perfect; it’s the other way around!  God has claimed us so that we can become perfect, just as he is perfect!  If you think back to Toy Story, Woody had to remind himself of the fact that he was owned by Andy.  At one point, he even had to rub off the pain that had been used to cover the inscription up.  If we are going to live a life of purpose, a life of perfection, we need to constantly remind ourselves of whose we are.  Things like adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, going to Confession, etc. can help us do that.  Having a group of friends and family that supports not only you, but the gift of your faith is essential as well!  The greatest way that we can remind ourselves of our identity is to encounter the Lord face-to-face as we receive Holy Communion at Mass.  It’s a way of pealing back all those other things that have swallowed up our lives, and reminding ourselves who we belong to.

Thankful for the fact that we are wanted and treasured by a God who loves us, let us approach him now, and receiving his Body and Blood in Holy Communion, let us remind ourselves that we belong to Christ.

Saints of the Roman Canon: St. Lucy

saint-lucy-sassoferatoThe next on our list of “virgin martyr” saints is St. Lucy.  Really, all that is known for sure about her is that she was martyred in Syracuse around 304 under the Great Persecution of Diocletian.  However, our traditions from the Middle Ages have a lot more to say about her life.

According to these traditions, she was born of a noble family around 283.  Her father was Roman, but he died when Lucy was still only five years old, leaving her in the care of her Greek mother, Eutychia.  Lucy, like many of the early virgin martyrs, promised herself to Christ at a young age, but her mother had no idea.  Imagine: a child not telling her mother about something – I bet that has never happened before!  The tradition also has it that Eutychia suffered from some form of blood disorder, so without a father to protect the family, she likely was looking for some security and stability for her family, which she sought by marrying off her daughter Lucy.

Remember how we mentioned last week that veneration of St. Agatha quickly spread throughout Sicily and the rest of the Church?  Well, even a few decades later, Eutychia and Lucy travelled to her shrine in Catania to pray for the saint’s intercession for a cure to Eutychia’s blood disease.  St. Agatha came to Lucy in a dream, and told her that because of Lucy’s faith, her mother would be cured, and that she herself would become the glory of Syracuse, just as Agatha was for Catania.  Lucy was so inspired and thankful that she chose to distribute her part of her family’s inheritance to the poor.

Now remember that whole thing about being the new St. Agatha for Syracuse?  She remembered that Agatha was martyred, right?  When her betrothed saw her giving away her wealth, he assumed that she was giving away money to be used for her dowry.  He reported her to the governer of Syracuse, who ordered Lucy to offer sacrifice to the emperor’s image – the typical test for Christians during the Diocletian persecution.  When she refused, can you imagine what they did?  You guessed it – they tried to drag her off to be defiled in a brothel.

The soldiers meant to drag her to the brothel behind a team of oxen, but miraculously, they couldn’t budge her from the spot!  They then tried to burn her at the stake, but she wouldn’t burn!  Some traditions say that the soldiers gouged out her eyes (a tradition often represented in artwork by her holding a platter of her own eyes!).  Ultimately, St. Lucy was put to death by the sword, and offered the martyr’s crown like her patroness, St. Agatha.

Lucy’s dream was indeed true – her veneration exploded throughout the Church.  Her name appeared in our Eucharistic Prayers by the 6th century, if not before.  Her feast day (Dec. 13) has also been venerated as far away as England by the 700’s.  Even today, her feast is celebrated as a holiday in Italy, Scandinavia, and elsewhere.  In the celebrations, a girl dressed as St. Lucy enters the party wearing a crown of candles, and presenting bread and sweets to those present.  Her name, “Lucia” comes from the Latin word meaning “light”, so she does indeed represent a light of hope in darkness during one of the darkest (seasonal) times of the year!

Saints of the Roman Canon: St. Agatha

"Saint Peter Healing Agatha" by Giovanni Lanfranco
“Saint Peter Healing Agatha” by Giovanni Lanfranco

Today, we have St. Agatha, who, like St. Agnes, is in that group of “virgin martyrs.”  Not a lot is known about her life from a historical standpoint, but she is one of the most highly venerated saints, even from the time of the early Church.  Very old, and very straightforward accounts were given of her interrogation and torture, which may indicate that the account was acquired from official documents of the Roman government.  This account was later expanded upon, and gives us the legends we have today.

St. Agatha was born in Catania, Sicily around 231 to a noble family.  At the age of 15, she rejected the advances of a certain Quintianus, a Roman prefect in Sicily – that’s the virgin part.  The martyr part came when he arrested her, first sending her to a brothel to be humiliated, before sending her off to prison.  It was there that she underwent numerous painful tortures and mutilations, even going so far as to cut off her breasts.  In fact, this is how she is usually depicted in paintings and icons.  She was then sentenced to burn at the stake.

Wouldn’t you know it, but an earthquake saved her from this fate, leaving her to be thrown into prison a second time.  The story goes that while suffering in prison, St. Peter the Apostle and an angel appeared to her, healing her of her wounds and mutilations to purify her before God.  She eventually succumbed to her brutal treatment, and died in prison in the year 251.  Before she died, she devoutly prayed, “Lord, my creator, you have protected me since I was in the cradle. You have taken me from the love of the world and given me patience to suffer. Now receive my spirit.”

Even in the short time after her death, she became an example for the Christian Church, and was highly venerated, even outside of Sicily.  She became the patroness of both Catania and Palermo, with powerful intercessions reported to those who venerated her.  Even just a year after her death, she was credited with stilling the nearby volcano of Mt. Etna as it seemed ready to erupt.  Since then, she has become the patroness of just about everything, from foundry workers to firefighters to those suffering from breast cancer.  Shortly after her death, a shrine was built in her honor at Catania, most likely over her tomb, and as we’ll see, she had a great impact on other Christians living in Sicily as well!

Saints of the Roman Canon: St. Agnes

stagnes-stanneswpb3Today we move on to another saintly woman in the Roman Canon, St. Agnes.  She was 12 years old when we catch up with her traditions, and was raised in a Christian family during the reign of Diocletian.  Because of her high social rank, she held many suitors, with many men wanting to take advantage of her.  Agnes, though, made a vow to the Lord early on, and she dedicated herself to being chaste, responding to her suitors with, “Jesus Christ is my only spouse.”  The governor’s son, Procop, sought her out especially, buying her jewelry and other expensive gifts, and making her promises of power if she would take his hand in marriage.  St. Agnes continued to deny him, and so Procop reported her to the prefect, a man named Sempronius, accusing her of being a Christian.

When you tell others that you have promised your marriage to Christ alone, it’s pretty clear that you’re a Christian, and so when Agnes was convicted, she was dragged naked through the streets of Rome to a brothel as punishment.  As the Roman Martyrology states, an angel protected her, and it was said that any man who tried to abuse or take her virginity from her was struck blind.  Ultimately, St. Agnes was sentenced to death by burning her at the stake in the arena.  When the wood refused to burn, the presiding Roman officer drew his sword and dispatched her.

The body of St. Agnes was laid to rest along the Via Nomentana (where St. Alexander was buried, remember?!?), and devotion to her quickly spread throughout Rome.  Her sister, St. Emerentiana, was discovered praying at the grave on the anniversary of her martyrdom, and when she refused to leave, she was martyred as well!  Several years later, St. Constance, the daughter of the great Emperor Constantine, was miraculously cured of leprosy while praying at St. Agnes’ tomb.  The church of Sant’Agnese fuori le mura (St. Agnes Outside the Walls) was built over her tomb.  Her skull is preserved as well at Sant’Agnese in Agone, built near the Piazza Navona over the supposed site of her martyrdom.

Interestingly, the name “Agnes” looks a lot like the Latin word Agnus, which means “lamb”.  Who knows if this was intentional or a mistake, but a white lamb has come to be a symbol for St. Agnes.  Each year, two lambs belonging to a Roman monastery are sheered on her feast day to make the wool pallium, a small vestment given to newly consecrated archbishops when they are officially instituted by the pope on the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul (June 29).  Archbishop Carlson received his pallium from Pope Benedict XVI in 2009.

St. Agnes is considered one of the “virgin martyrs”, a separate class of the saints similar to the soldier martyrs we discussed with Sts. John and Paul.  Even the name “Agnes” comes from the Greek word meaning “chaste” or “pure”.  Sometimes, it can be easy to think of chastity as being for “goody two-shoes”, and to assume that people follow chastity because they are scared or boring.  The truth is that there is happiness and joy in being pure and holy, and these virgin saints are wonderful examples of this.