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.