St. Lucy: Eye Has Not Seen…

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’s 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 governor 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!

Homily From the 6th Sunday in Easter, Year B



Please note that for this homily, because the Solemnity of the Ascension is celebrated next Sunday in place of the 7th Sunday in Easter, the parish exercised the option to use the first reading from the 6th Sunday, and the second reading and Gospel from the 7th Sunday.

If you would like to read further into Pope St. John Paul II’s Christifideles Laici, click here.


St. Agatha: A “Good” Patron for Pretty Much Everything

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

As I was writing this article, I realized that I’ve gotten a little out of order from the list that’s presented in the Roman Canon. 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!

St. Agnes: A Lamb Without Blemish

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 as they are officially instituted by Pope Francis 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 special 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.

Sts. Perpetua and Felicity: Beautiful Mirrors of Christ

Mosaic of Sts. Perpetua and Felicity from the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Washington DC
Mosaic of Sts. Perpetua and Felicity from the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Washington DC

Next on our list are Sts. Perpetua and Felicity. Even if their names are not easily recognizeable, they are among the most well-known and widely studied martyrs of the 3rd century. Many martyrdom account manuscripts have been lost to time, decay, or barbarian hordes, but we have received The Passion of St. Perpetua, St. Felicity, and their Companions as a complete text! It preserves the account of the arrest and imprisonment of the saints as given by eyewitnesses and the saints’ own testimony.

Vibia Perpetua was a 22-year-old married noblewoman and nursing mother, and Felicity was her servant, friend, and expectant mother. Perpetua had made her decision to be baptized in 203 AD under the rule of Emperor Septimius Severus, even though she knew that it could mean her death. Her father and family members pleaded with her to recant, but she replied that she couldn’t and said, “Neither can I call myself by any other name than what I am – a Christian.”

Perpetua and Felicity were imprisoned and awaited execution in the arena in their hometown of Carthage in North Africa. The conditions were terrible, but the Church sent deacons to minister to them and other Christians, even bribing the guards to provide better living conditions. The two women and their companions (Saturus, Revocadus, Rusticus, and Saturninus) continued to be people of prayer, even as they awaited their death, and their example resulted in the conversion of the jail warden, a man named Pudens.

The actual martyrdom account interestingly mirrors many of the aspects of Jesus’ own Passion. Perpetua, Felicity, and their companions were led into the center of the arena to await judgment of the crowds (like Jesus). Beautifully, the servant and master had become sisters and friends in their suffering for Christ. The crowd demanded that they be scourged first (like Jesus), and they were stripped naked for humiliation (like Jesus). The group of martyrs was then attacked by leopards, wild boars, and bears (oh my!), and Perpetua and Felicity were chained to the side of a crazed bull, which beat and trampled them severely. When the brutal attacks by the beasts had concluded, soldiers were dispatched to ensure that the martyrs were dead (like Jesus). When one of them, a young novice, approached Perpetua, he was so moved by her loving suffering that he couldn’t bring himself to dispatch her. Perpetua, fully aware of the consequences for the soldier disobeying his order, and willing to lay her own life down (like Jesus), steadied his hand and guided the sword into her body.

We have so much that we can take away from this passion account, including evidence for many closely held teachings of the Church, including baptism by desire (Perpetua’s brother died as a catechumen, but she dreamed he was saved) and prayers for the souls in Purgatory (her other brother Dinocrates, who had died with a disfiguring illness, appeared to her in a vision and was healed after she prayed for his soul). There is also a scene where the martyr Saturus gives his family ring to Pudens the warden in gratitude; Pudens later dips the ring in Saturus’ blood and keeps it to venerate the martyrs’ death, which seems to be clear evidence of the use of relics!

Perhaps the greatest lesson we learn follows the last recorded words of St. Perpetua: “Stand fast in faith, and love one another.” Sts. Perpetua, Felicity, and their Companions, pray for us!

Some St. Marcellinus or Another…

27550A.JPGSo earlier this week, I was writing this column on St. Marcellinus, and had spent a few hours researching and writing when I suddenly discovered that the Marcellinus mentioned in the Eucharistic Prayer is actually a different Marcellinus, who had a companion named Peter. Who knew that “Marcellinus” was such a popular name, right?

As it is, St. Marcellinus was a priest, and St. Peter was an exorcist. Now before you all start thinking about the horror movie, let me explain. The order of “exorcist” was one of the “minor orders” of the Church. It didn’t serve as a ministerial order like the priest, deacon, or bishop, but an exorcist mostly had responsibilities connected to the catechumens (Christians in training). A close equivalent today might be the combination of a baptismal sponsor, a catechist for the RCIA, and a drill sergeant. The exorcists would lay hands on catechumens, pray for them, and make sure they were up to the challenges of the Christian life. In some cases, yes, the exorcists would assist clergy in formal rites of exorcism. This order actually became part of priestly formation, and men were instituted as exorcists on their way to priesthood all the way up the Second Vatican Council!

Anyway, back to Marcellinus and Peter. Not much is known of them other than their martyrdom, which was recounted by Pope Damasus I. However, he himself gave testimony on behalf of the martyrs’ executioner and their jailer (a man named Artemius), both of whom were converted by St. Marcellinus. The companions were martyred in the year 304 during the Great Persecution of Diocletian – incidentally, the same year as the martyrdom of their pope – the other Marcellinus. Confused yet?

Damasus’ testimony goes that the martyrs were led out of the city by the magistrate to a place along the Via Labicana southeast of Rome – out of the way, so as to hide the bodies from the Christian community. Even in the 4th century, it was well known that Christians would gather at the martyrs’ tombs to celebrate Mass on the anniversary of their death – hence our modern practice of saints’ feast days! Even as they were stripped naked, Marcellinus and Peter joyfully carried out their orders to clear the site of their martyrdom from a huge thicket of thorn bushes. When finished, they were beheaded and buried on the spot.

The Romans’ strategy to hide the graves didn’t work too well, as the Christian community soon located them and built a church near the site in the 4th century. Santi Marcellino e Pietro al Laterano was restored several times, but still stands today, and contains the relics of Sts. Marcellinus and Peter.

Incidentally, the ancient catacombs which were built around the graves of the martyrs were only fully excavated in 2006. They were found to be filled with colorful frescos depicting scenes from Scripture. The archaeologists also found the remains of thousands of bodies of early Christians, still wearing the togas they were buried in. Some were the bodies of saints and other Christians of the early Church, but most of the bodies were likely the victims of an ancient epidemic of typhus or smallpox. Interesting stuff!