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.
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!