Patron Saint of: Breast Cancer, Bakers, Fire, Jewelers, and Martyrs
Young, beautiful and rich, she lived a life dedicated to God. She refused marriage proposals from all the men who asked. The magistrate believed himself to be of high enough rank to be worthy of her affection, but she refused him also. When Decius announced the edicts against Christians, the magistrate tried to profit by Agatha’s sanctity. He planned to blackmail her into sex in exchange for not charging her for being a Christian. She still refused him. He then turned her over to a brothel, but she refused to accept customers. After rejecting Quintian’s advances, she was beaten, imprisoned, tortured, and her breasts were crushed and cut off. She had a vision of St. Peter who then healed her wounds. Imprisoned further, then rolled on live coals, she was near death when an earthquake struck. She thanked God for an end to her pain and died.
“She chose a slow and painful death on broken pottery and burning coal to show her undying love for her Divine Spouse, Jesus Christ, rather than a meaningless life of fun and pleasure in the Roman coourt. This was her witness to the reality of the Resurrection.”
Saint Agatha, virgin and martyr
From: Butler’s Lives of the Saints
The cities of Palermo and Catania in Sicily dispute the honor or St. Agatha’s birth, but it is agreed that she received the crown of martyrdom at Catnaia. Her “acts”, which with many variations exist in both Latin and Greek, but which are of no historical value, state that she belonged to a rich and illustrious family and, having been consecrated to God from her earliest years, she triumphed over many assaults upon her purity. Quintian, a man of consular dignity, thought he could carry out his evil designs upon Agatha by means of the emperor’s edict against Christians. He therefore had her brought before him. Seeing herself in the hands of her persecutors she prayer, “Jesus Christ, Lord of all, thou seest my heart, thou knowest my desires. Do thou alone possess all that I am. I am thy sheep: make me worthy to overcome the Devil.” Quintian ordered her to be handed over to Aphrodisia, a most wicked woman who with her six daughters kept a house of ill-fame. In this dreadful place Agatha suffered assaults and stratagems upon her honor more terrible to torture or death, but she stood firm. After a month Quintian tried to frighten her with threats, but she remained undaunted and declared that to be a servant of Jesus Christ was to be truly at liberty. The judge, offended at her resolute answers, commanded her to be beaten and taken to prison. The next day she underwent another examination, and she asserted that Jesus Christ was her light and salvation. Quintian then ordered her to be stretched on the rack – a torment generally accompanied by stripes, the tearing of the sides with iron hooks, and by burning with blazing torches. The governor, enraged at seeing her suffer all this with cheerfulness, ordered her breasts to be cruelly crushed and then cut off. Afterwards he remanded her to prison, enjoining that neither food nor medical care should be supplied to her. But God gave her comfort: she had a vision of St. Peter who filled her dungeon with a heavenly light, and who consoled and healed her. Four days later Quintian caused her to be rolled naked over live coals mixed with broken potsherds. As she was carried back to prison, she prayed, “Lord, my Creator, thou hast always protected me from the cradle; thou hast taken me from the love of the world and given me patience to suffer. Receive now my soul.” After saying these words, she breathed out her life.
There is good evidence of the early cultus of St. Agatha. Her name occurs in the Calendar of Carthage (c. 530), and in the “Hieronymianum”, and her praises were sung by Venantius Fortunatus (Carmina, viii, 4), but we can affirm nothing with confidence concerning her history. She is depicted in the procession of the saints at SantI Apollinare Nuovo at Ravenna. As an attribute in art her breasts, which were cut off, are often shown on a dish. These in the middle ages were often mistaken for loaves, and from this practice seems to have arisen of blessing bread on St. Agatha’s feast which is brought on a dish to the altar. As in Sicily she was credited with the power of arresting the eruptions of Mount Etna, so she is invoked against any outbreak of fire. Whether because of 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. Two sixth-century churches in Rome were dedicated in her honor, and she is named in the canon of the Mass.
See the Acta Sanctorum, February, vol. i, where there is, inter alia, a Latin version of an encomium attributed to St. Methodius of Constantinople (d. 847), on which see Amalecta Bollandiana, vol. lxviii (1950), pp. 58 seq. See also J.P. Kirsch in the Catholic Encyclopedia, vol.i, pp. 203-204; and, for the saint in art, KUnstle, Ikonographie der Heiligen (1926), pp. 37-39. An Italian work on St. Agatha in two vols., by B.G. Consoli, appeared in 1951
from Butler’s Lives of the Saints, complete edition, volume one, pp. 255-256.
Saint Agatha, virgin and martyr
From: The Church’s Year of Grace
Qui potest capere, capiat
1. St. Agatha (etym., good excellent) is the last of the four great virgin-martyrs of the Roman Church whose names occur in the and whose feasts are celebrated month by month during the winter. The four are Cecilia (November), Lucy (the “shining one,” in December, heralding the Light of Christmas), Agnes (the “pure,” in January), and Agatha (the “good,” in February). The later’s martyrdom probably took place during the Decian persecution (254). She enjoyed wide veneration in ancient times.
It is impossible to write an historically reliable account of St. Agatha’s life. The “Acts” of her martyrdom are legendary, dating from the sixth century; from these “Acts” much is culled for use in the Breviary today, particularly antiphons and responsories. As prayers in the Divine Office these texts are not without a certain spiritual value.
According to these sources Agatha was a Sicilian virgin of noble extraction. Quintianus, governor of Sicily, became deeply enamored of her; but she rejected his advances. As a result she was charged with being a Christian and brought before his tribunal. To the question concerning her origin she replied: “I am noble-born, of a distinguished family, as all my relatives will attest” (I Ant. Matins). When asked why she lived the servile life of a Christian, she answered; “I am a handmaid of Christ, and that is why I bear the outward appearance of a slave; yet this is the highest nobility, to be a slave to Christ” (2. and 3. Ant., Matins). The governor threatened her with the most dreadful tortures if she did not denounce Christ. Agatha countered: “If you threatened me with wild beasts, know that at the Name of Christ they grow tame; if you use fire, from heaven angels will drop healing dew on me” (4. and 5. Ant.Matin).
After being tortured, “Agatha went to prison radiant with joy and with head held high as though invited to a festive banquet. And she commended her agony to the Lord in prayerll ( 6. Ant., Matins). The next day, as she again stood before the judge, she declared: IIIf you do not cause my body to be torn to pieces by the hangman, my soul cannot enter the Lord’s paradise with the martyrs (7. Ant., Matins). She was then stretched on the rack, burned with red-hot irons, and despoiled of her breasts. During these tortures she prayer: IIFor love of charity I am made to hang from a rack. Help me, 0 Lord my God, as they knife my breasts(9. Ant., Matins). Agatha rebuked the governor for his barbarity:
IIGodless, cruel, infamous tyrant, are you not ashamed to despoil a woman of hat by which your own mother nursed you?lI(l. Resp.).
Returning to prison, she prayed: lIyou have seen, 0 Lord, my struggle, how I fought in the place of combat; but because I would not obey the commands of rulers, my breasts were lacerated.II(B. Ant., Matins). In the night there appeared to her a venerable old man, the apostle Peter, with healing remedies. Agatha, ever delicately modest, hesitated to show him her wounds, III am the apostle of Christ; distrust me not, my daughterll (1. Ant., Lauds). To which she replied: III have never used earthly medicines on my body. I cling to the Lord Jesus Christ, who renews all things by His word. II (2. Ant., Lauds). She was miraculously healed by St. Peter: IIFather of my Lord Jesus Christ, I give you praise because by Your apostle You have restored my breastsll (4. Ant., Lauds). Throughout the night a light illuminated the dungeon. When the guards fled in terror, her fellow prisoners urged her to escape but she refused.:
IIHaving received help from the Lord, I will persevere in confessing Him who healed and comforted me.”
Four days later she was again led before the judge. He, of course, was amazed over her cure. Nevertheless, he insisted that she worship the gods; which prompted another confession of faith in Christ. Then by order of the governor, Agatha was rolled over pieces of sharp glass and burning coals. At that moment the whole city was rocked by a violent earthquake. Two walls collapsed, burying two of the governor’s friends in the debris. Fearing a popular uprising, he ordered Agatha, half dead, to be returned to prison. Here she offered her dying prayer; “Blessed Agatha stood in the midst of the prison and with outstretched arms prayed to the Lord: 0 Lord Jesus Christ, good Master, I give You thanks that You granted me victory over the executioners’ tortures. Grant now that I may happily dwell in your never-ending glory.” Thereupon she died.
A year after her death the city of Catania was in great peril from an eruption on Mount Etna. Pagans, too, were numbered among those who fled in terror to the saint’s grave. Her veil was taken and held against the onrushing flames, and suddenly the danger ceased. The Benedictus antiphon describes the incident: “The pagan mUltitude fled to the saint’s grave, and held her veil against the fire. Thus did the Lord show that they were from the fire’s danger by the merits of the holy martyr Agatha. “Her grave is venerated at Catania in Sicily.
2. Holy Mass (Gaudeamus). Its various proper texts distinguish the formulary from other virgin-martyr Masses; a very marked Greek-Sicilan influence can be detected. The Mass begins in festal spirit: “Let us all rejoice in the Lord … ” This Introit, borrowed from Greek liturgy for today’s feast, was later adapted to a number of other Masses, e.g., All Saints. Above us and with us the angels are rejoicing over Agatha’s glorious passion. The Church’s nuptial song (Psalm 44) is used with most of the chanted texts. Both Readings are proper. The Epistle reflects the saint’s apology before the pagan judge; it also develops a point in the Oration, namely, God chooses the small and the weak to confound the big and the strong. “Christ, by God’s providence, has become our wisdom, justification, healing, and redemption.” A good summary of the fruits readied for us today in the Holy Eucharist.
In the Gospel Christ speaks of virginity “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” Agatha was “able to take it,” and as proof shed her blood. The Gradual shows us the virgin in combat with the “surging torrents” of suffering from which she proceeds joyful and triumphant; then in the Alleluia she proclaims “God’s testimonies in the presence of kings.” While receiving holy Communion the faithful pray words first spoken by the saint: “He who deigned to heal my every wound and to restore my breasts, Him I invoke as the living God.”
3. The Communion Verse. Today seems to call for some special study in the nature of this prayer. Perhaps it is the only instance of use in the Missal of words ascribed to a saint by legend. Furthermore, it departs from the common practice of taking antiphons only from Sacred Scripture. Apart from this point, however, our present-day approach to holy Communion is very different. Even the type of statement made by St. Agatha would go counter to our spirit of Christian reserve and modesty. For a Communion prayer we would prefer one that would express the idea of food or of Christ’s presence. In Missal texts there seldom is reference to Christ’s coming into our hearts or holding conversation with us. For in ancient Christian piety, the Eucharist was the sacrifice banquet, nourishing the life of grace. This theology underlies the words by which St. Agatha describes her cure and the restoration of her breasts. The liturgy is saying: The Eucharist has power to heal; the healing of Agatha’s wounds is repeated spiritually in our regard through the medicine of the Eucharist.
Another observation. Agatha’s words are put on the lips of the assembled faithful because the assembled faithful approach the sacred banquet in the person of the saint. It is a basic liturgical principle that at public worship the participants identify themselves with the saint commemorated, that they take the role of the saint and speak his thoughts. And at the Eucharistic banquet the saint comes to the fore more prominently than even the Eucharist Itself. Usually the texts tells of the saint’s transfiguration or glorification, a privilege we come to share through the Eucharist. Thus a correct approach to an unusual chant helps broaden our whole understanding of the liturgy and its spirit.
Church’s Year of Grace, by Dr. Pius Parsch
Saint Agatha, virgin and martyr
From: In His Likeness: Homilies for Lituries in Honor of the Saints
” She achieved renown in the early Church for her noble victory,” wrote St. Methodius of Sicily. ( 2nd Reading, Liturgy of the Hours) .
Legend is again our story teller concerning this saint. St. Agatha was martyred during the persecution of Decius, mid-third century, in Sicily. Agatha refused marriage to a young consul, Quintian, who used the threat of the persecutions to persuade her. Refusing him she was subjected to indignities and torture, but bravely persevered. She “found favor with (God) by her chastity and by her courage in suffering death for the Gospel.” (Cf. Opening Prayer).
St. Methodius also said in his sermon:
“A true virgin, she wore the glow of a pure conscience and the crimson of the Lamb’s blood for her cosmetics. Again and again she meditated on the death of her eager lover. For her, Christ”s death was recent, his blood still moist. Her robe is the mark of her faithful witness to Christ. It bears the indelible marks of his crimson blood and the shining threads of her eloquence. She offers to all who come after her these treasures of her eloquent confession.” (Op . cit.).
Methodius continued his praise of her:
“Agatha – her goodness coincides with her name and way of
life. She won a good name by her noble deeds. Agatha,
her mere name wins all men over to her company. She teaches them by her example to hasten with her to the true Good, God alone.” (Op. cit.).
In His Likeness: Homilies for Liturgies in Honor of the Saints, by Reverend Charles E. Yost, SCJ, STL. Priests of the Sacred Heart. Sacred Heart Monastery, P.O. Box 900, Hales Corners, Wisconsin, 53130.
Saint Agatha, virgin and martyr
From: The Liturgical Year
Since the commencement of the ecclesiastical year, we have kept the feasts of two out of the four illustrious virgins whose names are daily honored in the holy Sacrifice of the Lamb; the third comes today, lighting up the heaven of the Church with her bright soft rays. Lucy first, then Agnes, and now the gracious visit of Agatha. The fourth, Cecily, the immortal Cecily, is to be one of that magnificent constellation which gives such splendor to the closing of the year. Today, then, let us keep a feast in honor of St. Agatha, the virgin daughter of that same fair Sicily which can boast of her Lucy. We must not allow the holy sadness of our present season to take aught from the devotion we owe to our saint. The joy wherewith we celebrate her merits will lead us to study her virtues. She will repay us by her prayers; she will encourage us to persevere in the path which is to bring us to the God she so nobly loved and served, and with whom she is now for ever united.
Let us begin by reading what the Church tells us of the virtues and combats of this glorious bride of Christ.
The holy virgin Agatha was born in Sicily, of noble parents.
The cities of Palermo and Catania both claim the honor of having been the place of her birth. She received the crown of a
glorious martyrdom at Catania, under the persecution of the Emperor Decius. Her beauty, which was as great as her chaste and innocent life was praiseworthy, attracted the notice of Quintianus, the governor of Sicily. He spared no means whereby to compass his lustful designs upon the innocent virgin; but seeing that she scorned his offers, he had her apprehended as being guilty of the Christian superstition, and gave her in charge of a woman, named Aphrodisia, who was noted for her power of alluring to evil. But finding that her words and company had no effect on the holy maiden, and that she was immovable in her resolution to maintain both her faith and her virginity, Aphrodisia told Quintianus that she was but losing her time with Agatha. Whereupon, he ordered the virgin to be brought before him, and he said to her: »Art not thou, that art so noble by birth, ashamed to lead the life of a base and slavish Christian?» She replied: »Better by far is the baseness and slavery of a Christian than the wealth and pride of kings.”
Angered by her words, the governor bids her choose one of these two: adoration of the gods, or sharp tortures. On her refusal to deny her faith, he ordered her to be buffeted, and cast into prison. On the following day,she was again led to trial. Finding that she was still firm in her purpose, they hoisted her on the rack, and laid hot iron plates on her flesh, and cut off her breast. While suffering this last torture, she thus spoke to Quintianus: “Cruel tyrant, art thou not ashamed to cut a woman’s breast, who wast thyself fed at the breast of thy mother?” She was then sent back to prison, where, during the night, a venerable old man, who told her that he was the apostle of Christ, healed her. A third time she was summoned by the governor, and being still firm in confession Christ, she was rolled upon potsherds, and burning coals.
Suddenly, the whole city was shaken by a violent earthquake, and two of the governor’s intimate friends were killed by the falling of the walls. The people were in such a state of excitement that the governor began to fear a sedition, and therefore ordered the almost lifeless Agatha to be secretly conveyed back to her prison. She thus prayed to Our Lord: “0 God! who hast watched over me from my infancy, who hast separated me from the love of this world, and hast given me strength to bear the tortures of my executioners, receive my soul!» Her prayer being ended, her soul took its flight to heaven, on the Nones of February (February 5), and the Christians buried her body.
The ancient books of liturgy abound with verses in honor of St. Agatha; but most of them are so poor in sentiment that we pass them over. The following beautiful hymn is the composition of Pope St. Damasus.
Lo! the bright festal day of the glorious martyr and virgin Agatha, when Christ took her to himself, and a double crown wreathed her brow.
Though by noble by birth, and b~essed with beauty, her grandest riches were her deeds and her faith. Earthly prosperity was nothing in her eyes, but her whole heart was on the precepts of her God.
Her bravery tired out the men that tortured her; she flinched not as they lashed her limbs: and her wounded breast reveals a dauntless heart.
Her prison was her paradise, where the pastor Peter heals his bleeding lamb; and thence once more she runs to suffer, gladder and braver at every wound.
A pagan city once in flames was saved by Agatha’s prayer. The same can check, in Christian hearts the threatening fire of lust.
Now that thou art in heaven, clad as a bride of Christ, intercede with him for us miserable sinners, that he grant us so to spend thy feast, that our celebration may draw down his grace.
Glory be to the Son, together with the Father and the Holy Ghost. May the one almighty God grant that this his saint be mindful of us.
How lovely are thy palms, 0 Agatha! But how long and cruel was thy combat for them! The day was thine; thy faith and thy virginity triumphed, but the battle-field streamed with thy blood, and thy glorious wounds bear testimony to the angels how stern was the courage of thy fidelity to Jesus thy Spouse. When thine enemies left thee, it was to Him thou didst look up; and then thy soul flew to its rest, in the bosom of thy King and God. The whole Church keeps feast today, praising her Lord in thee, great martyr and virgin! She knows the love thou bearest her, and how, amidst the joys of heaven, her interests and wants are the object of thy prayers. Thou art our sister; be, too, our mother, by interceding for us. Centuries have passed away since that day, whereon thy soul quitted the body thou hast sanctified by purity and suffering; but the great battle between the spirit and the flesh is still waging here on earth, and will do so to the end of time. Assist us in the struggle; keep up within our hearts the holy fire, which the world and our passions are ever seeking to quench.
It is now the season when every Christian should renew his whole being by repentance and compunction. We know the power of thy prayer; let it procure us these gifts; the fear of God, which keeps down the workings of corrupt nature; the spirit of penance, which repairs the injuries caused by our sins; and a solid love for our dear Lord, which sweetens the yoke, and ensures perseverance. More than once a whole people has witnessed how a relic of thine, thy veil, has checked the streams of lava which rolled down the side of Etna; we are threatened with a torrent of vice, which will drive the world back to pagan corruption, unless divine mercy stay its wild fury; and prayers such as thine can obtain it for us. Delay not, 0 Agatha! each day gives strength to the danger. Not a nation but is now infected with the poison of a literature that is infidel and immoral; by thy prayers keep the poisonous cup from them that have not tasted,neutralize its power in them that have drunk its venom of death. Oh! spare us the shame of seeing our Europe the slave of sensuality, and dupe of hell.
from The Liturgical Year by Abbot Gueranger, O.S.B., translated from the French. Third edition. vol.4, Septuagesima. pp. 240-246.
Saint Agatha, virgin and martyr
From: The Liturgy of the Hours
Agatha suffered martyrdom at Catania in Sicily, probably during the persecution of Decius. From antiquity her cult spread throughout the Church; her name was therefore inserted into the Roman Canon.
OFFICE OF READINGS
From a homily on Saint Agatha by Saint Methodius of Sicily, bishop
(Analecta Bollandiana 68, 76-78)
The gift of God, the source of all goodness
My fellow Christians, our annual celebration of a martyr’s feast has brought us together. She achieved renown in the early Church for her noble victory; she is well known now as well, for she continues to triumph through her divine miracles, which occur daily and continue to bring glory to her name.
She is indeed a virgin, for she was born of the divine Word, God’s only Son, who also experienced death for our sake. John, a master of God’s Word, speaks of this: He gave the power to become children of God to everyone who received him.
The woman who invites us to this banquet is both a wife and virgin. To use the analogy of Paul, she is bride who has been betrothed to one husband, Christ. A true virgin, she wore the glow of a pure conscience and the crimson of the Lamb’s blood for her cosmetics. Again and again she meditated on the death of her eager lover. For her, Christ’s death was recent, his blood was still moist. Her robe is the mark of her faithful witness to Christ. It bears the indelible marks of his crimson blood and the shining thread of her eloquence. She offers to all who come after her these treasures of her eloquent confession.
Agatha, the name means “good.” She was truly good, for she lived as a child of God. She was also given as the gift of God, the source of all goodness to her bridegroom, Christ, and to us. For she grants us a share in her goodness.
What can give greater good than the Sovereign Good! Whom could anyone find more worthy of celebration with hymns of praise than Agatha?
Agatha, her goodness coincides with her name and way of life. She won a good name by her noble deeds, and by her name she pOints to the nobility of those deeds. Agatha, her mere name wins all men over to her company. She teaches them by her example to hasten with her to the true Good, God alone.
But as for me, helped by the Lord,
I shall stand firm in proclaiming his praises. – He has become my salvation and my consoler.
In his mercy, the sinless Lord has consecrated his servant, for she remained pure in his sight.
– He has become my salvation and my consoler.
let your forgiveness be won for us by the pleading of Saint Agatha,
who found favor with you by her chastity
and by her courage in suffering death for the Gospel.
Canticle of Zechariah With a festival spirit
as though to a wedding banquet, Agatha went to prison;
in prayer she offered her bitter suffering to God.
Canticle of Mary Lord Jesus Christ, my beloved Master,
it is you who gave me victory in the midst of torments. Call me, Lord,
to undying happiness with you.