From the Liturgical Year
by Dom Gueranger, O.S.B
Since the commencement of the ecclesiastical year, we have kept the feasts of two out of the four illustrious virgins whose names are daily honoured 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 splendour to the closing of the year. Today, then, let us keep a feast in honour of 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 preserve in the path which is to bring us to the God she so nobly loved and served, and with whom she is now forever united.
Let us begin by reading what the Church tells us of the virtues and combats of this glorious bride of Christ.
The Maiden Agatha was a Sicilian of noble birth. The citizens of Palermo and Catania dispute as to which city had the honour of being her birthplace. It was at Catania that, during the persecution under the Emperor Decius, she won the crown of a glorious martyrdom. She was equally celebrated for her beauty and her chastity, and Quintianus, Praetor of Sicily, conceived a passion for her. He tried every sort of device to overcome her modesty, and when he found it impossible to make her consent to his wishes, he caused her to be arrested on a charge of Christian superstition, and handed over to a woman named Aphrodisia to be corrupted. The company, however, of this woman had no effect in shaking her constancy in the Christian worship, nor her settled determination to preserve her purity. Aphrodisia therefore reported to Quintianus that she was only throwing away her pains on Agatha. He ordered her to be brought before him. Thou, said he, art the daughter of a noble family dost thou feel no shame in living the degraded and slavish life of a Christian? Agatha answered him, The lowliness and bondage of a Christian are far nobler than the estate and pride of a king.
Then the Praetor, being incensed against her, gave her the alternative of either sacrificing to the gods, or being submitted to the torture; and as she remained firm in the faith, she was buffeted and sent back to prison. The next day she was brought forth, and, because her resolution was still unshaken, she was stretched on the rack and tortured with pieces of white-hot metal. Then her breasts were cut off. When Agatha received this injury she cried out to Quintianus, Cruel tyrant, art thou not ashamed to do this to me, having thyself sucked at a mother's breast? She was remanded again to prison and put in irons. That night an old man, who called himself an Apostle of Christ, came to her, and healed her wounds. The following day she was brought for the last time before the Praetor. Her constancy was unmoved, and she was rolled on sharp potsherds and live embers.
At that time the whole city was shaken with a great earthquake, and two of the Praetor's dearest friends, Silvinus and Falconius, were killed by falling walls. The townspeople were in an uproar, and Quintianus, in fear of a riot, ordered Agatha, who was half dead, to be carried back to prison quietly. Then she made the following prayer O Lord, Who hast been my Keeper from my childhood, Who hast taken from me all love for this present world, Who hast strengthened me so that I am more than conqueror over the cruelty of the executioners, receive my spirit, and with these words she passed to heaven. She finished her testimony on the 5th day of February, in the year of our Lord 251. Her body was buried by the Christians.
How lovely are thy palms, O 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 her 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 hadst 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 stream of lava which rolled down the sides 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, O 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 the dupe of hell.