Saturday, 5 February 2011

Saint Agatha - a saint for today

St Agatha, from Catania in Sicily, was martyred in 251 during the brief but ferocious persecution of Decius.

At that time, everyone was ordered to sacrifice to the Roman gods by a certain day determined by the local authorities. When you had done so, you got a certificate (a libellus). Some Christians were able to bribe an official or knew someone who could get a libellus – they were referred to as libellatici and were considered as having betrayed the faith; though not as seriously as those who had offered sacrifice to the Roman gods.

St Agatha’s martyrdom is a classic example of the combination of two virtues, chastity and fortitude even in the face of torture and death. The Virgin Martyrs are sometimes despised in the world today by those who are particularly outraged by chastity and the readiness to quit this earthly life for heaven.

St Agatha’s passion began when she rejected the amorous advances of a prefect Quintianus. He gave her to Aphrodisia, the keeper of a brothel where she was assaulted and humiliated. She continued steadfast in the faith despite horrible tortures, including, famously, the cutting off of her breasts. In her suffering, she prayed:
"Jesus Christ, Lord of all, you see my heart, you know my desires. Possess all that I am. I am your sheep: make me worthy to overcome the devil."
Her final torment was to be rolled on a bed of live coals. In her agony, her last words to the true God to whom she had been faithful were:
"Lord, my Creator, you have always protected me from the cradle; you have taken me from the love of the world and given me patience to suffer. Receive my soul."
There is a famous Church in the Via Mazzarino in Rome, the Church of Sant’ Agata dei Goti. It is the titular Church of Cardinal Raymond Burke, Prefect of the Apostolic Segnatura (and all round sound chap.) It is called “dei Goti” because it was taken over by the Arians (Goths) in the 6th century. Thankfully it was reconsecrated before too long by Pope St Gregory the Great.

St Agatha obviously stands for us as a shining example of chastity and purity – virtues much needed in today’s world where there are so many temptations against chastity. Her particular suffering takes on a special significance in our porn-soaked society. Breasts are seen today as erotic appendages rather than something given in the providence of God's creation for mothers to feed their babies. Pray to St Agatha for the many men who are addicted to pornography and for women who are exploited by it.

St Agatha's fortitude is also something that calls us. Rejecting the compromise of the libellatici, she preferred to trust in the Lord, to suffer and to die for Him. At the moment, we are not called to this (though who knows what may happen in the future.) Our sufferings are minimal in comparison with hers but the figure of such a brave woman can inspire us when we feel the pressure of opposition or hatred. Let us trust in Jesus Christ to overcome all things and remain steadfast in our faith.
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