Today is the Feast of St. Agatha, the martyr. One of my favorite churches in Rome is Sant’Agata dei Goti. And it’s named after this great saint.
St. Agatha, whose name in Greek — Agathé — means good, was martyred in the mid-third century. Some archaeological remains dating to a few decades after hers death, which took place according to tradition on February 5 251, attest to her ancient cultus.
Agatha was born in the early decades of the third century (235?) in Catania, Sicily. The whole vast Roman Empire was subject at that time to the persecution of Christians.
An edict by Septimius Severus (reigned 193-211) stated Christians could first be reported to the authorities and then asked to recant in public their new faith. If they accepted to return to paganism, they received a certificate (libellum), confirming their belonging to the pagan religion. If they refused to sacrifice to the gods, however, were tortured and killed.
It was a ruthless and calculated system, because the emperor tended to make more apostates possible than martyrs, because the latter were considered the most dangerous type of Christian.
Despite the persecutions, in 249 the Emperor Decius saw the spread of Christianity, however, was even more drastic so he decreed that all denounced Christians be searched by the local authorities, arrested, tortured, and then killed.
According to the ‘Passio Sanctae Agathae’ from the second half of the fifth century and of which there are two translations, two Greek and one Latin, Agatha belonged to a rich and noble family from Catania, her father and mother, being Christians, educated Agatha according to their religion.
Growing up in her childhood and adolescence in beauty, candor, and virginal purity, since childhood she felt in her heart the desire to belong totally to Christ and when she turned 15 years, she felt that it was time to devote herself to God. In the early days of Christianity consecrated virgins were a brand new way of life.
The Bishop of Catania accepted his request and at an official ceremony called ‘velatio’, imposed the ‘flammeum’, ie the red veil worn by consecrated virgins.
In the mosaic of St. Apollinaris Nuovo in Ravenna of the sixth century, she is depicted with long tunic, dalmatic and stole shoulder, clothing suggesting she had become a deaconess.
Quinzianus, the proconsul of Catania, had the chance to see her and they spoke. Based on this encounter, and under the edict of persecution of Emperor Decius, he accused her of insulting the state religion, the common charge leveled against all Christians, so he ordered that Agatha be arrested and conducted to the Praetorian Palace.
The proconsul, when he saw her in front of him after her arrest, is said to have been conquered by her beauty and a burning passion seized him. However his attempts at seduction failed with the young Agatha.
He then put in place a program of re-education of the girl entrusting it to a courtesan named Aphrodisia of easy ways in the hopes that this would make her more available. The Christian girl spent a month in this woman’s house subject to immoral temptations of every kind, with feasts, obscene entertainments, banquets, etc. She resisted in protecting her consecrated virginity to her heavenly Spouse, to Whom she wanted to remain faithful at all costs.
Defeated and disappointed, Aphrodisias returned Agatha to Quinzianus, saying: “She has a head harder than Etna lava.” So furious, the proconsul had her interrogated and tortured. Agatha’s limbs were stretched, she was torn with iron combs, scalded with burning embers, and more. But every torment, rather than break her resistance, seemed to give her new strength. Thus Quinzianus at the height of his fury demanded that his minions tear or cut her breasts with huge pincers.
This aspect of the torture is the hallmark of her martyrdom. In fact Agatha is represented her two breasts, which have beenlaid on a plate with tongs. But she bore it all for the love of God rather than renounce Him.
Around midnight while she prayed in her cell, there appeared the Apostle Peter, and he healed the amputated breast(s).
When the proconsul learned the wounds had healed, he incredulously asked what had happened. Then the Virgin responded, “Christ made made them heal.” Now Agatha represented a stinging defeat for Quinzianus. He could not stand it anymore, and his former passionate love had turned to hate. So he then ordered her to be burned on a bed of hot coals.
At this point, according to tradition, while the fire was burning her flesh, it nonetheless did not burn the veil she wore. For this reason “the veil of St. Agatha” immediately became one of the most precious relics. It has been repeatedly taken in procession in front of the lava flows from Etna, having the power, it has historically been said, to stop it.
As Agatha died in this fiery way, a strong earthquake shook the city of Catania and the Praetorian collapsed, partially burying two executioners and advisers of Quinzianus. The crowd of Catania were frightened and rebelled the atrocious torture of the young virgin. So then the proconsul had Agatha removed from grill and in her agony, she was taken to jail, where she died a few hours later.