05 February 2010
Probably familiar to the many Americans of Italian heritage, especially from Southern Italy, Saint Agatha was born in Catania, Sicily and was martyred there in A.D. 251. Saint Agatha is only one of seven women, other than our Blessed Mother, that was commemorated by name in the canon of the mass (in the Novus Ordo, now called the Eucharistic Prayer) in the mass of Pope Pius V.
Not much historically is known of Saint Agatha. She has been venerated as a martyr and virgin in the Church since the third century, and her written legend comprises some of the earliest known hagiographic literature. What we do know of Saint Agatha comes from that literature.
Agatha was a beautiful and rich woman that lived a life that had been consecrated to God. However, she was amorously pursued by a Roman Prefect, Quinctianus, who was probably trying to gain sexual advantage of Agatha in exchange for protecting her from the edicts against Christians issued by the Emperor Decius. After rejecting the advances of Quinctianus, Agatha was persecuted by him. First she was given over to a woman who ran a brothel, and upon Agatha's refusal to succumb, she was beaten, tortured and imprisoned. Saint Agatha's breasts were crushed and cut off. One version of her hagiography tells of an apparition of Saint Peter visiting Saint Agatha and healing her. Saint Agatha was finally rolled naked on hot coals, and while she was undergoing this torture an earthquake struck, killing a friend of Quinctianus and causing Quinctianus to flea. One of the hagiographic accounts says that at Quinctianus' flight Saint Agatha thanked God for her suffering and die. Another account says that she was then returned to prison where she later died.
In any event, it is clear from tradition that Saint Agatha was a holy woman who was martyred for her love and faith in Christ. May we too, today, love Christ with such depth.
Saint Agatha is often depicted carrying her breasts on a platter . She is the patron of torture victims, Siciliy, and of women who suffer from breast cancer or other illnesses of the breasts.
Agatha always pleased you by her chastity
and in the end by her martyrdom.
May she obtain for us merciful pardon
for our sins.
IMAGE: Giovani Lanfranco (1582-1647), St. Peter Healing St. Agatha.