The Roman martyr refused to worship the gods of the state

Tomorrow is the feast of Saint Agatha, Virgin and Martyr, which is an obligatory memorial here in England.

In Sicily the feast will be kept with great solemnity, and the city of Catania in particular will see the culmination of a month’s festivities. For those who read Italian, you can see a pdf of the programme for Sant Agata 2013 here. When in Catania last month I was told by several people, as I toured the sites associated with the saint, that the feast was the single biggest popular festival in the world (I wonder if this is true) and that I should make a point of being in Catania on 5th February. Sadly, that is not possible.

The website of Catania’s local government has more information about the festival here, again for those who read Italian. This is, please note, the website of the city of Catania; and the feast’s programme is a joint project of the city authorities and those of the archdiocese. No wall of separation between Church and State here!

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Saint Agatha’s story is similar to that of many other Roman martyrs. She refused marriage to a noble Roman and refused to sacrifice to idols; despite her extreme youth, she was steadfast in the face of tortures, which included the severing of her breasts. All this happened around the year 251. Her name is related to the Greek word agathos, which means good, and this play on words is made much of in the sermon of St Methodius of Sicily, an extract from which forms the reading for her feast in the Office of Readings. Her cult spread widely in the early church, and she is a popular subject in art. She has been alive in heaven for almost two thousand years, and her name is still shouted in the streets of Catania every year, hundreds of churches and children are named out of her, and the words Viva Sant Agata are in lights above the city gate. As for the Roman Empire that persecuted her to death, that is history.

You would have thought that in the contest between a fragile girl and the mighty Roman Empire, that the might of Rome would have triumphed. In fact the steadfastness and courage of the young Christian must have infuriated her persecutors. One almost feels sorry for them. But Agatha remained true, and she remains so to this day. As for the Roman nobleman Quintianus who tormented her –

“The wicked man sees and is angry,
grinds his teeth and fades away;
the desire of the wicked leads to doom”
as Psalm 112 has it.

Saint Agatha, pray for us! And as for you current persecutors of the Church, who want to make us abandon our principles and sacrifice to your modern idols – beware!

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