From Dom Guéranger's The Liturgical Year.
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 to-day, 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. To-day, 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 persevere in the path which is to bring us to the God she so nobly loved and served, and with whom she is now for ever united.
Let us begin by reading what the Church tells us of the virtues and combats of this glorious bride of Christ.
Agatha virgo, in Sicilia nobilibus parentibus nata, quam Panormitani et Catanenses civem suam esse dicunt, in persecutione Decii imperatoris Catanæ gloriosi martyrii coronam consecuta est. Nam cum pari pulchritudinis et castitatis laude commendaretur, Quintianns, Sicilise prætor, ejus amore captus est. Sed cum, tentata modis omnibus ejus pudicitia, Agatham in suam sententiam perducere non posset, Christianæ superstitionis nomine comprehensam, Aphrodisiæ cuidam mulieri depravandam tradit. Quæ Aphrodisiæ consuetudine cum de constantia colendæ Christianæ fidei, et servandæ virginitatis, romoveri non posset, nuntiat illa Quintiano, se in Agatha operam perdere. Quare ille ad se virginem adduci jubet: et nonne, inquit, te pudet nobili genere natam humilem et servilem Christianomm vitam agere? Cui Agatha: Multo præstantior est Christiana humilitas et servitus, regum opibus, ac superbia.
Quamobrem iratus prætor hanc ei optionem dat, velitne potius venerari deos, an vim tormentorum subire. At illa constans in fide, primum colaphis cæsa mittitur in carcererem: unde postridie educta, cum in sententia permaneret, admotis candentibus laminis in equuleo torquetur: tum ei mamilla abscinditur. Quo in vulnere Quintianum appellans virgo: Crudelis, inquit, tyranne, non te pudet, amputare in femina, quod ipse in matre suxisti? Mox conjecta in vincula, sequenti nocte a sene quodam, qui se Christi apostolum esse dicebat, sanata est. Rursum evocata a prætore, et in Christi confessione perseverans, in acutis testulis, et candentibus carbonibus ei subjectis volutatur.
Quo tempore ingenti terræ motu urbs tota contremuit, ac duo parietes comientes, Silvinum et Falconium intimos prætoris familiares oppresserunt. Quare vehementer commota civitate, veritus populi tumultum Quintianus, Agatham semimortuam clam reduci imperat in carcerem. Quæ sic Deum precata: Domine, qui me custodisti ab infantia, qui abstulisti a me amorem sæculi, qui me carnificum tormentis superiorem præstitisti, accipe animam meam. Ea in oratione migravit in cœlum Noms Februarii: cujus corpus a Christianis sepelitur.
The holy virgin Agatha was born in Sicily, of noble parents. The cities of Palermo and Catania both claim the honour of having been the place of her birth. She received the crown of a glorious martyrdom at Catania, under the persecution of the Emperor Decius. Her beauty, which was as great as her chaste and innocent life was praiseworthy, attracted the notice of Quintianus, the governor of Sicily. He spared no means whereby to compass his lustful designs upon the innocent virgin; but seeing that she scorned his offers, he had her apprehended as being guilty of the Christian superstition, and gave her in charge of a woman, named Aphrodisia, who was noted for her power of alluring to evil. But finding that her words and company had no effect on the holy maiden, and that she was immovable in her resolution to maintain both her faith and her virginity, Aphrodisia told Quintianus that she was but losing her time with Agatha. Whereupon, he ordered the virgin to be brought before him, and he said to her: ‘Art not thou, that art so noble by birth, ashamed to lead the life of a base and slavish Christian?’ She replied: 'Better by far is the baseness and slavery of a Christian than the wealth and pride of kings.'
Angered by her words, the governor bids her choose one of these two: adoration of the gods, or sharp tortures. On her refusal to deny her faith, he ordered her to be buffeted, and cast into prison. On the following day, she was again led to trial. Finding that she was still firm in her purpose, they hoisted her on the rack, and laid hot iron plates on her flesh, and cut off her breast. While suffering this last torture, she thus spoke to Quintianus: ‘Cruel tyrant, art thou not ashamed to cut a woman’s breast, who wast thyself fed at the breast of thy mother?' She was then sent back to prison, where, during the night, a venerable old man, who told her that he was the apostle of Christ, healed her. A third time she was summoned by the governor, and being still firm in confessing Christ, she was rolled upon sharp potsherds, and burning coals.
Suddenly, the whole city was shaken by a violent earthquake, and two of the governor’s intimate friends were killed by the falling of two walls. The people were in such a state of excitement that the governor began to fear a sedition, and therefore ordered the almost lifeless Agatha to be secretly conveyed back to her prison. She thus prayed to our Lord: 'O God! who hast watched over me from my infancy, who hast separated me from the love of this world, and hast given me strength to bear the tortures of my executioners, receive my soul!’ Her prayer being ended, her soul took its flight to heaven, on the Nones of February (February 5), and the Christians buried her body.
The ancient books of the liturgy abound with verses in honour of St. Agatha; but most of them are so poor in sentiment that we pass them over. The following beautiful hymn is the composition of Pope St. Damasus.
Martyris ecce dies Agathæ
Virginis emicat eximiæ:
Christus eam sibi qua sociat,
Et diadema duplex decorat.
Stirpe decens, elegans specie,
Sed magia actibus atque fide,
Terrea prospera nil reputans,
Jussa Dei sibi corde ligans.
Fortior hæc trucibusque viris,
Exposuit sua membra flagris,
Pectore quam fuerit valido
Torta mamilla docet patulo.
Deliciæ cui carcer erat,
Pastor ovem Petrus hanc recreat:
Inde gavisa magisque flagrans,
Cuncta flagella cucurrit ovans.
Ethnica turba rogum fugiens
Hujus et ipsa meretur opem;
Quos fidei titulus decorat,
His Venerem magis ipsa premat.
Jam renitens quasi sponsa polo,
Pro miseris supplica Domino,
Sio tua festa coli faciat,
Te celebrantibus ut faveat.
Gloria cum Patre sit Genito,
Spirituique proinde sacro,
Qui Deus unus et omnipotens
Hanc nostri faciat memorem.
Lo! the bright festal day
of the glorious martyr and virgin Agatha,
when Christ took her to himself,
and a double crown wreathed her brow.
Though noble by birth and blessed with beauty,
her grandest riches were her deeds and her faith.
Earthly prosperity was nothing in her eyes,
but her whole heart was on the precepts of her God.
Her bravery tired out the men that tortured her;
she flinched not as they lashed her limbs:
and her wounded breast
reveals a dauntless heart.
Her prison was her paradise,
where the pastor Peter heals his bleeding lamb;
and thence once more she runs to suffer,
gladder and braver at every wound.
A pagan city once in flames
was saved by Agatha’s prayer.
The same can check, in Christian hearts,
the threatening fire of lust.
Now that thou art in heaven, clad as a bride of Christ,
intercede with him for us miserable sinners,
that he grant us so to spend thy feast,
that our celebration may draw down his grace.
Glory be to the Son, together with the Father
and the Holy Ghost.
May the one almighty God
grant that this his saint be mindful of us.
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 to-day, 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.