February 5th is the feast of St. Agatha, a young woman from a wealthy family in Catania, Sicily, who tradition says was put to death around 251, when Roman opinion turned against Christianity during the reign of the Emperor Decian.
Agatha refused the advances of Quintian, a high Roman official. Like St. Agnes she believed she had the right to remain unmarried and hold on to her faith. Like Agnes, she was committed to a house of prostitution to be degraded and tortured and eventually executed by the sword. She prayed as they put her to death:
Lord, my creator
You have protected me from birth
And given me patience in time of trial.
Now receive my soul.
Agatha appears in the early 6th century Roman Eucharistic Prayer with Lucy, another Sicilian woman who died for her faith. The two Sicilian women are listed with two women from Africa, Felicity and Perpetua, two Roman women, Agnes and Cecilia, and one woman from another part of the Roman world, Anastasia. They were all heroic witnesses to the faith.
Early legends dwelt on the tortures Agatha endured and artists through the centuries have pictured the legends in art. Are they unreal? The real-life recent story of St. Josephine Bakhita, the African woman from the Sudan whom we remember February 8th, may suggest they are not. She was an abused woman who remained unbroken and strong in spite of diabolic evil. Like Agatha, God’s grace made her strong.
The list of early saints in our 1st Eucharistic Prayer comes from St. Gregory the Great, scholars say. Barbarian invaders swept over the Italian peninsula in his day, plundering, burning and destroying. It was the worst of times, and many Romans, among them the well-to-do residents of the Celian Hill, where Gregory lived, left the city as fast as they could.
The saints in the Roman canon became Gregory’s army, his enduring support. He saw them as friends at his side; when others left, they were still there. Their shrines in Rome were fortresses that sustained his church and its people. Saints John and Paul, soldier saints; Saints Cosmos and Damian, the doctors who cured and didn’t mind not getting paid, Saint Lawrence, who took care of the poor. Agatha, Cecilia, Agnes–strong women of faith who wouldn’t give in, not matter what.
We pray at the Eucharist “in union with the whole church.” We look to the saints in heaven as well as those on earth. At all times we draw strength from the whole church, the saints living among us and those in glory; all have their strength from Jesus Christ and offer their gifts to us.