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Saint Agatha: Virgin and martyr in Catania

In third-century Sicily, Agatha's story unfolds between Catania and Palermo, the two cities that dispute the birthplace of the martyr. Reading her "Passio”, it seems we can deduce that the girl was born in 235 on the slopes of Etna, to a noble and rich family.

He was still a teenager when he expressed his desire to consecrate himself to God, and with the rite ofveilreceives from his bishop theflammeum, the red veil then worn by consecrated virgins. Tradition also describes her as a deaconess, dedicated to service for the Christian community. In 250 the edict of the emperor Decius against the Christians unleashed a harsh persecution and in Catania it was the ruthless proconsul Quinziano who applied it harshly, who fell in love with Agata.

From the escape to Palermo to martyrdom

The young woman flees to Palermo, but is found and brought back to Catania. Conducted by Quinziano, she refuses to recant. The proconsul, then, determined to attack the girl's virginity, entrusts her to a courtesan of easy virtue, Aphrodisia, to educate her in the arts of love. Agata remains faithful to Christ, so she is returned to Quinziano who decides to put her on trial.

TheActs of the Martyrdom of Saint Agathathe interviews report. “What condition are you in?” Quinziano asks Agata who replies: “Not only born free, but of a noble family”. And Quinziano: “And if you certify that you are free and noble, why do you show that you live and dress like a slave?”. “Because I am a servant of Christ” replies Agata. And again Quinziano: “But if you are truly free and noble, why would you want to become a slave?”. And Agata: “The greatest freedom and nobility lies here: in demonstrating that we are servants of Christ”. Quinziano replies: “And what therefore?

Do we who despise the servitude of Christ and venerate the gods have no freedom?”. “Your freedom drags you into such slavery, which not only makes you servants of sin, but also subjects you to wood and stone” states Agata. Faced with these words Quinziano once again urges Agatha to deny Christ and to make her reflect on herself he has her taken to prison. But the next day, faced with the young woman's new refusal, she decides that she be subjected to torture. Furious at seeing her bravely face her pains, Quinziano orders her breasts to be tortured and torn off.

Agata is taken back to prison in pain and bleeding, but in the night Saint Peter appears to her and heals her. She is brought back to court, Agata, she once again refuses to worship the gods and she declares that she has been healed by Jesus Christ. Furious at the girl's courage despite her torture, Quinziano decrees burning coals for her, wrapped only in her red veil as the bride of Christ.

Agata's death shakes Catania

“While the order was carried out, the place where the holy body was turned over was immediately shaken… even the whole city of Catania was shaken by the force of the earthquake. Therefore everyone ran to the judge's tribunal and began to make a great uproar, because he was tormenting the holy servant of God with wicked torments, and because of this everyone found themselves in grave danger."

Agatha, with her veil remaining intact, is removed from the embers and "entered the prison again, she opened her arms to the Lord, and said: 'Lord who created me and guarded me from my childhood, and who in my youth made me act manfully, who took away from me the bitterness of the world, who preserved my body from contamination, who made me overcome the torments of the executioner, the iron, the fire and the chains, who gave me among the torments the virtue of patience; I beg you to welcome my spirit now, for it is already time for me to leave this world at your command and come to your mercy.'

Having said these words in the presence of many, with a loud voice, he gave up his spirit."It was February 5 of the year 251.

The miracle of lava

They still tell the storyActs of Martyrdom: “After a year… Mount Etna erupted a great fire, and like a burning river the raging fire, liquefying both stones and earth, came to the city of Catania”. Many then go to Agata's tomb to ask for his intercession and his veil is placed in front of the lava flow. Miraculously the lava stops. The fame of the prodigy makes Agata the patron saint of Catania. Her cult was born a year after her martyrdom and quickly spread everywhere. Her relics are preserved in Catania in the cathedral dedicated to her.

source © Vatican News – Dicasterium pro Communicatione

Agata was born in Catania, as can be deduced from the MR, around 230. According to the“Passio Sanctae Agathae”, dating back to the second half of the 5th century and of which there are two translations, one Latin and two Greek, Agata belonged to a rich and noble family from Catania.

Her father Rao and mother Apolla, owners of houses and cultivated land, both in the city and in the surrounding area, being Christians, educated Agata according to their religion. According to tradition, she consecrated herself to God at the age of 15, but more in-depth studies indicate the age of 21 as more probable: not before this age, in fact, could a girl be consecrated as a deaconess, which, from various signs - the white tunic and the red pallium – it seems that Agata actually was.

We can therefore rightly imagine her, rather than as a little girl, rather as a young woman with an active role in her Christian community: a deaconess in fact had the task, among others, of instructing new followers in the Christian faith and preparing the younger people to the sacraments of baptism, Eucharist and confirmation.

Between 250 and 251 the proconsul Quinziano, who arrived at the seat of Catania, also with the intention of enforcing the edict of the emperor Decius, which asked all Christians to publicly renounce their faith, fell in love with the young and , learning of the consecration, ordered her, without success, to repudiate her faith and worship the pagan gods.

Upon Agata's determined refusal, the proconsul entrusted her for a month to a courtesan named Aphrodisia with the aim of corrupting her principles. But, defeated and disappointed, Aphrodisia returns Agatha to Quinziano saying:“He has a head harder than the lava of Etna”. Then furious, the proconsul set up a trial against her; this she presented herself dressed as a slave as virgins consecrated to God used:“If you are free and noble”the proconsul objected,“Why are you acting like a slave?”and she answers“Because the supreme nobility consists in being slaves of Christ”.

The following day another interrogation accompanied by torture: she was lacerated with iron combs, scalded with fiery blades, but each torment, instead of breaking her resistance, seemed to give her new strength, then Quinziano, at the height of his fury, had her breasts torn or cut off with huge pincers. Tradition indicates that during the night she was visited by St. Peter who reassured her and healed her wounds. After another four days in prison, she is brought back to the presence of the proconsul who, seeing her healed wounds, asks in disbelief what had happened, then the virgin replies:“Christ healed me”.

By now Agata constituted a burning defeat for Quinziano, which he could bear no longer; meanwhile her love for her had turned into hatred and so she orders her to be burned on a bed of burning coals, with red-hot blades and fiery tips. At this point, according to tradition, while the fire burned her flesh, it did not burn the veil she wore; for this reason"the veil of Saint Agatha"it immediately became one of the most precious relics: it was carried several times in procession in front of the lava flows of Etna, having the power to stop it.

While Agata is pushed into the fiery furnace and burns to death, a strong earthquake shakes the city of Catania and the Praetorium partially collapses, burying two executioners who were Quinziano's advisors; the frightened crowd of Catania rebels against the atrocious torture of the young virgin, so the proconsul has Agata removed from her embers and brought back in agony to the cell, where she dies a few hours later, on 5 February 251.

In 1040 the relics of the saint were stolen by the Byzantine general Giorgio Maniace, who transported them to Constantinople. In 1126 two soldiers of the Byzantine army, named Gilberto (Provençal) and Goselino (Calabrian), kidnapped them to hand them over to the bishop of Catania Maurizio in the Castle of Aci. On 17 August 1126, the relics returned to the cathedral of Catania.

These remains are today preserved partly inside the precious silver bust (part of the skull, chest and some internal organs) and partly inside reliquaries placed in a large casket, also made of silver (arms and hands, femurs, legs and feet, and the velum).

Among the numerous miracles attributed to St. Agatha over the centuries, the following is most significant: just a year after her death, in 252, Catania was hit by a serious eruption of Etna; this began on February 1st and had already destroyed some villages on the outskirts of Catania. The people went to the cathedral and took the veil of St. Agatha and carried it in procession near the casting. According to tradition, this stopped after a short time. It was the 5th of February, the date of the martyrdom of the virgin from Catania; since then S. Agata became not only the patron saint of Catania, but the protector against volcanic eruptions and then against fires.

Other natural disasters, earthquakes, eruptions of Etna and plagues occurred in the years 1169, 1231, 1239, 1357, 1381, 1408, 1444, 1536, 1567, 1575, 1576, 1635, 1669, 1693, 1743 and 1886: resolution of each of them is attributed to the intercession of the saint.

More than fifteen times, from 252 to 1886, Catania was saved from the destruction of lava. And it was then preserved in 535 by the Ostrogoths, in 1231 by the wrath of Frederick II, in 1575 and in 1743 by the plague.

From 3 to 5 February, Catania dedicates to its“Santuzza”, a great celebration, a mixture of faith and folklore, considered among the main Catholic celebrations worldwide in terms of attendance.

Among the characteristic elements of the festival there is the silver fercolo calledin Vara, inside which the relics of the Saint are kept; it is carried in procession together with elevencandelare or cannalorieach belonging to the city artisans' guilds. It all happens amidst a crowd waving white handkerchiefs and shouting "Citizens, citizens, all of us devout, all of us".

Meaning of the name Agata: "good, virtuous" (Greek).

For further information: Saint Agatha

source ©

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