Saint Agatha Virgin and Martyr

Agatha was martyred at Catania in Sicily, probably during the persecution by the Roman emperor, Decius (250-253). She is among the saints commemorated in the Roman Canon. Although she is one of the most highly venerated of the virgin martyrs in the early Church, there is little reliable information about Agatha beyond the fact that she died a martyr’s death. She is known to have been put to death because of the courageous profession of her Christian faith.

Although the martyrdom of St Agatha is accepted as genuine and her veneration as a saint had spread beyond her birthplace already in early times, there is still no reliable information of how she met her death. According to the Acts of the Martyrs (in both Latin and Greek), Agatha, daughter of a distinguished family and a girl of great beauty, was pursued by a Senator Quintianus who had fallen in love with her. As his proposals were resolutely spurned by the young girl, he put her in charge of an evil woman, whose efforts at seduction were thwarted by Agatha’s commitment to her Christian faith. Quintianus then had her subjected to various cruel tortures. Of these, the most barbaric was an order to have her breasts cut off. This became the peculiar characteristic in medieval images of the saint. She is often depicted carrying her excised breasts on a platter.

However, it was said that Agatha was consoled by a vision of St Peter, who healed her miraculously. Her scorned admirer eventually sentenced her to death by being burnt at the stake. However, she was saved from this fate by a mysterious earthquake. She later died in prison as a result of the repeated cruelties inflicted on her. However, it must be said that this narrative from her story in Acts of the Martyrs cannot really claim to have any historical reliability.

Both Catania and Palermo in Sicily claim the honour of being Agatha’s birthplace. Her feast is kept on 5 February, and her office in the Roman Breviary is drawn in part from the Latin Acts of the Martyrs. Catania honours St Agatha as its patron saint, and throughout the region around Mt Etna she is invoked against eruptions of the volcano, and elsewhere against fire and lightning. In some places bread and water are blessed during Mass on her feast after the Consecration, and called Agatha bread. It is thought that this blessing of the bread may have come from the mistaken notion that, in images of her, what she was carrying on the platter were loaves of bread.

In more recent times, St Agatha has been venerated as the patron saint of patients living with breast cancer.

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