Feast Day: February 5th | Virgin and Martyr| Patronage: Sicily, Malta, & Gallipoli; Nursers, Jewelers, Rape Victims, Sufferers of Breast Cancer, Sterility, Natural Disasters, and Torture | Attributes: Maiden mistreated, imprisoned, visited by St. Peter; tortured by pincers, amputated breasts.
St. Agatha is one of those saints that we know desperately little about except that where she was from (Sicily) and when she was killed (under the Decian persecution, around 251 AD). We have legends of her beauty and purity, accounts of her choice to remain a virgin and the angry reprisals inflicted upon her by the powerful (spurned) Quintianus. It seems she was miraculously cured, for she survived for a time the horrible injuries and indignities before dying imprisoned.
When writing or speaking about martyrs, we often run out of details, or simply cannot fathom their endurance, and conclude our account with the simple truth that “they died for the faith.” But when I look to try and then apply the example of their lives to mine, or seek to incorporate something of the grace they were given, I come up short. How does one “die for the faith”? What could possible carry me from an ordinary Morning Offering to standing steadfast before the worst tortures and still saying “yes”? Would I have their same endurance? Did it hurt as much as I imagined it did? ‘
To unravel this conundrum, I want to turn to the Church’s wisdom as regards martyrs. We start as always from Our Lord: “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account” Jesus calls out in His most famous sermon (no jokes to be found here!) Later, before His own passion: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” These were realities that the Early Church endured: its members encouraging those hauled into the arena, praying for those who abandoned the faith, and honoring those who had been killed. Quickly it was these, the highest of witnesses to Christ [martyron in Greek] who were hailed as the greatest of saints.
St. Augustine sharpened this definition, clarifying that martyrdom is not based on the punishment you endure, but the reason for the punishment. (Plenty of Donatists were going around claiming to be martyrs because the government was being hard on them … Heads up: unfair taxes don’t bump you to the highest ranks of heaven, and neither does being penalized for heresy…) St. Thomas Aquinas further hones the Church’s definition of martyrdom to being killed for a truth of the faith. (In this way, John the Baptist is a martyr, not because he was killed for faith in Christ per se, but because he was killed for his denunciation of adultery). This logic has been applied more recently to saints like Maximilian Kolbe (a “martyr for charity”) and Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (technically killed for her Jewish ancestry, but who remained imbued by Christian love until the end). Neither were killed specifically for their faith. They could not have apostatized and saved their lives. But because they did hold onto Truth and Love to the last, and by God’s grace had both the fortitude and charity to do so, we acclaim them not only saints, but martyrs.
What do we discover amid all these developments over the centuries, and all these examples of martyrdom? I take away one simple truth this week: every martyr died for Christ, but never generically, never ambiguously. Agatha died because she chose to live as a perpetual virgin. John the Baptist died because he had the chutzpah to call Herod (and Herodias) out for their fornication. Maximilian Kolbe because he offered his life in place of a doomed father. Teresa Benedicta because she refused to evade the Nazi’s, saying instead “come, we are going for our people.”
Each died for a particular way that they chose Jesus and followed Jesus – perpetual virginity, the truth of marriage, self-sacrifice, accepting the cross – our discipleship must be similarly particular! We cannot be generic saints! The Lord is calling us to a particular way of following after Him, and only a “yes” to that specific emulation of our can carry us through whatever persecutions may come our way.
– Fr. Dominic Rankin has only slowly realized that the particular way he is called behind Jesus is often found in his inbox or on his desk (or floor!). I would love more precision (or maybe what I’m really hoping for is greater glory…), but it seems that fortitude and charity, and truth and love, currently intersect there.