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Saint Agatha, virginity, and martyrdom

There are persons in the Church today who argue that chastity or celibacy are no longer understood or appreciated in a society that is supersaturated with sexuality.

"Saint Agatha Attended by Saint Peter and an Angel in Prison"(c. 1640-45) by Alessandro Turchi (Wikipedia)

A reflection in two unequal parts.

First, the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council called for the updating of the General Calendar of the Roman Rite. Calendars have to be scrutinized from time to time. Some of the changes made sense; for example, putting Anne and Joachim together or re-assigning saints to their proper day of death (since saints who had occupied that date were removed from the General Calendar). Other changes were very ill-advised, and here I am thinking at this time of year of the elimination of the Septuagesima season, comprised of the three weeks preceding Ash Wednesday. All the Eastern Churches (both Catholic and Orthodox) have a “pre-Lent,” as does the Ambrosian Rite. The Anglican Ordinariates also maintain this season of preparation.

In the classical Roman Rite, “septuagesima” refers to the “seventy” days before Easter, while “sexagesima” refers to the “sixty” days and “quinquagesima” to the “fifty” days. Now, those are not exact times; they are “rounded off” numbers, but they serve as “markers” or “mileposts” or “guideposts.” The Latin word for “Lent” is “Quadragesima” to signify “forty days.” All of the Romance languages have a variation of that for their designation of the Season of Lent.

So, what’s so important about a pre-Lenten season? It’s psychologically very helpful. With its loss in the mainstream, people often wake up on Ash Wednesday morning, surprised that “Lent is here already.” It’s hard to change gears so quickly, let alone having given serious thought to what kind of penitential path one should be taking. By the way, I highly favor a practice of Benedictine monasteries, whereby the monks ask the abbot to assign them a penance, rather than assuming one on their own. Mutatis mutandis, why not ask the people you live or work with to suggest an appropriate penance for you? You may not like the penance, but it may be the best penance you have ever undertaken.

Pope Paul VI often referred to the Church as the “expert in humanity,” by which he meant that the Church has been at this business of dealing with human beings for a long time and has amassed considerable wisdom in the process; unfortunately, he didn’t always show that kind of “expertise.” Part of that wisdom, though, was the realization that we mortals do best when we are gradually coaxed into a lifestyle change. The Byzantines have maintained, at least on paper, some rather rigorous fasts for Lent. In the lead-up to “Great Lent,” as they call it, there is “Meatfare Sunday,” designating an end to the consumption of meat. That is followed by “Cheesefare Sunday,” after which eggs and dairy products are eliminated from one’s diet. This is really the Eastern Church’s “spacing out” of the Latin Church’s Mardi Gras, in its spiritual observance, not in its licentiousness.

At any rate, in the pre-1962 calendar, this is Septuagesima Week. So, forewarned is forearmed. Use this time to prepare well.

My second point of reflection this evening revolves around the saint of the day, Agatha, a third-century martyr of Sicily, whose name in Greek means “Good Woman.” And she was. She is one of the virgin-martyrs hailed in the Roman Canon. Traditional spirituality identifies three types of martyrdom (martyros is the Greek word for “witness”); red, green and white. Red martyrdom, obviously, refers to shedding one’s blood for Christ. Green usually connotes a confessor of the faith, who endures persecution, but not unto death, while white martyrdom often highlights a life of consecrated virginity. In Christian art, a virgin-martyr can frequently be known as she bears the palm of victory for having shed her blood and the lily for having lived the vocation of a virgin.

Historical records inform us that Agatha lived during the persecution of the Roman Emperor Decius. She came from a noble family and had, by the age of fifteen, made a vow of virginity, thus causing her to reject the amorous (or perhaps better, lascivious) advances of the Roman prefect Quintianus. He took his revenge by denouncing her as a Christian, resulting in all kinds of demented tortures, including confinement to a brothel, being stretched out on a rack, torn with iron hooks, burned with torches. At one point, some truly perverted pagan cut off her breasts with a pincer (hence, her depiction in sacred art holding a platter with her breasts thereon). Her persecutors then tried to burn her at the stake, but that plan was upset by an earthquake. It seems that she finally just died in prison. The Church holds her up as patroness of rape victims, breast cancer patients, and wet nurses.

I want to lay aside considerations of her martyrdom – since I think we all know a great deal about that phenomenon; instead, I want to focus on her virginity.

All too often, we are treated to tirades about the Catholic Church’s low esteem for women. I wish to dispel that calumny presently.

Christian theology puts front and center the doctrine of the Incarnation and proclaims it to be the greatest event in human history. What is fascinating about this is that the conception and birth of the God-Man takes place solely from within the dialogue between a heavenly messenger and a young virgin. Yes, the event that splits history in two – earth-shattering in its effects and implications – occurred without a male agent. The fact of Mary’s virginity – her perpetual virginity – did not have solely theological consequences; it had major sociological repercussions.

What do I mean? In the Greco-Roman world, women were treated like chattel. Among the Jews of old, women fared somewhat better, however, the discrepancies were apparent in divorce legislation, so that a man could dismiss his wife for the most frivolous of reasons – the equivalent of burning his toast once too often – with the woman reduced to penury. To be sure, there was a sexual double standard: a woman “caught in adultery” would be stoned to death – and the man? Oh well, boys will be boys.

In the Christian Dispensation, all of that is reversed; the process began with the veneration accorded the Blessed Virgin Mary. The respect rendered to Our Lady had what we might call a “trickle-down” effect. While women in the ancient world had value only because of the sons they could bear or the pleasure they could provide in bed, an appreciation for virginity gave women a dignity in and of themselves. That appreciation, in turn, raised the societal level of appreciation for all women.

Already in St. Paul, we find the seeds of this notion (see 1 Corinthians 7); by the time we get to the Middle Ages, Christian women are movers and shakers in the world of society, politics, religious life and the Church-at-large. Here we can think of Catherine of Siena and Hildegard of Bingen, followed by Teresa of Avila. In this country, by the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, if you were told that a woman was the president of a college or hospital, you could bet the bank on the fact that she was a Catholic nun. In the late-twentieth century, two of the most identifiable women in the world would have been Mother Teresa and Mother Angelica. I think it would be fair to say that consecrated virginity steels one for mission and even serves as remote preparation for possible martyrdom.

Interestingly, the connection between virginity and holiness existed even among the pagan Romans. The college of Vestal Virgins (numbering between four and seven, depending on historical sources) is testimony to the basic instinct to make such a connection. Now, to be clear, embarking upon the virginal state does not grant one automatic access to sanctity; it didn’t do so in Ancient Rome and it doesn’t do so today. However, in a highly sexualized culture like that of Rome, chastity was esteemed, probably because it was in such little evidence among the hoi polloi. That esteem made those women guardians of the sacred fire which, in the popular judgment, safeguarded the life and future of the Roman people. Their chastity and their watchfulness of the sacred fire were inextricably linked: Violations of chastity and allowing the fire to be extinguished were both subject to the penalty of live burial.

There are many unthinking persons in the Church today who argue that chastity or celibacy are no longer understood or appreciated in a society that is supersaturated with sexuality. I maintain the exact opposite. Precisely because the society is so afflicted, the witness of consecrated chastity is all the more valuable and valued. Our priests and religious are charged with guarding the sacred fire of the love of Christ, which is the impetus for pastoral zeal and evangelization. History also teaches us that when esteem for chastity/virginity is cast aside, the loss of the dignity of women is not far behind.

Adherence to chastity gives one a power, whether male or female. In fact, one can say it confers a virtus – a “manly” power within the one who possesses it, whether male or female. That is why the Introit or Entrance Antiphon for the Mass of a Virgin-Martyr in the Missale Romanum of 2002 gives us this text:

Ecce iam séquitur Agnum pro nobis crucifíxum: strénua virgo, pudóris hóstia, víctima castitátis.

Behold, now she follows the Lamb who was crucified for us, powerful in virginity, modesty her offering, a sacrifice on the altar of chastity.

In the very decadent society we inhabit, all too like that of Rome before the fall, we ask Almighty God to strengthen the resolve and witness of all who follow the Lamb in His own virginity and martyrdom. May He also give us the holy assurance that the lives of such consecrated persons will be able to raise up a new civilization of life and love, just as it did centuries ago from the dung heap and ashes of Old Rome, blossoming into an Age of Faith like that of the High Middle Ages – producing inestimable flowers of literature, art, music and architecture – and countless saints.

St. Agatha, holy woman, virgin and martyr, pray for us.

(Note: This following homily preached on the liturgical memorial of St Agatha, within the Week of Septuagesima, February 5, 2021, at the Church of the Holy Innocents, New York City, and was first posted at CWR on February 4, 2021.)


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About Peter M.J. Stravinskas 260 Articles
Reverend Peter M.J. Stravinskas founded The Catholic Answer in 1987 and The Catholic Response in 2004, as well as the Priestly Society of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, a clerical association of the faithful, committed to Catholic education, liturgical renewal and the new evangelization. Father Stravinskas is also the President of the Catholic Education Foundation, an organization, which serves as a resource for heightening the Catholic identity of Catholic schools.

21 Comments

  1. This was a very enjoyable and inspiring article. However, we still find in it the typical Stravinskas “condescension” that taints it, to a certain extent, sort of like finding a hair in your sandwich or salad. In this case, two hairs: “There are many unthinking persons in the Church today who argue that…” and at the beginning: “unfortunately, he [Paul VI] didn’t always show that kind of “expertise.”

    Since Fr. Stravinskas favors assigning penances by others, allow me: For the next ten articles you write, drain them of any hint of condescension, sarcasm, bitterness, “us and them”, belittling, anger, irritation, and impatience.

      • Believe me, I look for peace, for charity, for unity, for harmony, for really good and inspiring theology, sort of like looking for really good wine. But it is hard to ignore the few dead fruit flies floating in an otherwise great bottle of wine. I guess I could just ignore them and drink, but the wine would be so much better without them.

  2. Editor please note the caption introducing Fr Stravinskas’ article on Saint Agatha mistakenly cites Saint Agnes.

  3. I find myself unconvinced of the need for a pre-Lent. A few reasons …

    1. We already have a pre-Lent, the four days prior to the First Sunday are counted as Ash Wednesday and days “after” that observance. That so many Catholics continue to come to liturgy on that Wednesday suggests that churchgoers are not surprised by a pre-season.

    1a. Let’s get the counting of Lent right: First Sunday to sunset on Holy Thursday. We don’t need to resort to drinking, smoking, or eating chocolates just because it’s Sunday. Washing our faces and combing our hair on Sundays should be enough.

    2. The Sunday Gospel readings prior to Lent focus on the theophany, and the early public ministry of the Lord. Catholics do call and discipleship so poorly these days. Regular churchgoers need a better formation on Baptism and what that means for adult women and men. Without that anchor in the Lord’s call to every believer, Lent can too easily descend into an annual diet.

    My wife once experienced a pre-Lent mission at her parish in which the preacher challenged the people not to give up anything for Lent they wouldn’t be willing to give up for life. A bit extreme, I remarked. But as I thought about it, the notion may be theoretically sound. Our successive Lents, year to year, should be a progressive experience deeper into the spiritual and devotional life. Our problem isn’t one of quantity, 70 days. Catholics need a higher quality of Lent, and that period of reflecting on and renewing the call to discipleship can help us focus better on the Christian life. If only more preachers devoted themselves to this natural progression from Nativity to Theophany to Discipleship to 40 Days. When you look deeply, the modern Roman Rite pretty much preaches itself from Advent to Pentecost.

  4. Once again Father Stravinskas contributes a teaching which provokes deep reflection and is practically informative, so it is much appreciated. The ancient martyrs have taken on increasing importance to me over the last nine years as the Church sinks into a pathological disorientation, so far removed from depth devotion to Jesus Christ and increasing devotion to the emperor, the gods and their hideous priorities. Linus, Cletus, Clement, Sixtus, Cornelius, Cyprian, Lawrence, Chrysogonus, John and Paul, Cosmas and Damian — John the Baptist, Stephen, Matthias, Barnabas, Ignatius, Alexander, Marcellinus, Peter, Felicity, Perpetua, Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, Cecilia, Anastasia. Fear of the most alarming tortures overcome by faithful men and women — even by little girls.
    When the Son of Man returns will He find any faith on the earth?

  5. Agatha indeed Gk for good. Sicily predominantly Greek and Christian when dominated by idolatrous Rome persecuted for the faith. Saint Methodius of Sicily speaks of her many miraculous intercessions.
    James existential deepening of the witness to the fiery faith of the ancient martyrs within a Church mitigating moral responsibility seen in Amoris Laetitia, a Church reduced to open ended discussion groups hierarchy demoted to facilitating within the Synod on synodality. And with that dampening of the fire of martyrdom witness ignited among us by Christ.
    Witness of the martyr saints to true practice of the revelation of Christ to the truth signed in blood poured out willingly out of love. All the saints who died for the faith believed death spoke far more sincerely to their faith that appeal to mitigating circumstances, personal conscience, the reevaluation of sexual disorder, its integration within the Church as amenable to conscience, even argued as scientifically natural as if within the spectrum of natural law as ordained by God.
    Love begs to differ. Divine love that is, that flame gifted us by the Holy Spirit. It’s an interior love that doesn’t condemn the disordered, rather inspires wisdom, teaches honestly that it is a disorder. If there’s righteous ire, it’s directed toward the purveyors. It’s a love for Jesus Christ, king of martyrs, who loved us unto death, to save us, and to testify for all time that there’s no compromise of that witness to himself, and to the world as the revelation of love itself.

    • It seems to me that the following describes the mind and works (writings) of Father Benedict XVI — Ratzinger’s thought and expression in practice, born of humility:

      ” Divine love that is, that flame gifted us by the Holy Spirit. It’s an interior love that doesn’t condemn the disordered, rather inspires wisdom, teaches honestly that it is a disorder. If there’s righteous ire, it’s directed toward the purveyors. It’s a love for Jesus Christ, king of martyrs, who loved us unto death, to save us, and to testify for all time that there’s no compromise of that witness to himself, and to the world as the revelation of love itself.”

  6. How are girls meant to learn this concept? I now know ancient Greece and Rome called all unmarried women of marriageable age virgins and excpected them to be literally virgins in the sense we use that term today. This was for being a bride. Today, no young women are called virgins. Fathers don’t call their daughters virgins, schools don’t call the girls virgins, and parishes don’t call the young women of the parish virgins. The only person who was called a virgin when I was growing up was “The Blessed Virgin Mary”, and the term was not explained by any adults. A young child on a playground at public school told me it means “you never had sex” which horrified me that such a category existed, since we were little children–it was enduringly linked in my mind with child molestation. I never came to have an association between virginity and brides, virginity and chastity, or virginity and celibacy. I had no concept of virginity as a “thing” one “has” or could “give”, rather I thought if it as a label for Mary and as an alarming but virtually unused category. The fact that NO ONE USED THIS WORD IN ANY WAY except the name “the Blessed Virgin Mary” (actually i do remember the next time I encountered this word was on a video tape box that said “The Forty Year Old Virgin” and the movie appeared to be about a man who was being made fun of, thus reinforcing the inappropriateness of this category) led me to the firm view that it is not an appropriate way to categorize people. My family only went to Sunday Mass so I was never exposed to liturgies of other “virgins.” It wasn’t until I came back to the Church as an adult that I encountered a full array of Catholic uses and significances of the term “virgin”–and I was absolutely terrified and in grief, because it so clearly was important for chaste celibate women to be virgins and not being one implied loss of personal value or loss of fitness to be “bride” to Christ the Bridegroom, which was the spirituality that led me back to the Church. I was completely confused that chastity and virginity were terms used almost interchangeably because (I’ve been accused of lying but it’s true) grew up without adults referring to chastity or virginity and had no such ideals, but today, as an adult, I had embraced perfect chastity for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. I had been sexually harmed by a man but I was chaste now whereas I had not been when younger.

    Before my own reversion and embrace of perfect chastity in single heartedness for Christ I had never personally known anyone who had such a commitment. It’s so rare to make a positive choice for lifelong perfect chastity in our society, that I was very surprised that there’s generally no support or visibility in parish life for such a vocation–unless a woman is a virgin. Finding that out has been honestly devastating. I have wept so much for years and bowed my head in shame. Yet I had no idea before returning to the Church as an adult how Christians think about virginity, which is essentially in continuity with some of ancient Greek and Roman sensibilities that are not those of today’s secular society. At this stage all I can say is, it would make so much sense to teach children appropriately and to value all the chaste celibate parishioners without making humiliating distinctions that in actual fact are NOT what our relationship with God hinges on and are not relevant to the actual practice of chastity. I have noticed many times that many enthusiasts of virginity don’t understand that this theme can be discouraging or humiliating to some women or suggest that chastity is for people who grew up sequestered in an unusually traditional family or that other women have lost their value permanently, or that their virtue would never be valued. The latter is literally the point of view of St Jerome, who says that the chastity of women who aren’t virgins is never as valued. This is a male point of view, as a woman I don’t have the same feeling about women or about men. But it’s a grossly unhelpful view for pastors of souls to have in particular.

    By all means raise children to understand and live the virtues, but without prejudice against people who weren’t taught well. For goodness sake I have met quite a few adults who even more severely lack a vocabulary about sexual sin or chastity, and without words people generally don’t have the concept. I had the word “virgin” but an utterly insufficient idea of what it meant or was used. It’s really not a concept that would be obvious to a girl because it is based so much on male sexual psychology and a male view of women–and on cultures of the past that are so different than the secular modern culture that was all I knew.

    One time a priest essentially accused me of lying when I explained my extreme anxiety and shame about “virginity” that I didn’t grow up with any reference to this concept. He caused me a lot of pain!! Was I wrong–had I been taught but not realized it? So I asked my mother why she hadn’t told me about virginity. She was a little shocked and said she’d been taught not to talk to her kids about anything sexual. To her it was an erotic concept. My childhood feeling that talking about virginity isn’t appropriate was exactly how my mother felt. She definitely did not teach me about virginity.

    I value people for their chastity but I don’t believe in valuing celibates based on whether they are “virgins” any more than I value people more for being cradle Catholics rather than converts.

      • Did you not read that I live in perfect chastity? In fact I am a great champion of it and teach children to live morally. But I was not taught such ideals in my youth. Indeed I did not embrace chastity because of an abstract “ideal” but because I came to see it as the way to be single hearted and faithful to Christ as Spouse. One can aspire to be chaste and obtain it, but the logic of virginity is that if you are damaged you cannot obtain virginity again. That has been a nightmare of shame to find out that many Catholics think that way–at the time I returned to the Church I believed that the Church was oriented to reconciling and embracing repentant sinners and I never would have imagined people thought the way you do.

        • In one fragmented sentence you claim to know how I think!

          I merely maintain what Scripture and some Saints have maintained and have said and acted upon in regard to those virtues.

          Why such a chip on the shoulder? Where did you get such an idea about ‘virginity’…was there an Encyclical or exhortation I missed? Where did the Church ever teach that and why were you so influenced by lay people and not by the Catechism of the Catholic Church???

          Have you left something out about yourself?

          Do you really believe that ‘shame’ has no value in and of itself…ever?!? Because some people of various cultures and ideologies misuse it in the extremes so therefore it must be an intrinsically evil idea?

    • Elizabeth, you have spoken from your experience and from your heart. Thank you for your honesty and for revealing an aspect to ‘virginity’ that might not have been considered in this way before. There is a program, by the way, that you and your mother might have found very helpful: Family Honor. It teaches the values of love, chastity and the beautiful, sacred gift from God of fertility. You might want to look into it even now.

      • Do you think it makes sense to apply to adults retroactively that their honor and duty to their family requires virginity–even though that was not their family’s perspective? As a great deal of anthropological and sociological research has shown, honor and shame are two sides of the same coin in honor cultures like the traditional Mediterranean culture. Honor cultures are shame cultures. A positive shame is meant to restrain females from unchastity in such cultures, and a very strong negative shame is incurred on them and the male (father or husband) if they are unchaste. Conversely, western european cultures are said by these academics to be “guilt cultures”–guilt can be forgiven, which isn’t how virginity works, it’s a permanent loss and shame. So I do think people are confused if they think that hinging honor on virginity is a good pastoral approach to converts or reverts who learn the Catholic Faith as an adult. Rather, I think Catholics should be doing much more to teach children rightly, and in adults what should be valued is commitment to the virtues–NOT defining people as degraded based on the sins of their youth, or honorable based on lack thereof.

  7. Elizabeth. I am so sorry to hear that you had been sexually harmed by a man in the past.It is no wonder that this topic appears to be a painful one for you.I did not grow up in an era when this topic was discussed at home. I did attend Catholic schools in which the topic of sexuality and virginity was talked “around” in broad terms. We were told both girls and boys should be well behaved when dating. Fair or not it was suggested it was up to the girls to establish a line beyond which “dating” behavior would not go. Much of this went over my head as a younger girl, but as time went on I began to understand. And of course, in a Catholic school, yes there was talk of women “virgins” who often ended up martyrs and saints. I was not certain virginity was a requirement to become a nun but in my own mind I suspected it would be considered desirable for them.Their virginity was a “gift” to Jesus as I understood it .As a voracious reader I soon began to understand what the talk as about. My own father explained the basics of sexual function to me, my own mother being uncomfortable with the topic.He explained that done well and with love with a husband who would protect me, it was a beautiful thing. That untimely unmarried pregnancies often led to many life long problems and hard decisions, and was not a sound way to start adult life. That talk likely solidified my decision not to engage in sex until I was married. I grew up at the height of the sexual revolution in the 60’s and 70’s so this was no flip decision. I met my husband as a teen, a wonderful man. He was accepting of my boundary,never pressured me, and through the several years we dated we did not become physically intimate until our wedding night. My soul mate until his death.

    Now let me say, that happened to be my own story. Certainly in my era it was an uncommon choice, with “free love” being the battle cry. Many young people engaged in sex because the culture pushed this heavily. Such an attitude has done our culture immense damage. Everyone has their own unique story. You grew up with what you knew, and seemingly had an unfortunate introduction to sexuality which has done you injury. THIS IS NOT YOUR FAULT. You were a victim in that and cannot be held accountable for what you did not know.You seem to be faulting yourself for some choices you have made afterwards, and that is producing guilt. I have frankly never heard anyone at my church talking about virginity, and certainly not judging those who are not virgins. You had a change of heart about life, and a spiritual draw to come back to Jesus and the church. That is wonderful and something to be celebrated. One of my favorite parables is that of the prodigal son. And the story of the Shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep to search for the one lost sheep. Jesus loves us no matter our condition .He wants us to come to him, no matter how, and he calls us with love. We need not be perfect in any way.We need not be afraid or feel second rate. Only try to do our best to follow him. Our real life with Him starts from the day we ask for his forgiveness for our failings and start fresh. At that point he puts our faults “as far as the East is from the West”, and never looks at them again. Love God, love your neighbor. Any of the virtues are commendable, including chastity. At this point in your life as a Christian , virginity is just a footnote to who you are..Jesus would tell you that you are much more than that. What matters is your relationship with him. The opinion of others does not matter. I wish you well in your walk with Him.

  8. In all justice we have to praise God for virginity and uphold the honor and dignity merited by virgins.

    Coming out of a bad past we have to depend entirely on God for what He wants to make of us -and this too, is what justice requires.

    It would be unjust to make unjust comparisons; and false -vain- to suffer in delays mulling over possibilities for excuses and explanations.

    If there is pain, God has that too. The pain is His. If you make the pain your idol what good is that.

    Sure the culture may be against virtue but all have to face these challenges on their own terms! in the grace of God.

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