I was first introduced to St. Agatha when, as a young girl, I happened upon a painting of her in my parents’ art history book. The painting was a portrait of St. Agatha, a lovely young woman, dressed in what looked like very fine clothing. In her hands she held a silver platter, and on the platter were her severed breasts. From the page, St. Agatha’s eyes gazed back at me, conveying peace and serenity even as she held the platter of her body parts.
As you can imagine, this made quite an impression upon me. I mean, what on earth was going on here?
And yet I was a Catholic child, raised in a Catholic family, in which were told many Catholic tales of saints and the varied ways that they have been tortured and killed for the love of Christ through the years, and some of the odd ways in which those events are now commemorated. Severed breasts on a platter was weird, for sure, but it was not entirely outside of the realm of “normal.” I did, however, want to know more.
I learned that St. Agatha was a Sicilian and an early Christian martyr (231-251 AD). She was born into a wealthy, noble family and made a vow of virginity at the age of 15. Quintianus, the governor of her district in Rome, however, decided that he wanted to marry Agatha, and he was determined to force her to break her vow.
When she refused, he grew angry. He threatened to have her tortured and killed, but still Agatha clung to her vow and her faith in Jesus Christ, to whom she had promised her virginity. Quintianus had her imprisoned in a brothel where men tried to attack her, but her goodness won them over. Finally, enraged at her continued refusals, Quintianus ordered her torture and death. Records of her torture include the severing of her breasts with pincers as she continually prayed aloud and affirmed love for and trust in God.
We celebrate St. Agatha’s feast day on February 5. Festivals that celebrate St. Agatha at the beginning of February each year in Italy often include Minne di Sant’Agata, a breast-shaped Sicilian pastry. Just in case the painting wasn’t disturbing enough.
As a result of the details of her life story and martyrdom, St. Agatha is the patron saint of rape victims, breast cancer, wet nurses, and martyrs. The particular ways in which she was victimized — being sent to a brothel and then suffering the humiliation and pain of having her breasts severed — make her an especially good advocate for women who suffer sexual exploitation today.
It may be rare that women today are tortured for their faith in quite the same way as Saint Agatha was, but sexual abuse, trafficking, rape, assault, and exploitation are all too common themes in many women’s lives, even the very young, and even in an “enlightened” age like this one. It is a sad truth that too many women today hear stories of men who abuse their power to victimize women and respond with a heartbroken “me too.” As such, St. Agatha’s example and patronage is a gift to women everywhere who suffer pain and abuse in uniquely feminine ways.
And, with regard to martyrdom, we are not all destined to be tortured and killed for our faith, but we are all called to surrender to whatever pains God might allow us to suffer each day, even in small ways, as we seek to do his will. St. Elizabeth Seton was not a martyr for her faith, but she suffered significant sacrifice in personal friendships and her livelihood when she decided to convert to Catholicism. Like St. Agatha, pain and loss did not weaken her faith; it only strengthened it.
At the time of her conversion, when St. Elizabeth Seton suffered hostility from people who had once loved her and respected her family, she wrote, “I seek but God and his church, and expect to find my peace in them, not in the people.”
In St. Agatha’s example, and in St. Elizabeth’s words and example, I find both encouragement and a challenge. I don’t face Roman torturers this morning. I don’t face a dramatic loss of friendship or livelihood as a result of my faith. But I do face the choice between a warm, comfortable bed or getting up and making time for morning prayer. I do face the choice between complaining about my work and avoiding it, or simply and quietly doing the next right thing — send the email, make the phone call, file the invoices, load the dishwasher. Pretty small stuff.
There is no bloody martyrdom here, but there is a challenge. Inspired by the examples of stronger women who have gone before me and leaning on the grace of God, I pray that I will triumph.
DANIELLE BEAN is the brand manager for CatholicMom.com and former publisher and editor-in-chief of Catholic Digest. Danielle is author of several books for women including Momnipotent,You’re Worth It! and her newest book, You Are Enough. She is also creator and host of the Girlfriends podcast and a popular speaker on a variety of subjects related to Catholic family life, parenting, marriage, and the spirituality of motherhood. Learn more at DanielleBean.com.
Image: Saint Agatha (Zurbarán)