Saint Agatha’s Breasts

Father Leonard Feeney once remarked that certain Puritan sectaries refuse to pray the Hail Mary because the Catholic prayer has a bad word in it: womb. On the other hand, many of the Church’s most vociferous critics consider her to be obsessively strict — even fanatically so — on sexual matters.

Puritanical (or Jansenistic) extremists on the one side, and libertines on the other, have both opposed Church teaching from their respective erroneous positions for millennia.

All this is background for a few comments on today’s feast, that of the virgin-martyr Saint Agatha. Here is what we said of her in our Saints to Remember:

Saint Agatha (251): She is the beautiful little virgin martyr of Catania, in Sicily, who was killed for the Catholic Faith.  Her name is mentioned in the Roman Canon of the Mass.  She is also one of the seven girls named in the Litany of the Saints.

Saint Agatha died for her virginity. She was not unique in this. Having espoused herself to Christ by a vow of virginity, she refused to marry. For this, the judge Quintian, who wanted to marry her himself, declared her a Christian. Owing to the persecution of Decius (249-251) then raging, this public accusation meant apostasy or martyrdom. When the virgin would not be overcome by threats and torture, she was given, and chose, the grace of martyrdom.

One detail of her martyrdom was the cutting off of her breasts (or one breast, depending on the account). This was not unique. It was done to other martyrs. Saint Peter visited her in prison and healed these wounds. But she was again tortured and this time died of it. Her cure by the Apostle is commemorated by the Church in the Communion prayer of the Mass: “I invoke Him, the living God, Who deigned to cure me of every wound, and to restore my breast to my body.”

It is further commemorated, in detail that might shock a Puritan, in the antiphons for Lauds in the Divine Office:

Ant. 1. Who art thou * who comest to heal my wounds? I am an Apostle of Christ have no fear of me, my daughter.

Ant. 2.  I have used no earthly medicine * for my body, but I have for a Master Christ Jesus, by Whose Word alone all things were made.

Ant. 3. O my Lord Jesus Christ, I thank thee, * because Thou hast been mindful of me, and hast sent unto me thine Apostle, to heal my wounds.

Ant. 4.  I bless thee, O Father of my Lord Jesus Christ, because by thine Apostle Thou hast put new paps on my breasts.

Ant. 5. Upon Him Who hath vouchsafed * to heal me of all my wounds, and to put new paps on my breasts, upon Him will I call, even upon the Living God.

Giovanni Lanfranco (1582–1647) , St. Peter Healing St. Agatha

Giovanni Lanfranco (1582–1647), Saint Peter Healing Saint Agatha

Two questions come to mind: Why did the persecutors do this to Saint Agatha? And why does the Church make such special mention of it in her liturgy?

I will offer my opinions. To the first, it was hatred for the Faith and its unique manifestation in the saint’s virginal purity that led Quintian to assault the martyr’s femininity so sadistically. Since Agatha was merely an object of carnal desire to Quintian, who likely considered that women were made for that purpose alone, he sought mockingly and cruelly to strip her of her womanhood by despoiling her of the physical features of her femininity. Demons probably encouraged this by manipulating his sense memory and imagination, as they can.

To the second question: The Church, which does not separate femininity from virginity, wants us to see Saint Agatha made whole by Saint Peter, for the virgin martyr was whole, spiritually so, even when she was wounded. Far from marring her womanhood by virginal consecration, she has perfected it by joining it to Jesus Christ — the only perfect Bridegroom (sorry gentlemen).

To the world, this is folly and madness. Well, the world is crazy, in case the reader has not noticed. (We hope that those in the world enter the hospital of the Church, to be healed of their condition. That’s what the Church is — Eastern theology especially maintains this.)

A responsory in the office of Matins confirms for us that Saint Agatha’s perfect feminine integrity is not compromised by virginity:

R. While the blessed Agatha was being grievously tortured in the breasts, she said to the judge:
* Thou foul, cruel, and bloody tyrant, art thou not ashamed to do this to me, having thyself sucked at a mother’s breast?
V. I have breasts within, which have been the Lord’s from my childhood, and them thou canst not mangle.

To paraphrase: Cut me without, but I am a woman inside still, a woman wholly dedicated to Jesus Christ.

The Gospel for her feast is the passage from Matthew 19 wherein Our Lord so thoroughly challenges his auditor’s ideas concerning marriage and virginity that the disciples themselves remark, “If the case of a man with his wife be so, it is not expedient to marry.” To this, Jesus responds mysteriously, “All men take not this word, but they to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs, who were born so from their mother’s womb: and there are eunuchs, who were made so by men: and there are eunuchs, who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven. He that can take, let him take it.”

This teaching, which so few men can take, is part of the dogmatic teaching of Christ’s Spouse, who infallibly defined that, “If anyone sayeth, that the marriage state is to be placed above the state of virginity, or of celibacy, and that it is not better and more blessed to remain in virginity, or in celibacy, than to be united in matrimony; let him be anathema.” (The Council of Trent on Matrimony, Canon X)

What was said of the mystery of the Eucharist — This saying is hard, and who can hear it? (John 6:61) — is also true of the Catholic doctrine on marriage and virginity, for not all men can take it.

But Saint Agatha, virgin and martyr, took it.