The National Catholic Review
The readings chosen for the Memorial of Saint Agatha are poignant and thought-provoking. The first reading from Hebrews 12:18-19, 21-24 speaks eloquently, beautifully, of the approach to the Living One, God almighty, now made less fearful since the mediation of Christ. It also notes that in approaching Mount Zion, the "city of the living God," one is greeted by, with the angels and God, "the assembly of the firstborn enrolled in heaven...and the spirits of the just made perfect." It contrasts the covenant made on earth with that made in the heavenly places, but also underlines that our home is in heaven. Scholars disagree as to whether "the assembly of the firstborn enrolled in heaven" are angels, the whole assembly of the faithful or, perhaps, those who are receiving their reward even now, as is a Saint such as Agatha. I tend to the latter reading and see the martyrs, naturally, as amongst "the assembly of the firstborn." The second reading, Mark 6:7-13, speaks of Jesus’ sending out of the Twelve to heal, to exorcize and to preach repentance. It is the concrete beginning of the ministry of the Church. Jesus also speaks of those who reject the Gospel and he calls for a judgment against those who reject him. I see the martyrdom of Agatha as not only a sign of fidelity to the ministry of the Church, but a silent judgment on those who rejected her and her message of the Gospel and the means by which they rejected her message: sexual terror. Although we cannot be certain of many of the historical particulars of Agatha’s story, who was said to have been placed in a brothel as a means to terrorize and punish her, we know that many martyrs went to their deaths in imitation of the Lord as witnesses to the truth of the Gospel and in the hope of rising again. They have received their reward even now, as they await the resurrection of the body. We do know, however, that although many of the stories of the early saints and martyrs have many hagiographical elements, whose historicity is in doubt, the sufferings of these martyrs is not in question. Agatha was said to have been sexually terrorized and tortured in other ways also. Other accounts of early Christian saints refer to sexual abuse and torture as common methods for having Christian women denounce their faith. Herbert Musurillo, in the Acts of the Christian Martyrs. Volume II (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972), includes a number of stories that touch on the issue of the violation of girls and women. Such is the story of Irene, who was sent as punishment to a brothel, where the account says she was not touched sexually, but was soon, nevertheless, martyred. There is also the account of Potamiaena whose body was attacked and violated and then was threatened, prior to her martyrdom, to be handed over to the gladiators. Cyprian, as recounted in the Acts of St. Cyprian, was said to have been particularly concerned that the young girls be guarded from any assaults. This is to say that whether we can be certain about the historical particulars of Agatha’s case, we know that early Christian women were attacked sexually as a means to terrorize and demoralize them. Unfortunately, many women today, Christians and others, are still attacked and sexually violated as a means to terrorize and brutalize them. This can be organized, as it often is in times of war or civil unrest, or random, but such terror strikes at our very humanity and shatters the lives of innocent girls and women. At a time when we hear of the sexual slavery of many women and girls, lured from their homes with promises of jobs, only to find their bodies sold, let us pray for their delivery from violence and their healing. The stories of saints such as Agatha might be difficult to puzzle out historically, but when stories such as hers are replayed over and over again in the world hundreds of years later, at a time that is supposedly more civilized, let us not doubt her intercession on behalf of those girls and women who have been sexually assaulted and abused. And in any way possible, let us act to make certain that sexual violence has no place in our homes or our cities. We will continue to be witnesses to the Gospel of Jesus Christ as we continue to speak out against sexual violence wherever and whenever it occurs. John W. Martens