Thursday, February 5, 2015

A Homily for the Feast of St. Agatha

For today’s feast of St. Agatha, consecrated virgin and martyr, here is a lovely homily preached by Fr. Hugh Clifford to the students of the Pontifical Irish College in Rome (where Irish seminarians receive their priestly formation while studying at Rome’s Pontifical Universities).


You could say that, in a way, St Agatha is a former patroness of ours! The Irish College was at the Church of Sant’Agata dei Goti from 1836 to 1926 before it moved here, so our predecessors as the Irish College community no doubt turned often to the intercession of Saint Agatha. So maybe it would be a good thing for us to rekindle that devotion today on her feast.

She was held in great veneration in the Church of Rome, so much so that her name is among the Saints mentioned in Eucharistic Prayer I, the Roman Canon.

Agatha, like St. Agnes whom we celebrated in January, died rather than allow her virginity to be violated, because she had consecrated it to God. In choosing to accept death, and in choosing virginity in the first place, she was placing her trust in God that this world is not the full of reality. She was putting her faith in the heavenly Jerusalem. Today’s first reading from Hebrews puts this vision before our eyes, to be our motivation too, “what you have come to is Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem where the millions of angels have gathered for the festival, with the whole Church in which everyone is a ‘first born son’ and a citizen of heaven.” St. Stephen was someone else, also mentioned in Eucharist Prayer I, who accepted martyrdom and gazed into heaven seeing a vision of the glory of God before he died.

Agatha lived up to Jesus’ teaching on evangelization in today’s Gospel. Her influence didn’t arise from purses and haversacks and coppers. She sent strong waves through Christian history by her steadfast faith. The mighty Roman Empire had a deeply ingrained attitude to sexuality which certainly didn’t resemble the purity of heart demanded by Jesus. Yet, the witness of people like Agatha to higher values amazingly turned that around. The Christians succeeded in changing the sexual outlook of the Romans. It’s something we should keep in mind when we try to figure out the best pastoral approach to matters of marriage and the family today.

St. Agatha can help us in our own commitment to celibacy too, so that we can make it a pointer to the heavenly Jerusalem—forsaking marriage, something very good, in view of that festival with the millions of angels gathered. People’s view of that motivation for celibacy can be obscured by legalistic wrangling about whether celibacy should be compulsory or not. If we embrace celibacy in a spirit of love for God and his Church, so that this pure love flows out from us to the sheep of God’s flock, then our celibacy will be fruitful and it will make more sense to people.  

The above-mentioned Church of Sant’Agata dei Goti in Rome