March is Women’s History Month, which inevitably leads (me at least) to seven holy women: Felicity, Perpetua, Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, Cecilia, and Anastasia. Their names, lives, stories and example deserve to be much better known and celebrated by Roman Catholics.
Fortunately for us, their names and memory are embedded in ancient and venerable Eucharistic Prayer I, (also known as the Roman Canon). Until the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council added three others, the Roman Canon was the sole Eucharistic Prayer of the Roman Church.
These seven women are mentioned in the second of two groupings of intercessory prayers. The first, before the institution narrative, is for the Church, the Pope, the local Bishop, certain members of the living and for all who are assembled. Then follow a list of saints particularly venerated by the Church of Rome, beginning with the Blessed Virgin Mary, asking that through their merits and prayers, all gathered may be defended by God’s protecting help.
The second intercession is for the dead, followed by a petition asking God to give to all present “some share and fellowship” with the apostles and martyrs, followed by a list of saints (including seven women martyrs), and concluding by asking that God “admit us, we beseech you, into their company.”
Felicity and Perpetua
Feast Day March 7th
Perpetua, a free woman with a young son, and Felicity, a pregnant slave girl, with three other companions were arrested and condemned to death because they were Christians. They were sentenced to be killed by wild animals in the arena in the North African city of Carthage in 203 AD. The account of the martyrdom has survived. To try to intimidate her, Perpetua’s child was taken away from her while she was in prison. Felicity, after a difficult labor and mistreatment by her jailers, gave birth to a girl while in prison (which was adopted by a fellow Christian.)
In the arena, before being killed, they exchanged the kiss of peace, so that, as the account of their martyrdom states, “their martyrdom might be perfected with the rite of peace.”
[To read the full account of their martyrdom, see: Thomas J. Heffernan, The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity. Oxford University Press, 2012.]
Feast Day: February 5th
Agatha was a virgin martyr from the Sicilian town of Catania who was martyred in a third century persecution of Christians in that city. Little else about her is reliably known.
Traditionally she was a young woman from a noble family who rejected the repeated marriage proposals of a magistrate of consular rank because she was already espoused to Christ as a virgin. He attempted to intimidate her by charging her with being a Christian (a capital offense). When she proved resolute in her faith, he had her consigned to the public brothel in an unsuccessful attempt to break her will. She was then tortured, including having her breasts cut off. Because of her mistreatment she died in prison. She is the patron saint of women with breast cancer.
Lucy was martyred in Syracuse in Sicily, during the persecution of Diocletian in the early fourth century. Little else about her is reliably known.
Tradition has it that she brought bread to the persecuted Christians of Syracuse who had taken refuge in the caves outside of the city, wearing on her head a wreath of candles to find her way in the dark. She was reportedly miraculously protected when confined in the public brothel in an attempt to violate her virginity. She was put to death with a sword thrust to the throat.
Probably because her name Lucia is suggestive of light, she is the patroness of those with ailments of the eyes and sometimes her images show her holding two eyes in a dish.
Agnes was martyred in Rome in 304 AD and buried at the cemetery on the Via Nomentana soon afterwards. A young girl of twelve or thirteen, she refused to consider marriage and had consecrated herself to God. When the persecution broke out she offered herself for martyrdom and resisting all threats and attempts to intimidate her, was put to death with a sword stab to the throat. ‘Agnus’ in Latin means ‘lamb’ and on her feast day each year two lambs whose wool will be used to weave the pallium are solemnly blessed in Rome. (The pallium is a woolen woven band with crosses conferred on metropolitan bishops (archbishops) that signifies their bond of unity with the Bishop of Rome.
She is the patron saint of young girls, virgins and the survivors of sexual abuse and assault.
Cecilia was a young woman from a patrician family martyred in Rome in the second or third century and buried in the cemetery of St. Callistus. Beyond that, very little is reliably known about her.
Tradition has it that despite her desire to live out her life as a virgin she was married by her family to a young pagan man from a noble family. While listening to the musicians playing she ‘sang in her heart to the Lord’ and renewed her vow. Her husband agreed to honor her consecration and through her influence he and his brother were baptized. All three were martyred. Cecilia was mortally wounded by the sword but survived for three days during which she preached the faith and gave away her possessions to the poor. The church of Santa Cecilia is in the Trastevere neighborhood of Rome. She is the patron saint of musicians.
Very little for certain is known about Anastasia (from the Greek word for “resurrection”, except that she was from Rome and was martyred in Sirmium (in present day Serbia) in 304 during the persecution of Diocletion. She was reputedly a healer and an exorcist and is often represented holding a jar of anointing oil. The basilica named after her, at the foot of the Palatine hill, is one of the titular churches of the city (assigned to a cardinal). Prior to the Second Vatican Council, the Mass commemorating St. Anastasia was the second of the three Masses celebrated at Christmas.
Eastern Christians invoke her intercession for deliverance from poisons and other harmful substances.