Seven women are called our saintly companions in the First Eucharistic Prayer, the ancient Roman Canon: Felicity, Perpetua, Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, Cecilia, Anastasia. I would like to remember Cecilia.
When I was a student in elementary school in Narragansett, Rhode Island, there was a wonderful collection of biographies for children in the library. They had orange covers and were about great Americans like Abraham Lincoln, Clara Barton, Abigail Adams, PT Barnum, General Grant, Thomas Edison and Harriet Tubman. I loved those great men and women who struggled to make their dreams come true. They inspired me and became my friends and teachers; I wanted to be like them.
When I was ten years old, I was given an old biography of St. Therese of Lisieux that I read several times and then concluded that probably I would not have liked her. Later, I had a similar feeling reading other saints’ lives. I couldn’t relate to them.
The Role of Women Saints
Lately, though, I’m rediscovering the saints and their role in the church, and I’m finding their stories are more compelling than I would ever guess. Women saints especially interest me.
Certainly, our times show a declining interest in the saints. It is a loss, I believe, and women especially lose something “when the saints go marching out.” The reason they do is that Mary and other women saints present the feminine face of the church and enable women to connect to the Church as women. They have an important role in the communion of saints, which, because of them, is one of the most inclusive groupings or categories in the Church. It is open to everybody. No one is a disqualified, not even women.
And so we must keep telling the stories of women saints.
Cecilia, An Early Martyr
One early woman saint whom I find particularly fascinating is St. Cecilia, a Roman martyr of the 3rd century. The Church of St. Cecilia in Trastevere in Rome is built over the palace and church-house that belonged to Cecilia and her husband, Valerian, and were bequeathed to the Church at her martyrdom. Cecilia’s life is particularly relevant today when so many value themselves and others by material wealth and social position.
Cecilia was a young Christian patrician. She was married to a pagan called Valerian, also a member of the upper class and very wealthy. He was probably looking forward to a brilliant career in government culminating perhaps in a seat in the Roman Senate. They were the Roman equivalent of a “yuppie couple,” liked and admired for their youth, beauty, wealth and social position. What happened to them must have baffled many people in Rome.
Giving Their Possessions Away
The frescoes in the church in Trastevere tell their story. Cecilia converted her husband to the Christian faith. Both Valerian and his brother, Tiburtius, were baptized, and all three of them began to practice their Christianity very openly. Their palace became the gathering place, a house church, for a Christian community in Trastevere. Then, Cecilia and Valerian began giving their possessions away to the poor.
Peter Brown writes in The Body and Society that the early Christians were deeply concerned about how the frail, mortal body might become a reliable container for the Spirit of God, even in the face of torture and death. The frescoes in the Church of S. Cecilia and other Roman churches honoring martyrs show them giving their possessions away, suggesting that this was one way people prepared for possible martyrdom. It makes sense. If you can’t let go of your things, how will you let go of your life?
I think that Cecilia and Valerian learned something about themselves as they divested. They found out that they hadn’t lost themselves. Their possessions did not define them. They were still Cecilia and Valerian.
Cecilia and Valerian’s public witness of their Christianity had its inevitable consequences. Valerian and his brother were arrested. They refused to sacrifice to the gods and were executed. Cecilia
defied Roman law to bury them. Losing her husband was another step in her journey toward self-definition. She found that she was still a whole person. Her husband did not define her. She was still Cecilia.
The last fresco in the Church of S. Cecilia depicts the martyrdom of Cecilia herself. Her martyrdom was itself a testimony to the person that Cecilia had become and what she must have continued to do even after her husband’s death. How she was martyred suggests that the populace held her in high regard.
The Romans were fairly tolerant toward other religions as long as they didn’t threaten public order. They weren’t interested in people’s private religious practices. Christians ran afoul of Roman law because they refused to participate in the public worship of the emperor by sacrificing (burning incense) in his honor. The Romans saw this as disloyalty to the state. Ordinarily, only men were required to perform this ritual. Women had no public role in Roman society and so everything they did was considered a private act. Women would be held publicly accountable for their behavior only if they stepped out of the private world of home and family and acted in the public sphere.
Agnes, another early Roman martyr, was not executed for being a Christian. She was executed for violating the laws that required Roman citizens to marry. Cecilia must have made a menace of herself in the eyes of the Romans by continuing to practice her Christian faith publicly. The Christian community continued to meet in her home. She continued to provide for the poor of Trastevere, earning their love and respect and threatening the hold of the Roman State, that source of bread and circuses, on their loyalty. She was such a menace that the Roman prefect sent a detachment of soldiers across the Tiber River and through the narrow, winding streets of Trastevere to arrest her in her house. When she refused to sacrifice to the gods she was sentenced to be suffocated in her own bathroom.
Wealthy Romans often had private baths in homes with a calidarium, a tepidarium and a frigidarium. Cecilia was locked in the calidarium or steam room for three days, but survived. She was then beheaded right in her own home. Her private execution avoided public demonstrations in her favor.
Cecilia was buried in the catacombs of S. Callistus. Around 820 her remains were removed from the catacombs by Pope Paschal I and re-interred in her Church in Trastevere. The church was rebuilt in 1599, at which time the tomb of Cecilia was opened and her body was found incorrupt. The body lay in state in the church and many Romans viewed it, however it disintegrated fairly quickly through contact with the air. The sculptor Maderna was commissioned to make a life-size marble statue of the body ‘lying on the right side, as a maiden in her bed, her knees drawn together and seeming to be asleep.’ The hands depict Cecilia’s declaration of faith. The forefinger of the left hand is extended to signify her belief in one God. Three fingers of the other hand are extended for the Trinity. Today this statue rests under the main altar of the church. A replica is found in Cecilia’s original resting-place in the catacombs.
Cecilia’s example is challenging, even today. Her story makes us look at ourselves and ask: what we could lose and still be whole? Cecilia found herself not in her possessions or her social position or even in her husband, but in Christ. And no one could take Christ away from her.
Cecilia has been a member of the communion of saints for a long time, but she is still worth getting to know. The communion of saints is a Christian symbol that speaks of profound relationship. Real community is a “community of memory,” one that does not forget its past. The memory and hope of the Christian community of faith are grounded on the foundational narrative of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Interwoven with this story are the stories of countless other women and men who have responded in vastly different ways to the Spirit’s call of discipleship. Losing a sense of connection with these lives, lives like Cecilia’s, weakens the Church’s ability to pass on Gospel values and to empower its members to wholeness in Christ. It means that our daughters, and grand daughters and nieces are denied a relationship with women who could teach them how to be strong, how to center themselves in Christ.
– Sister Mary Ann Strain, C.P.