Patronal Feast of Saint Agatha
Solemn Mass for Taking Possession of the Titular Church
Church of Saint Agatha of the Goths
February 5, 2011
2 Cor 10:17-11:2
Ps 123:11-12. 14-15, 16-17
Praised be Jesus Christ!
On February 5th in the year 251, Saint Agatha, a young Christian virgin of Catania, gave her life in faithful and enduring love of her Divine Spouse, Our Lord Jesus Christ. Called into trial by the Roman Emperor Decius because of her profession of the Catholic faith, she, together with many young Christians of Sicily, resisted the pressure to apostasy. She gave the supreme witness, suffering a cruel passion and death, which are depicted in the paintings between the windows and the ceiling of this most beautiful church dedicated to her honor. Agatha, whose name in Greek signifies participation in the infinite goodness of God, resisted, by her virtue and constant prayer, the gravely immoral life of the woman to whom she was given over by the officials of the Roman government, who made her appear before the judge. The judge accused her of leading a life of slavery, notwithstanding her origin in a free and noble family. To this accusation, she replied: “I am a servant of Christ and, therefore, of a servile condition…. The highest nobility consists in being slaves of Christ.” The judge then condemned her, subjecting her to the cruelest tortures, including the amputation of her breasts. Resisting the abandonment of the Christian faith, right up to the end, Saint Agatha, after the final torture, thanked our Lord for having saved her body and died in the fame of heroic sanctity. After her death and until today, the Lord has granted so many favors to His flock through the intercession of Saint Agatha.
In accord with the words of the Song of Songs, the Lord set Saint Agatha “as a seal on [His most Sacred] heart,” and thus the union of their hearts in pure and selfless love proved itself to be “strong as death”; the “[m]any waters” were not able to quench it and “floods” did not drown it. Notwithstanding her young age, she was courageous before those who were able to violate and destroy her body, fearing only those who were able to violate and corrupt her soul. The Lord, for His part, as He promises us in the Gospel, faithfully acknowledged Agatha before the Eternal Father, asking every grace for her, also the most beautiful grace of giving her life in martyrdom for the faith. In the face of the cruelest sufferings, she was a sign of the Church herself, the mystical spouse of Christ, whom the Apostle has betrothed “to Christ to present [her] as a pure bride to her one husband.”
In the life of Saint Agatha, we see the fulfillment of the promise of unceasing and immeasurable love of the Lord for every person, without boundary or limit, that divine love in which we partake in the fullest and most perfect manner by means of the Eucharistic Sacrifice which we are now offering with the Lord. “[I]n the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth,” we truly find “[o]ur help.” It is in the union of our hearts with the glorious pierced Heart of Jesus that we find the true freedom which leads us to eternal life. The Lord called Saint Agatha to espousal, to offer to Him her virginity, her entire being. Saint Agatha responded with all her heart, placing her heart fully into the Sacred Heart of Jesus. In the Heart of Jesus, her love was purified and strengthened, so that her witness of virginal love reached its crowning in the ultimate witness of martyrdom. The white of her love as a virgin was consummated in the courageous red of her love as a martyr for the faith.
The life and martyrdom of Saint Agatha, like the life of every consecrated virgin, teaches all of us the reality of the love of Christ in our life, a love which invites us to give our hearts to Him, to be one in heart with Him, loving our neighbor as He loves us, that is, with pure and selfless love, right up to the end. Saint Agatha, with her virginal consecration exalted in martyrdom, shows us the way on which the Lord invites us to give ourselves to Him and to His Mystical Body, the Church, and to all men, in accord with our vocation and our particular gifts. We implore Saint Agatha, on this day of her feast: pray for us, so that each of us may remain faithful in the response to our vocation, so that the Lord will find us always ready to give our hearts to Him.
Providentially, the veneration of the relics of the Holy Greek Martyrs in this church illustrates for us the beauty of our life in Christ. The Greek Martyrs were all members of the same family which had come to Rome from Greece. They are Adria and Paolina, the father and the mother; Mary, the 18-year old daughter; Neone, the eight-year old son; and Hippolytus, the brother of the mother. This family, which was known for the extraordinary generosity with which it gave all of its riches to the poor, showed that the true source of its charity was Christ Himself. When the family members were arrested because of being Christians, and were cruelly tortured, one after the other, to force them to apostasize, all of them offered their life rather than betray the union of their hearts with the Heart of Jesus. Let us also pray through their intercession, so that the grace of fidelity and generosity “to the end” in the love of Christ and the Church, His Mystical Body, be granted to us.
In a particular way, on this day of the taking possession of the title which the Holy Father has assigned to me as a Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church, as a “”Roman Priest” with his own church, I ask the intercession of Saint Agatha and of the Holy Greek Martyrs, so that I may be always able to fulfill, with complete fidelity and generosity, the office of assisting the Holy Father in his pastoral charity toward the universal Church, in the City and in the World. I pray, through the intercession of Saint Agatha and of the Holy Greek Martyrs, that I may be granted the grace of pure and selfless love for the Church, to which, first as a priest and now as a “Roman Priest,” I am united in a particular way, in a way analogous to the consecrated virgin. I ask your prayers, so that my love for Christ and for the Church may be further purified and strengthened, so that I may be, in accord with the words which the Vicar of Christ spoke to me at the imposition of the cardinalitial biretta, “ready to conduct myself with strength, even to the outpouring of my blood, for the increase of the Christian faith, for the peace and the harmony of the people of God, and for the freedom and the spread of the Holy Roman Church.”
One cannot overlook the eloquent witness of this very church to the love of Christ, unceasingly poured out for us in the Church. The first church was constructed in this place by barbarians, by the Goths, to be precise, who were adherents to the Arian heresy which denied the divinity of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Two years after the departure of the Arians from the church, Pope Gregory the Great, around the year 591, consecrated the church for true worship with a large participation of the faithful, bringing to the church, at that moment, the relics of Saint Sebastian and Saint Agatha. During and after the consecration, there were various extraordinary signs which showed that the Real Presence of Christ, the light of salvation which he alone brings to us, had finally arrived in this church. Saint Gregory the Great recounts the events in the Third Book of his Dialogues. Commenting on the various signs, Saint Gregory observes that the Lord had made evident to all that the unclean creature, represented by a pig which the people felt going about and exiting the church during the right of consecration, had definitively left the church and that the church had passed from darkness to the light, represented by the strong movements of the earth and the candles which could not be extinguished.
The story of the consecration of this church by Saint Gregory the Great brings to mind the pastoral charity of the Vicar of Christ toward the whole Church, a charity that he never fails to exercise, and for the exercise of which the Cardinal is called to be a very near and strong support. Today, also, confusion and error, sown by Satan in the world, abound, which threaten the life of the Church and of the individual members of the Church. We must pray that the holiness of the Church, the Body of Christ, may always resist Satan and his wiles.
There is another historical fact to recall in this moment, which has a particular importance for the life of the universal Church and for me personally, that is the Roman Pontiff’s entrustment of the Church and Convent of Saint Agatha of the Goths to the Pontifical Irish College, from 1836 to 1926, when they were confided to our dear Stigmatine Fathers who yet today have the care of the Church and maintain their generalate in the Convent. The Catholic faith reached me by way of my Irish ancestors who immigrated to America. Irish spirituality, strongly marked by the monastic life and by fidelity in persecution, nourished and continues to nourish me spiritually. Today, we recall all the Irish priests who received here their education, in the shadow of Peter, under the particular care of the Vicar of Christ, and, having completed their studies in Rome, returned as true shepherds of the flock in Ireland and in missionary countries like the United States. I wish to recall, in a special way, the priestly ordination of Blessed Columba Marmion in this church, on the 16th of June in 1881, some 130 years ago, who was at the time a seminarian of the Archdiocese of Dublin. I recall also Cardinal John D’Alton, Archbishop of Armagh, who had the title of this church from 1953 to 1965. The roundels between the capitals recall the great saints of every part of Ireland who inspired the seminarians and still inspire us today: Saints Patrick, Apostle of Ireland; Bridget, Dymphna, Malachy, Lawrence O’Toole, Albert of Cashel and Jarlath.
Celebrating my First Mass in this church assigned to me as Cardinal, as a “Roman priest,” I invoke the intercession of Saint Agatha, of the Holy Greek Martyr and of the Saints of Ireland, in order that I may be pure and selfless in my love for the Church, faithful and courageous in the defense and in the promotion of the Church under the guidance of the Successor of Saint Peter. I pray that, if I am not called to give my life in the martyrdom of blood for the faith, I may be intrepid and steadfast in response to the call to give my life, every day, in the daily martyrdom of fidelity to my vocation. I ask you who have come to participate in the Taking Possession to pray for me, so that I may be always ready to give my life, without reservation, to the service of the Church and especially of her Supreme Pastor.
May our Eucharistic celebration on this feast of Saint Agatha and on the occasion of the Taking of Possession of this church unite our hearts more perfectly to the glorious pierced Heart of Jesus, always open to receive us, especially in the Eucharistic Sacrifice. Lifting up our hearts, together with the Immaculate Heart of Mary, to the glorious Heart of Jesus, our hearts will be purified and strengthened to love God and our neighbor with pure and selfless love. Lifting up your hearts to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, I ask you to pray, in a special way, for me, asking that I may always find in the glorious pierced Heart the grace to be “ready to conduct myself with strength, even to the outpouring of my blood, for the increase of the Christian faith, for the peace and the harmony of the people of God, and for the freedom and the spread of the Holy Roman Church.” In the Heart of Jesus we all will find the grace without measure to live in Christ, giving our life to Him for our salvation and the salvation of the world.
Heart of Jesus, King and Center of All Hearts, have mercy on us.
Immaculate Heart of Mary, pray for us.
Saint Agatha, Virgin and Martyr, pray for us.
Holy Greek Martyrs, pray for us.
All Saints of Ireland, pray for us.
Raymond Leo Cardinal Burke
Archbishop Emeritus of Saint Louis
Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura