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November 4, 2017

Holy Martyrs Agricola and Vitalis of Bologna

Sts. Agricola and Vitalis of Bologna

Saint Ambrose of Milan informs us that Agricola was a man of Bologna, whose behavior in the world had engaged the affection of the idolaters amongst whom he lived. Vitalis, his slave, learned from him the Christian faith, and first received the crown; for the servant and the freeman are one and the same thing in Christ, nor is there any difference from their condition in their reward.

They were both seized, probably in the year 304 during the reign of Diocletian, and Vitalis first put to the torture. He ceased not to praise God so long as he had the use of his tongue; and seeing no part of his body left which was not covered with wounds and blood, he prayed Jesus Christ to receive his soul, and to bestow on him that crown which his angel had shown him. His prayer was no sooner ended than he delivered his soul to God.

Agricola’s execution was deferred out of a cruel compassion, that time and the sight of the sufferings of his faithful servant might daunt his resolution. But he was animated and encouraged by such an example. Whereupon the affection of the judges and people was converted into fury; and the martyr was hung on a cross, and his body pierced with so many huge nails that the number of his wounds surpassed that of his limbs.

The bodies of the martyrs were laid in the burial place of the Jews. Saint Ambrose came to Bologna in 393, and there discovered these relics. He took to himself some of the blood that was found in the bottom of the grave, and the cross and nails which were the instruments of Agricola’s martyrdom. Juliana, a devout widow of Florence, invited him to dedicate a church she had built in that city, and begged of him this treasure, which he was not able to refuse her, and the value of which he much extols to her three daughters, bidding them receive with respect these presents of salvation, which were laid under the altar.

On this occasion Saint Ambrose delivered an oration in praise of virginity, with special reference to the three virgin daughters of Juliana. His mention of the martyrs Agricola and Vitalis in the first part of the oration is the only source of information on their lives.

In 396 other relics were sent to Saint Victricus, Bishop of Rouen, and about the same date to Saint Paulinus of Nola and others. Their veneration had as its center the city of Bologna, where a basilica was built to hold the relics.

The Bolognese Church of San Vitale ed Agricola in Arena, part of the complex of seven churches known as Santo Stefano, is purported to have been built over the remains of a Roman amphitheatre where the martyrdom of Vitalis and Agricola took place in the fourth century. The crypt of the two martyrs dates back to the eleventh century.

Sarcophagus of St. Agricola in Bologna

Sarcophagus of St. Vitalis in Bologna

The Miracles of the Martyrs Agricola and Vitalis

By St. Gregory of Tours

(Glory of the Martyrs, ch. 43)

Agricola and Vitalis were crucified for the name of Christ at Bologna, a city in Italy. Because I have no extant history of their suffering, I have learned from an account of trustworthy men that their tombs were placed above ground. Since, as happens, many people either touched the tombs with their hands or kissed them with their lips, the custodian of the church was warned to keep impure people from the tombs. One audacious scoundrel lifted the lid from one tomb in order to steal something from the sacred ashes. After putting his head inside the tomb, he was crushed by the lid and barely freed by other people. He left in a state of confusion, for he did not deserve to acquire what he had presumptuously and rashly attempted. Later he approached the tombs of the saints with greater respect.

Another man collected the public taxes, but while he was traveling he carelessly lost a bag of money. As he approached the city [of Bologna], he realized that he had lost the public funds he was carrying. Then he knelt before the tombs of the saints and tearfully prayed that by means of their power he might recover what he had lost; otherwise he, his wife, and their children would be reduced to captivity for this loss. As he went outside into the courtyard, he met a man who had found the money lying next to the road. During careful questioning the man said that he had found this sack of money at precisely the hour when the tax collector had requested the assistance of the martyrs.

Namatius, bishop of Clermont, piously sought relics of these martyrs so that he might put them in the church that he was building. He sent one of his priests there [to Bologna]; the priest left with the favor of God and brought back what Namatius sought. As the priest was returning with his companions, they turned aside five miles from Clermont and took lodgings. They sent messengers to the bishop so that he might order them to prepare what they were to do. At daybreak the bishop instructed the citizens and with great piety hurried off with crosses and candles to meet the holy relics. When the priest suggested to him that he look at the blessed relics, if he so ordered, Namatius replied: 'For me it is greater to believe these things than to see them. For so we read in the holy Scriptures, and the Lord himself judged those men to be blessed who had believed in him whom they had not seen' [cf. John 20:29]. Since the faith of this bishop was so strong, the Lord glorified his saints with his power. For as they were traveling, suddenly the sky turned dark, and behold, a heavy rainstorm fell on them. So much rain fell there that rivers were seen to run along the roads. But around the holy relics within the area of one entire iugerum [i.e. about two-thirds of an acre] not a single drop was seen to fall. As the people moved away, the rainstorm followed them at a distance, as if offering homage. The rain refreshed the people, but it never touched those carrying the relics. When the bishop saw this, he extolled the Lord who so complimented his own faith and who deigned to perform such deeds to the glory of the saints. Once his congregation assembled, with great celebration and piety bishop Namatius dedicated the holy church that is distinguished by these relics.