February 5, 2020

Saint Agatha as Protector of Catania

The Christians who were witnesses to Agatha’s martyrdom and death recovered her body devoutly and covered it with perfumed oils, as was the custom at that time. Then with great veneration they placed it in a stone sarcophagus, which to this very day is still an object of veneration in Catania. Sources say that when the sarcophagus was ready to be sealed a young man came close, dressed in white silk and escorted by a hundred others. Beside the virgin’s head he laid a marble tablet, which today is a precious relic kept in the Church of Saint Agatha in Cremona and which bears the Latin inscription “M.S.S.H.D.E.P.L.”, which means “Healthy and lively mind, Honor to God and Freedom for the City”. This inscription, called also “the Angel’s praise”, summarizes the characteristics of the Patron Saint of Catania and is also a solemn promise of her protection for the city.

Savior of Catania

The most important events in the history of Catania are all linked to Saint Agatha: eruptions, earthquakes, sieges, illnesses, terrible and destructive forces, terrifying events before which men found themselves powerless. But the people of Catania, having faith in the promise written on the tablet which the angel delivered to the city, have always called on the Saint for assistance and have always found her protection. On more than fifteen occasions between 252 and 1886 Catania has been saved from destruction by lava. In 535 it was rescued from the Ostrogoths, in 1231 from the fury of Frederick II, in 1575 and again in 1743 from the Plague. Who can count up the favours received over the course of seventeen centuries by the people of Catania and people all around the world who entrust themselves to her?

The Miracle of the Veil

It was exactly one year after the martyrdom of Saint Agatha that Etna showed signs of being about to destroy Catania with an unstoppable and terrifying tidal wave of lava. Only at the height of the panic did someone remember the inscription on the marble tablet in which the angel had promised help for the city of Catania, the home of Agatha. So gently and with great devotion the people of the city took up the red veil which had been laid over the Saint’s sarcophagus and amid prayers and invocations they carried it in procession to confront the flood of lava. The flaming river of magma halted miraculously, leaving the people unharmed and intact the houses of the villages on the slopes of the volcano. There was jubilation : shouts of praise, celebrations, songs of thanksgiving. It was immediately after this specific event that Agatha was declared a saint. As a result of this first miracle the fame of Saint Agatha spread rapidly across the entire island of Sicily and in no time crossed the straits of Messina to reach into mainland Italy. Her tomb, which was in a small chapel near the site of her martyrdom, became the destination of numerous pilgrims, her name was introduced into the Canon of the Mass and, until the revisions carried out in the name of the Second Vatican Council, it was pronounced every day by the clergy at the head of the list of holy martyrs remembered by the Church. By means of this first miracle brought about by the intercession of Saint Agatha, Catania forged an indissoluble link with her name and between its own destiny and its powerful citizen and from then on knew how to save the city from the destructive rage of Etna and thenceforth it was saved many more times from various enemies.

The Escape from Massacre

On the 25th July 1127 the Moors besieged the coasts of Sicily. Wherever they landed there was slaughter, pillage, rape. When they began to attack along the coast of Catania the inhabitants of the city sought assistance by intercession to Saint Agatha and her favour was not long in coming: Catania was spared that punishment. Another episode has shown once more that the city at the foot of Mount Etna has always enjoyed the attentive protection of Saint Agatha. In 1231 Frederick II of Swabia arrived in Sicily to conquer it. Many cities revolted against him and Catania was among them. Frederick II furiously ordered their destruction but the people of Catania were allowed to have a final Mass celebrated in the Cathedral, before the act of their extermination was carried out, at which ceremony Frederick himself assisted. It was during this service that the Swabian king read a phrase which appeared miraculously on the pages of his prayer book and which sounded a terrible warning to him : “Do not offend the country of Agatha for its injuries will be avenged.” Immediately he abandoned his plans to destroy the city, revoked the edict which had called for it and contented himself that the populace was obliged to pass between two crossed swords hanging from an arch set up in the center of the city. This act of submission was sufficient for Frederick and he left Catania and its people unharmed, saved by the intercession of Our Lady of Mercies and Saint Agatha. The city commemorated this relief by erecting a marble frieze which is today at the entrance of the city hall and shows Agatha, seated on a throne like a queen, trampling beneath her feet the bearded head of Frederick II of Swabia.

Lava and Earthquakes

In 1169 an earthquake was the prelude to an enormous eruption. A river of lava flowed down the slopes of Etna and, spreading over the countryside, destroying all in its path, advancing inexorably towards the city. But, just as had happened only one year after the death of Saint Agatha, a procession bearing the sacred veil stopped the river of lava. The people of Catania benefited from similar miracles in 1239, 1381, 1408, 1444, 1536, 1567 and 1635. But the most disastrous eruption occurred in 1669: a series of breaches opened up along the whole flank of the volcano which spewed forth lava and rocks over a period of sixty days. The lava destroyed many residential areas and entered right into the city, surrounding the moat of the Castello Ursino. In the sacristy of the Cathedral is a fresco, painted ten years after the episode by an eye witness to the tragic events, which depicts the almost apocalyptic scenes of the eruption. When the lava reached a point only 30m from the Cathedral, having spared the places in which Saint Agatha had been imprisoned, martyred and buried, it poured itself into the sea and pushed forward for a further 3km. It was clear evidence of the wish of the Saint of Catania to save those places which were part of her story and her cult. Another extraordinary event is linked to this terrible eruption: a fresco which depicts Saint Agatha in prison and which had been found in a small building against the city walls was carried intact by the river of lava for hundreds of meters. Today that picture is to be found above the high altar of the Church of Saint Agatha alla Sciare in Catania. A gift of thanksgiving for the saving of the city from total destruction is the massive votive lamp of silver which is in the center of Saint Agatha’s chapel in the Cathedral and which Charles II of Spain offered to the city. A violent earthquake shook Catania in 1693. It caused the death of 18,000 people. Not one of the 9,000 people who survived the catastrophe wished to return to the city. Catania would have become a ghost town if a delegation from the bishop carrying the relics of Saint Agatha in procession had not begged the people to remain and rebuild their city. In 1886 a rupture in the side of the mountain burst open at Nicosia, a residential area on the slopes of Mount Etna. On the 24th May Blessed Cardinal Dusmet carried the veil of Saint Agatha in procession and, even though the procession halted part-way, the flow of lava stopped at once. In memory of that event a small altar was set up on the spot.

The Plague

On several occasions Saint Agatha has laid her hand benignly on the city to protect it also from the Plague. When the Plague began to spread in 1576 not far from Catania, the Senate decided to call on the intercession of their Patron. The relics were carried in procession along the streets of the city and, once they had reached the hospitals where had been taken those people stricken with the Plague, the sick immediately recovered and no further person was afflicted. In 1743 the people of Catania received another sign of protection when a second wave of the Plague began to sweep from Messina towards Catania. A further miracle occurred on this occasion: the relics were brought out in procession and the spread of the Plague was halted. In memory of this extraordinary occurrence, in the port district of the city was erected a column surmounted by a statue of Saint Agatha shown crushing the head of a monster which symbolizes the Plague.