With the joyous signs of Christmas packed away, we find ourselves again in the liturgical season of Ordinary Time. Today we find ourselves between the feasts of two significant early Christian martyrs, St. Agnes (January 21) and St. Agatha (February 5). These young women possessed heroic virtue. These young women laid down their lives for their faith. These young women were survivors of sexual violence.
People of God, in honor of these women, we need to pray.
St. Agnes is a 13-year-old girl born to Christian parents in Rome during the reign of the Emperor Diocletian. Agnes is much sought after by suitors of noble stock. When she refuses their advances because she has promised herself — body and soul — to Jesus, they betray her as a Christian. The Roman Prefect Sempronius orders Agnes to be dragged naked through the streets of Rome to a brothel to await her trial. While imprisoned in the brothel, Agnes prays for the son of the prefect (her imprisoner) who has died and the son is brought back to life. Sempronius recuses himself from her trial and Agnes is sentenced to death and martyred by the sword.
Much like St. Agnes, St. Agatha is a beautiful Christian teenager living during a time of persecution. Born in Catania, Sicily, Agatha is pursued by Quintian — a Roman official who wants to claim Agatha as a prize. When Agatha rejects his advances and stands firm in her complete consecration to God, he seeks to change her mind by having her arrested as a Christian. When brought before the judge (who was, conveniently, Quintian) she refuses to denounce her faith. Enraged by her obstinacy, he has her imprisoned in a brothel. Even after suffering violence and humiliation, Agatha is unwilling to denounce her faith. Quintian then sends her to prison where she is tortured. She suffers intensely, even having her breasts cut off. She receives a vision of St. Peter which brings her profound peace before she finally succumbs to death at the hands of those who tortured her for her faith.
People of God, in fierce solidarity with all of our sisters and brothers suffering the wounds of sexual violence past and present, we need to pray.
We need to pray with loud, unwavering voices because sexual violence is a wound inflicted to bring shame and isolation. The Catholic Church proclaims that our dignity as human persons comes from our God and cannot be cancelled by acts meant to violate and humiliate. We proclaim a God who will never abandon us. We proclaim a Savior who heals, who comforts, who takes our burdens as his own. St. Agnes and St. Agatha teach us that what is done to us cannot change who we are. Who we are is daughters and sons of the Eternal One. Precious ones. Beloved ones. Honored ones.
We, the people of God, need to pray for the courage to confront sexual violence in our own Catholic community. To call it what it is. A sin. A grievous sin. And to not allow our embarrassment that this violence is happening in our communities often by those entrusted with the care of souls to paralyze us from shining a light on it. We need to define this process of illumination, justice, and healing as an act of our Catholic faith … not a threat to it. We are the Church of St. Agnes and St. Agatha. We are called to honor them (and countless other women saints — known and unknown — who have suffered similar fates) as sisters by making sure the faith they died professing is a faith that stands for justice, compassion, and healing for survivors of sexual violence.
We need to pray. We need to pray hard. Not just with our words, but with our actions. People of God, we need to get involved. We can get involved in Catholic efforts to stop human trafficking. We can make sure our parish’s pregnancy outreach has resources for women survivors of rape and incest (contact your local Catholic Charities to find out what resources are available in your community). We can call the folks in our diocese’s administrative offices who have the difficult task of dealing with sexual violence and offer them our thanks, prayers, encouragement, and support. We can volunteer from the comfort of our own homes to offer phone or online support to those seeking rape crisis counseling. We can place this symbol on our office door or somewhere in our workspace to let our friends, colleagues, students, or employees know that we are willing to listen, to help, and to pray with them. Most of all, we need to follow the example of Pope Francis by reaching out in love to those who have been victimized and assuring them that they are not alone.
St. Agnes and St. Agatha, pray for us and with us!