St. Cecilia, one of the saints named in the Roman Canon (the First Eucharistic Prayer) and in the Litany of Saints, was a Roman virgin martyr from the third century. Many churches and schools have been named in her honor, and she has been one of the most beloved women saints for several centuries. After visiting St. Cecilia’s church during her pilgrimage to Rome, St. Therese of Lisieux wrote that St. Cecilia became her favorite saint. “What especially delighted me was her abandonment to God and her boundless confidence in Him,” St. Therese wrote in The Story of a Soul.
St. Cecilia was born into a patrician family in Rome and was a devout Christian. As a young woman, she knew she wanted to belong completely to Jesus, and made a vow of virginity. However, her father arranged for her to marry Valerian, a young man of her social class who was a pagan. Cecilia trusted in God to help her. On her wedding day, she prayed continually and sang to God in her heart, which is why she was later named the patron of music and musicians. After her wedding, she told Valerian that she had a guardian angel who would protect her virginity. Valerian asked to see the angel and Cecilia told him that if he believed in God and was baptized, he would be able to see her angel. After Valerian was baptized, he did see the angel who crowned the couple with roses and lilies as a sign of their promise of perpetual chastity.
Valerian shared the Faith with his brother, Tiburtius, who also converted and was baptized. The brothers and Cecilia were dedicated to doing the works of mercy, and although Cecilia had not wanted to marry, it seems that she and Valerian were happy living together as brother and sister and devoting their lives to God. They were aware that being Christians put their lives in danger, as they were living in a time of persecution. God gave them the gift of fortitude for the trials that would come. Valerian and Tiburtius were arrested for burying the bodies of Christian martyrs. They were told they would be freed if they offered sacrifices to the pagan gods, and refused. A Roman soldier named Maximus was converted by their example and also executed. After Valerian and Tiburtius were martyred, Cecilia was also arrested and brought before Almachius, the same prefect who ordered the executions of her husband and brother-in-law. When Almachius demanded that Cecilia sacrifice to the pagan gods, she too refused, and spoke of her faith in God. Many who heard her speak were converted. There is a tradition that four hundred people were baptized as a result of her witness. Almachius ordered that Cecilia be executed by suffocation in the baths of her home. She survived, without being harmed, and then the executioner attempted to kill her by beheading. After striking her neck three times with the sword, he left her to die. Cecilia lived for three days; large numbers of people came to her home to see her, while she prayed and spoke to them about God. Before she died, she gave her home for use as a church and her possessions to the poor. She died giving witness to her belief in the Holy Trinity, by extending three fingers on her right hand and one on her left.
As St. Cecilia wished, her home became the site of a church. In 821, Pope Paschal I supervised the rebuilding of the church. He hoped to find St. Cecilia’s body, but was concerned that it might have been stolen by the Lombards during the previous century. The Pope had a dream in which St. Cecilia appeared to him and told him where her body was in the catacomb of St. Callistus. He found her body and the bodies of Valerian, Tiburtius, and Maximus (who are also considered saints), and buried them in the church. When Cardinal Paolo Emelio Sfondrati was making renovations to the church in 1599, he opened the coffin containing St. Cecilia’s body and found that her body was still incorrupt. He asked the sculptor, Stefano Maderno to carve a statue of her as she appeared. Visitors to the Trastevere section of Rome can see the Basilica of St. Cecilia, on the site of the saint’s house, and see the statue by Maderno
St. Cecilia is a wonderful role model for Catholic women because of her great faith and love for God, her trust in His Providence, her charity, her purity, and her courage.
In a quotation attributed to St. Cecilia in the October 2021 issue of Magnificat, she said: “To die for Christ is not to sacrifice one’s youth, but to renew it. Jesus Christ returns a hundredfold for all offered him, and adds to it eternal life.”
Image: John William Waterhouse, Saint Cecilia, 1895. Public domain.