Tuesday, November 22, 2011

St. Cecilia, pray for us

St. Cecilia (right) as depicted in the 9th-
century apse above the altar in the Church
of St. Cecilia in Rome. In this scene, she stands
next to her husband, St. Valerian, who
stands next to St. Peter the Apostle.
Today, the Church commemorates one of the early Christian martyrs of Rome: St. Cecilia, who seems to have been martyred around the year AD 230.

Cecilia is pretty well-known as the patroness of musicians because, according to tradition, she sang praises to God as Roman authorities attempted to kill her for her faith. Truth is, we don't know much for sure about Cecilia. The earliest stories about St. Cecilia's life and death were first preserved centuries after she died, so it can be difficult, from a secular historian's perspective, to know what is fact and what is embellishment.

The traditional story (first found in fifth century documents), is that Cecilia was a noblewoman, from a senatorial Roman family. She became a Christian as a young woman and, after being baptized, she pledged her life to God by making a personal vow of virginity. Despite this, her family married her off when she came of age. On her wedding night, Cecilia told her husband, Valerian, about her vow of virginity and persuaded him to convert to Christianity and to join her in a life of service to the Lord. He was baptized soon after, and he and Cecilia soon converted Valerian's brother, Tibertius, and another man, Maximus, a Roman soldier. The four, led by Cecilia, began ministering to the poor and needy by giving alms and distributing goods. They also ministered to their fellow Christians in a time of state-sponsored persecution by seeing to it that martyrs received proper burials.

According to tradition, Valerian, Tibertius and Maximus were arrested and martyred. After burying her husband and his brother, Cecilia was then arrested as well and, after refusing to sacrifice to the Roman gods, she was locked in the caldarium (essentially, a sauna) of her bathhouse to suffocate her. From outside, the authorities could hear Cecilia singing hymns. After three days, she was still alive so they then proceeded to behead her. Even this was botched, and after three blows with an axe, Cecilia remained alive but gravely injured. She died a few days later from her wounds and was buried in the catacombs of San Callisto.

During renovations of the Church which bares her name in 1599,
the tomb of St. Cecilia was opened. Inside, her body was found
to be incorrupt and Church officials were stunned. Gashes were still
visible on her neck. A local Roman sculptor, Stefano Maderno, was
hired to create a sculpture (pictured above) which records exactly
how the saint's body appeared when the tomb was opened. 
How much of the above story is true and how much is pious legend, is impossible to say. What we do know, according to archaeological and historical evidence, is that underneath the ninth century Church of St. Cecilia in Trastevere (an area of Rome located on the west side of the Tiber River), is a second-century domus ecclesia, or house-church. A house-church was a private home that was donated to the Church for use in worship, catechesis and administration. It was common practice in the early centuries of the Church for wealthy Christian families to donate homes to the Church for this purpose. Once donated to the Church, these homes usually continued to bear the name of the donor. 

Excavations of the third-century home
of St. Cecilia, underneath her church in Rome.
House-churches were often used, with few modifications, for centuries after their donation. Eventually, as the needs of the Church expanded, they were razed or filled in and a new, larger church building was built on top. This was the case for St. Cecilia's home which, in the fifth century, was filled in and served as the foundation for a new basilica of St. Cecilia. A major expansion was added to the church in the ninth century during the reign of Pope Pascal I (d. 824), and during this renovation, the relics of St. Cecilia, her husband and his brother, were moved from the catacombs to the new church and interred under the main altar.

If you visit the Catacombs of San Callisto on the outskirts of Rome, you can see St. Cecilia's original (now empty) place of burial. You can also visit the church which bares her name and there, you can see tour the archaeological excavations of her third-century home, beneath the church.

St. Cecilia is one of seven women, besides the Virgin Mary, whose names are mentioned in the ancient Roman Canon, or Eucharistic Prayer I, during the Mass. This, if nothing else, tells you in what esteem she was held by the ancient Christians of Rome. We call upon her in confidence to intercede for us in heaven. And we pray that God will make us, too, saints.