This Tuesday (11/22) is the feast of St. Cecilia our co-patron. Born in the third century into a wealthy Roman family, her parents arranged for her to marry a young pagan nobleman by the name of Valerius. Unbeknownst to them, however, Cecilia had become a Christian, and like many young Christian women at the time, she had taken a vow of perpetual virginity. This was a dangerous thing to do in those days, for if they did not give up their vow when they married, such a young woman would be exposed publicly as Christian by their spurned husbands and subjected to torture and death. In a homily about St. Cecilia, Fr. Ronald Knox explains the situation, saying: “You know the horror the world feels when somebody becomes a Catholic; you know the horror the world feels when somebody goes into a convent: combine those two, and transplant them into a society which is heathen and regards the Christian religion as a dangerous and debased cult and you will realize what the pagans thought of a resolution like St. Cecilia’s.”
During her wedding to Valerian, it is said that Cecilia’s heart sang songs of love to Christ. That night Cecilia revealed to her husband her Christian faith and her sacred vow. She also warned him that she was under the protection of her guardian angel. Valerian looked around, but saw no evidence of an angel. To this, Cecilia responded that only if he were baptized would he see the angel. Valerian went to Pope Urbanus, the bishop of Rome, to receive baptism and when he returned home to his wife, he saw standing next to her an angel of God. Filled with amazement, Valerian shared the news of what had happened with his brother Tibertius, who then also received baptism. Filled with Christian zeal, the brothers spent their days burying the bodies of the city’s martyrs. Eventually, the brothers themselves were arrested and martyred. The authorities then came for Cecilia, locking her a bath in her home and filling it with scorching-hot steam. Miraculously surviving, her tormentors then resolved to dispatch her with the sword. Christians recovered her body and buried it in the catacombs. 200 years later, a beautiful church was built in her honor over the site of her home in the Trastevere neighborhood of Rome. Her remains were transferred to the church, where they were entombed under the main altar. In 1599, the tomb was opened and her body was discovered to be incorrupt. The sculptor Stefano Maderno created a remarkable image of St. Cecilia’s incorrupt body just as it was found under the altar of the church. Today, that marble statue marks the place of her relics.
St. Cecilia has been venerated by the Church as a virgin and martyr for over 1700 years. She is also a worthy patroness for married people who desire the conversion of their spouses – whether through formal reception into the Church, or an awakening of their Catholic faith and return to a life of prayer and the sacraments. Her life is a reminder, according to Fr. Knox, that “each of us, whether he likes it or not, is an advertisement of the Catholic faith to the little circle of his neighbors – a good advertisement, or a bad advertisement.” The conversion of others begins with our own conversion, and the willingness to take the holy risk of revealing our faith to others through word and example, just like St. Cecilia.