St. Caecilia, Virgin and Martyr
Partroness of Musicians
Caecilia united in her veins the blood of kings with that of Rome’s greatest heroes. At the time of the first preaching of the Gospel, more than one ancient patrician family had seen its direct line become extinct. But the adoptions and alliances, which under the Republic had knit more closely the great families by linking them all to the most illustrious among them, formed as it were a common fund of glory, which, even in the days of decline, was passed on intact to the survivors of the aristocracy.
It has now been demonstrated by the undeniable witness of monuments, that Christianity from the very beginning took possession of that glory, by adopting its heirs; and that by a wonderful disposition of divine Providence, the founders of the Rome of the Pontiffs were these last representatives of the Republic, thus preserved in order to give to the two phases of Roman history that powerful unity which is the distinguishing note of divine works. Heretofore bound together by the same patriotism, the Cornelii and the Emilii, alike heirs of the Fabii, the Csecilii, Valerii, Sergii, Furii, Claudii, Pomponii, Plautii, and Acilii, eldest sons of the Gentile Church, strengthened the connections formed during the Republic, and firmly established, even in the first and second centuries of Christianity, the new Roman society. In the same centuries, and under the influence of the religion preached by Saints Peter and Paul, there came to be grafted on the ever vigorous trunk of the old aristocracy the best members of the new imperial and consular families, worthy by their truly Roman virtues, practised amid the general depravity, to re-inforce the thinned ranks of Rome’s founders, and to fill up, without too sudden a transition, the voids made by time in the true patrician houses. Thus was Rome working out her destiny; thus was the building up of the eternal City being accomplished by the very men, who had formerly, by their blood or by their genius, established her strong and mighty on the seven hills.
Caecilia, the lawful representative of this unparalleled aristocracy, the fairest flower of the old stem, was also the last. The second century was passing away; the third, which was to see the empire fall from the hands of Septimus Severus first to the Orientals and then to the barbarians from the banks of the Danube, offered small chance of preservation for the remnants of the ancient nobility. The true Roman society was henceforth at an end; for, save a few individual exceptions, there remained nothing more of Roman but the name: the vain adornment of freedmen and upstarts, who, under princes worthy of them, indulged their passions at the expense of those around them.
Caecilia therefore appeared at the right moment, personifying with the utmost dignity the society that was about to disappear because its work was accomplished. In her strength and her beauty, adorned with the royal purple of martyrdom, she represents ancient Rome rising proud and glorious to the skies, before the upstart Caesars who, by immolating her in their jealousy, unconsciously executed the divine plan. The blood of kings and heroes flowing from her triple wound, is the libation of the old nobility to Christ the conqueror, to the Blessed Trinity the Ruler of nations; it is the final consecration, which reveals in its full extent the sublime vocation of the valiant races called to found the eternal Rome.
But we must not think that today’s feast is meant to excite in us a mere theoretical and fruitless admiration. The Church recognizes and honours in Saint Caecilia three characteristics, which, united together, distinguish her among all the Blessed in heaven, and are a source of grace and an example to men. These three characteristics are, virginity, apostolic zeal, and the superhuman courage which enabled her to bear torture and death. Such is the threefold teaching conveyed by this one Christian life.
In an age so blindly abandoned as ours to the worship of the senses, is it not time to protest, by the strong lessons of our faith, against a fascination which even the children of the promise can hardly resist? Never, since the fall of the Roman empire, have morals, and with them the family and society, been so seriously threatened. For long years, literature, the arts, the comforts of life, have had but one aim: to propose physical enjoyment as the only end of man’s destiny. Society already counts an immense number of members who live entirely a life of the senses. Alas for the day when it will expect to save itself by relying on their energy! The Roman empire thus attempted several times to shake off the yoke of invasion: it fell never to rise again.
Yes, the family itself, the family especially, is menaced. It is time to think of defending itself against the legal recognition, or rather encouragement, of divorce. It can do so by one means alone: by reforming and regenerating itself according to the law of God, and becoming once more serious and Christian. Let marriage, with its chaste consequences, be held in honour; let it cease to be an amusement or a speculation; let fatherhood and motherhood be no longer a calculation, but an austere duty: and soon, through the family, the city and the nation will resume their dignity and their vigour.
But marriage cannot be restored to this high level, unless men appreciate the superior element, without which human nature is an ignoble ruin: this heavenly element is continence. True, all are not called to embrace it in the absolute sense; but all must do honour to it, under pain of being delivered up, as the Apostle expresses it, to a reprobate sense. It is continence that reveals to man the secret of his dignity, that braces his soul to every kind of devotedness, that purifies his heart and elevates his whole being. It is the culminating point of moral beauty in the individual, and at the same time the great lever of human society. It is because the love of it became extinct, that the ancient world fell to decay; but when the Son of the Virgin came on earth, He renewed and sanctioned this saving principle, and a new phase began in the destinies of the human race.
The children of the Church, if they deserve the name, relish this doctrine, and are not astonished at it. The words of our Saviour and of His Apostles have revealed all to them; and at every page, the annals of the faith they profess set forth in action this fruitful virtue, of which all degrees of the Christian life, each in its measure, must partake. St. Caecilia is one example among others offered to their admiration. But the lesson she gives is a remarkable one, and has been celebrated in every age of Christianity. On how many occasions has Caecilia inspired virtue or sustained courage; how many weaknesses has the thought of her prevented or repaired! Such power for good has God placed in His Saints, that they influence not only by the direct imitation of their heroic virtues, but also by the inductions which each of the faithful is able to draw from them for his own particular situation.
The second characteristic offered for our consideration in the life of St. Csecilia, is that ardent zeal, of which she is one of the most admirable models; and we doubt not that here too is a lesson calculated to produce useful impressions. Insensibility to evil for which we are not personally responsible, or from which we are not likely to suffer, is one of the features of the period. We acknowledge that all is going to ruin, and we look on at the universal destruction without ever thinking of holding out a helping hand to save a brother from the wreck. Where should we now be, if the first Christians had had hearts as cold as ours? If they had not been filled with that immense pity, that inexhaustible love, which forbade them to despair of a world, in the midst of which God had placed them to be the salt of the earth? Each one felt himself accountable beyond measure for the gift he had received, Freeman or slave, known or unknown, every man was the object of a boundless devotedness for these hearts filled with the charity of Christ. One has but to read the Acts of the Apostles, and their Epistles, to learn on what an immense scale the apostolate was carried on in those early days; and the ardour of that zeal remained long uncooled. Hence the pagans used to say: “See how they love one another!” And how could they help loving one another? For in the order of faith they were fathers and children.
What maternal tenderness Caecilia felt for the souls of her brethren, from the mere fact that she was a Christian! After her we might name a thousand others, in proof of the fact that the conquest of the world by Christianity and its deliverance from the yoke of pagan depravity, are due to such acts of devotedness performed in a thousand places at once, and at length producing universal renovation. Let us imitate in something at least, these examples to which we owe so much. Let us waste less of our time and eloquence in bewailing evils which are only too real. Let each one of us set to work, and gain one of his brethren: and soon the number of the faithful will surpass that of unbelievers. Without doubt, this zeal is not extinct; it still works in some, and its fruits rejoice and console the Church; but why does it slumber so profoundly in so many hearts which God had prepared to be its active centres?
The cause is unhappily to be traced to that general coldness, produced by effeminacy, which might be taken by itself alone as the type of the age; but we must add thereto another sentiment, proceeding from the same source, which would suffice, if of long duration, to render the debasement of a nation incurable. This sentiment is fear; and it may be said to extend at present to its utmost limit. Men fear the loss of goods or position, fear the loss of comforts and ease, fear the loss of life. Needless to say, nothing can be more enervating, and consequently more dangerous to the world, than this humiliating pre-oocupation; but above all, we must confess that it is anything but Christian. Have we forgotten that we are merely pilgrims on this earth? And has the hope of future good died out of our hearts? Csecilia will teach us how to rid ourselves of this sentiment of fear. In her days, life was less secure than now. There certainly was then some reason to fear; and yet Christians were so courageous, that the powerful pagans often trembled at the words of their victims.
God knows what He has in store for us; but if fear does not soon make way for a sentiment more worthy of men and of Christians, all particular existences will be swallowed up in the political crisis. Come what may, it is time to learn our history over again. The lesson will not be lost, if we come to understand this much: had the first Christians feared, they would have betrayed us, for the word of life would never have come down to us; if we fear, we shall betray future generations, for we are expected to transmit to them the deposit we have received from our fathers.
The Passio Sanctae Caecilia is marked in the most ancient Calendars on the 16th September, and took place, according to the primitive Acts, under the emperors Marcus Aurelius and Commodus. The great feast of November 22nd, preceded by a Vigil, was one of the most solemn on the Roman Cycle; it recalled the dedication of the church raised on the site of that palace which had been sanctified by the blood of the descendant of the Metelli, and had been bequeathed by her when dying to Bishop Urban, representative of Pope Eleutherius. This Urban having been later on confounded with the Pope of the same name, who governed the Church in the time of Alexander Severus, the martyrdom of our Saint was thought to have occurred half a century later, as we still read in the Legend of the Office.
It was most probably in the year 178 that Caecilia joined Valerian in heaven, whence, a few months before, the Angel of the Lord had descended, bringing wreaths of lilies and roses to the two spouses.
She was buried by Urban, just as she lay at the moment of death. In the beginning of the following century, the family crypt was given by her relatives to the Roman church, and was set apart for the burial of the Popes. In the ninth century, Paschal I. found her surrounded by these venerable tombs, and brought her back in triumph on May 8th, 822, to her house in the Trastevere, where she remains to this day.
On the 20th October, 1599, in the course of the excavations required for the restoration of the basilica, Csecilia was once more brought forth to the admiring gaze of the city and of the world. She was clad in her robe of cloth of gold, on which traces of her virginal blood were still discernable; at her feet were some pieces of linen steeped in the purple of her martyrdom. Lying on her right side with her arms stretched before her, she seemed in a deep sleep. Her neck still bore the marks of the wounds inflicted by the executioner’s sword; her head, in a mysterious and touching position, was turned towards the bottom of the coffin. The body was in a state of perfect preservation; and the whole attitude, retained by an unique prodigy during so many centuries in all its grace and modesty, brought before the eyes with a striking truthfulness Caecilia breathing her last sigh stretched on the floor of the bath chamber.
The spectators were carried back in thought to the day when the holy bishop Urban had enclosed the sacred body in the cypress chest, without altering the position chosen by the bride of Christ to breathe forth her soul into the arms of her divine Spouse. They admired also the discretion of Pope Paschal, who had not disturbed the virgin’s repose, but had preserved for posterity so magnificent a spectacle.
Cardinal Sfondrate, titular of St. Caecilia, who directed the works, found also in the chapel called of the Bath the heating-stove and vents of the sudatorium, where the Saint passed a day and a night in the midst of scalding vapours. Recent excavations have brought to light other objects belonging to the patrician home, which by their style, belong to the early days of the Republic.
From the Roman Breviary
Cecilia, a Roman maiden born of noble family, brought up from infancy in the teachings of the Christian faith, had vowed her virginity to God. Married against her will to Valerian, on her nuptial night she said to him, “Valerian, I am under the care of an angel who is guardian of my virginity. Do not do, therefore, anything that may arouse the anger of God against you.” Valerian was disturbed by these words and did not dare touch her. He even declared that he would believe in Christ if he could see the angel. When Cecilia explained that this was impossible without baptism, he desired so ardently to see the angel that he offered to be baptized. Acting on Cecilia’s advice he went to Pope Urban, who because of the persecution was at that time in hiding in the Catacomb of the Martyrs out on the Appian Way. There Urban baptized him.
When Vaerian returned to Cecilia he found her at prayer and beside her an angel shining in divine splendor. He was overcome at the sight. As soon as recovered from his awe-inspired fright, Valerian summonded his brother, Tiburtius. He, too, was instructed by Cecilia in the faith of Christ, and after baptism by Pope Urban, saw the same angel his brother had seen. Shortly afterward both brothers bravely suffered martyrdom at the hands of the prefect Almachius, who aslo ordered the arrest of Cecilia. Almachius questioned her first about the disposal of the property of Tiburtius and Valerian.
When Cecilia replied that all their wealth had been distributed to the poor, Almachius flew into a rage. He ordered her to be taken home to her own house to be put to death by the heat of the bath. For a day and a night she remained unharmed by its fiery breath. Then an executioner was ent for. Although he struck three blows with an axe, he was unable to sever her head, so he left her half dead. She lingered three days. Then on September 16, in the riegn of the emperor Alexander, crowned with the dual palm of virginity and martyrdom, she took her flight to heaven. The same pontiff Urban burried her body in the cemetery of Callistus. A church was set up in her house and dedicated under the name of cecilia. Her body and those of Popes Urban and Lucius, and of Tiburtius, Valerian and Maximus were brought back into the City by Pope Paschall I., and were buried together in the church of St. Cecilia.
It would need the language of Angels worthily to celebrate thy greatness, O bride of Christ! and we have but the faltering, timid accents of mortals and sinners. O queen, who standest at the King’s right hand, clad in the vesture of gold of which the Psalmist sings, look down upon us with a favourable eye, and deign to accept this offering of our praise, which we lay on the lowest step of thy lofty throne. “We make bold to join thereto a prayer for the holy Church, whose humble daughter thou wast heretofore, as now thou art her hope and her support. In the dark night of this present life the Bridegroom is long a-coming. In the midst of this solemn and mysterious silence He suffers the virgin to slumber till the cry shall announce His arrival. We honour the repose earned by thy victories, O Caecilia, but we know that thou dost not forget us, for the Bride says in the Canticle: I sleep, and my heart watcheth.
The hour draws nigh when the Spouse is to appear, calling all who are His to gather under the standard of His Cross. Soon will the cry be heard: Behold the Bridegroom cometh, go ye forth to meet him. Then, O Caecilia, thou wilt say to all Christians what thou saidst to the faithful band grouped around thee at the hour of thy combat: “Soldiers of Christ! “Cast off the works of darkness, and put on the armour of light.”
The Church daily pronounces thy name with love, and confidence, in the Canon of the Mass; and she looks for thy assistance, O Caecilia, knowing it will not fail her. Prepare a victory for her, by raising up the hearts of Christians to the realities, which they too often forget while they run after the vain shadows from which thou didst win Tiburtius. When the minds of men become once more fixed up on the thought of their eternal destiny, the salvation and peace of nations will be secured.
Be thou for ever, O Caecilia, the delight of thy divine Spouse. Breathe eternally the heavenly fragrance of His roses and lilies; and be unceasingly enraptured with the ineffable harmony of which He is the source. From the midst of thy glory thou wilt watch over us; and when our last hour draws nigh, we beseech thee by the merits of thy heroic martyrdom, assist us on our death-bed. Receive our soul into thy arms, and bear it up to the everlasting abode, where the sight of the bliss thou enjoyest will give us to understand the value of Virginity, of the Apostolate, and of Martyrdom.
The Liturgical Year. 1904. Abbot Dom Gueranger, O.S.B. Translated from the French by Dom Laurence Shepherd, O.S.B. Imprimatur, 1910.