It is under the emperor Alexander Severus that this young Saint, one of the most fragrant flowers of Christian virginity and martyrdom, suffered for the Faith she had chosen; to choose it was at that moment as certain an end to earthly felicity as it is a guarantee, at every epoch, of the eternal felicity of those who remain faithful to it. Cecilia was the daughter of an illustrious patrician, and was the only Christian of her family; she was permitted to attend the reunions held in the catacombs by the Christians, either through her parents’ condescension or out of indifference. She continually kept a copy of the holy Gospel hidden under her clothing over her heart. Her parents obliged her, however, despite her vow of virginity, which most probably they knew nothing of, to marry the young Valerian, whom she esteemed as noble and good, but who was still pagan.
During the evening of the wedding day, with the music of the nuptial feast still in the air, Cecilia, this intelligent, beautiful, and noble Roman maiden, renewed her vow. When the new spouses found themselves alone, she gently said to Valerian, Dear friend, I have a secret to confide to you, but will you promise me to keep it? He promised her solemnly that nothing would ever make him reveal it, and she continued, Listen: an Angel of God watches over me, for I belong to God. If he sees that you would approach me under the influence of a sensual love, his anger will be inflamed, and you will succumb to the blows of his vengeance. But if you love me with a perfect love and conserve my virginity inviolable, he will love you as he loves me, and will lavish on you, too, his favors. Valerian replied that if he might see this Angel, he would certainly correspond to her wishes, and Cecilia answered, Valerian, if you consent to be purified in the fountain which wells up eternally; if you will believe in the unique, living and true God who reigns in heaven, you will be able to see the Angel. And to his questions concerning this water and who might bestow it, she directed him to a certain holy old man named Urban.
That holy Pontiff rejoiced exceedingly when Valerian came to him the same night, to be instructed and baptized; his long prayer touched the young man greatly, and he too rejoiced with an entirely new joy in his new-found and veritable faith, so far above the religion of the pagans. He returned to his house, and on entering the room where Cecilia had continued to pray for the remainder of the night, he saw the Angel waiting, with two crowns of roses and lilies, which he would place on the head of each of them. Cecilia understood at once that if the lilies symbolized their virginity, the roses foretold for them both the grace of martyrdom. Valerian was told he might ask any grace at all of God, who was very pleased with him; and he requested that his brother Tiburtius might also receive the grace he had obtained; and the conversion of Tiburtius soon afterwards became a reality.
The two brothers, who were very wealthy, began to aid the families which had lost their support through the martyrdom of the fathers, spouses, and sons; they saw to the burial of the Christians, and continually braved the same fate as these victims. In effect they were soon captured, and their testimony was such as to convert a young officer chosen to conduct them to the site of their martyrdom. He succeeded in delaying it for a day, and took them to his house, where before the day was ended he had decided to receive Baptism with his entire family and household. The two brothers offered their heads to the sword; and soon afterward the officer they had won for Christ followed them to the eternal divine kingdom. It was Cecilia who saw to the burial of all three martyrs. She then distributed to the poor all the valuable objects of her house, in order that the property of Valerian might not be confiscated according to current Roman law, and knowing that her own time was close at hand.
She was soon arrested and arraigned, but having asked a delay after her interrogation, she assembled those who had heard her with admiration and instructed them in the faith; the Pontiff Urban baptized a large number of them. The death appointed for her was suffocation by steam. Saint Cecilia remained unharmed and calm, for a day and a night, in the calderium, or place of hot baths, in her own palace, despite a fire heated to seven times its ordinary violence. Finally, an executioner was sent to dispatch her by the sword; he struck with trembling hand the three blows which the law allowed, and left her still alive. For two days and nights Cecilia would lie with her head half severed, on the pavement of her bath, fully sensible and joyfully awaiting her crown. When her neophytes came to bury her after the departure of the executioner, they found her alive and smiling. They surrounded her there, not daring to touch her, for three days, having collected the precious blood from her wounds. On the third day, after the holy Pontiff Urban had come to bless her, the agony ended, and in the year 177 the virgin Saint gave back her glorious soul to Christ. It was the Supreme Pontiff who presided at her funeral; she was placed in a coffin in the position in which she had lain, as we often see her pictured, and interred in the vault prepared by Saint Callixtus for the Church’s pontiffs. The authentic acts of her life and martyrdom were prepared by Pope Anteros in the year 235. When the tomb was opened in 1599 her body was entirely intact still.
Les Petits Bollandistes: Vie des Saints, by Msgr. Paul Guérin (Bloud et Barral; Paris, 1882). The account is based on a Histoire de Sainte Cécile, by Dom Guéranger, Abbot of Solemnes