Fish Eaters: The Whys and Hows of Traditional Catholicism


``Where the Bishop is, there let the multitude of believers be;
even as where Jesus is, there is the Catholic Church'' Ignatius of Antioch, 1st c. A.D



Feast of St. Agatha






St. Agatha is very much like St. Agnes, whose feast we celebrated on January 21. Both were very, very young, both were virgins, both were martyred in the very early days of the Church. Both are also invoked in the Litany of the Saints.

Of St. Agatha, not much is known for certain, but she was born in either Palermo or Catania, in Sicily, and was martyred in Catania during the persecution of Decius, which took place between A.D. 250 and 253. Jacobus de Voragine's 13th century "Golden Legend" tells her story:

S. Agatha the virgin was right fair, noble body and of heart, and was rich of goods. This glorious virgin served God in the city of Catania, leading a pure and holy life. Quintianus the provost of Sicily, being of a low lineage, was lecherous, avaricious, and a miscreant and paynim, and for to accomplish his evil desires fleshly, and to have riches, did do take S. Agatha to be presented and brought tofore him, and began to behold her with a lecherous sight; and for to have her himself, he would have induced her to make sacrifice unto the idols.

And when he saw her firm in her purpose, he put her in the keeping of a woman named Aphrodisia, which had nine daughters, over foul, like unto the mother. This did he for to induce S. Agatha to do his will within thirty days. Aphrodisia and her daughters entreated the holy virgin to consent to the will of the provost, and sometime they made to her great promises of temporal goods and of great eases, and sometimes they made to her menaces of grievous torments for to suffer, and great pains, to which S. Agatha answered freely: "My courage and my thought be so firmly founded upon the firm stone of Jesu Christ, that for no pain it may not be changed; your words be but wind, your promises be but rain, and your menaces be as rivers that pass, and how well that all these things hurtle at the foundement of my courage, yet for that it shall not move."

In this manner answered she, and alway wept in making her prayers, and much great desire had she to come to Jesu Christ by martyrdom and by torments. When Aphrodisia saw well that in no wise she would be moved, she went to the provost Quintianus, and said to him: "Sooner should the stones wax soft, and iron turn to soft lead, than turn the courage of this maid, or to take from her the Christian faith. I and my daughters have done none other thing night ne day, one after another, but to labour how we might turn her heart to your consenting. I have promised her in your name your precious adornments, clothes of gold, houses, lands, towns, servants, and great meinys, and all this she despiseth and reputeth them at no value."

When Quintianus heard this, anon he made her to come tofore him in judgment, and demanded her of her lineage, and at the last he would constrain her to make sacrifice unto the idols.

And S. Agatha answered that they were no gods, but were devils that were in the idols made of marble and of wood, and overgilt. Quintianus said: "Choose one of two; or do sacrifice to our gods, or thou shalt suffer pain and torments."

S. Agatha said: "Thou sayst that they be gods because thy wife was such an one as was Venus, thy goddess, and thou thyself as Jupiter, which was an homicide and evil."

Quintianus said: "It appeareth well that thou wilt suffer torments, in that thou sayst to me villainy."

S. Agatha said: "I marvel much that so wise a man is become such a fool, that thou sayest of them to be thy gods, whose life thou ne thy wife will follow. If they be good I would that thy life were like unto theirs; and if thou refusest their life, then art thou of one accord with me. Say then that they be evil and so foul, and forsake their living, and be not of such life as thy gods were."

Quintianus said: "What goest thou thus vainly speaking? make sacrifice unto the gods, or if thou do not I shall make thee to die by divers torments."

S. Agatha abode firm and stable in the faith. Then Quintianus did do put her in a dark prison, and she went also gladly, and with as good will as she had been prayed to go to a wedding.


On the morning Quintianus made her to be brought tofore him in judgment, and said to her: "Agatha, how art thou advised for thy health?"

She answered: "Christ is mine health."

Quintianus said: "Deny Christ thy God, by which thou mayest escape thy torments."

S. Agatha answered: "Nay, but deny thou thine idols which be of stones and of wood, and adore thy maker, that made heaven and earth, and if thou do not thou shalt be tormented in the perpetual fire in hell."

Then in great ire Quintianus did her to be drawn and stretched on a tree and tormented, and said to her: "Refuse thy vain opinion that thou hast, and thou shalt be eased of thy pain."

And she answered: "I have as great dilection in these pains as he that saw come to him that thing which he most coveteth to see, or as he that had found great treasure. And like as the wheat may not be put in the garner unto the time that the chaff be beaten off, in like wise my soul may not enter into the realm of heaven, but if thou wilt torment my body by thy ministers."

Then Quintianus did her to be tormented in her breasts and paps, and commanded that her breasts and mammels should be drawn and cut off. When the ministers had accomplished his commandment, then said S. Agatha: "Over felon and cruel tyrant, hast thou no shame to cut off that in a woman which thou didst suck in thy mother, and whereof thou wert nourished? But I have my paps whole in my soul, of which I nourish all my wits, the which I have ordained to serve our Lord Jesu Christ, sith the beginning of my youth."

After, Quintianus did do put her in prison, and commanded that none should enter for to heal her, none should give to her meat nor drink.

And when she was fast closed in the prison, there came an ancient noble man, and tofore him a child bearing a light, and divers ointments in his hand. This noble man said that he was a surgeon, and in comforting her said: How well that the tyrant hath tormented thee bodily, nevertheless thou hast more tormented him in his heart by thy answers.


The nobleman was a Christian, too -- some say he was actually St. Peter --  and he was able to heal her breasts. Then Quintianus brought her out of the prison once again and demanded that she make sacrifices to his idols. She again refused, and he tortured her severely, and returned her to prison. There she prayed,  "Lord God Jesu Christ which hast created me of nought, and sith my youth hast kept me and hast suffered me to live well in my youth, which hast taken from mine heart the love of the world and hast made me to overcome the torments, and hast lent me patience among the pains, I pray thee that thou take my spirit, for it is time that thou make me to depart from this world and to come to thy mercy."

She then "gave up the ghost, and rendered her soul, the year of our Lord two hundred and fifty-three in the time of Decius, the emperor of Rome."

St. Agatha is invoked against fire and lightning, by people with breast disease, and by victims of sexual abuse. She's also the patron of nurses and of Catania, Sicily, where she is invoked for protection against Mt. Etna's eruptions.




Customs

A novena to St. Agatha is often prayed starting on January 27 and ending on the eve of her feast (February 4). This novena, though, can be prayed at any time, and often is, especially by those afflicted with breast cancer. As to a prayer for the day, this collect will work beautifully:

May the Virgin Martyr Saint Agatha implore Your compassion for us, O Lord, we pray, for she found favor with You by the courage of her martyrdom and the merit of her chastity. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son, Who lives and reigns with You in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, for ever and ever.

St. Agatha is greatly honored in Sicily, especially in Palermo and Catania, where she is invoked against destruction by the volcano, Mt. Etna, in the same way the people of Naples invoke San Gennaro against the powers of Mt. Vesuvius. In the latter city a great festival is held starting at noon on February 3 and lasting 'til her feast itself, on Februrary 5. Another festival is held on August 17 to honor the date when her relics were brought back to Catania after having been moved to Constantinople (Istanbul).

The Februrary festival in Catania begins on February 3, two days before her feast, with a great procession -- from the Church of St. Agata alla Fornace to the Cathedral, which is also named for the Saint -- of eleven huge, Baroque candelore made of carved and gilded wood -- each representing a guild: the local Monsignor, farmers, flower-growers, fishmongers, greengrocers, butchers, pasta-makers, cheese sellers, innkeepers and publicans, bakers, and the Circolo di Sant'Agata that handles the festivities. This is followed by a great cross-country race, a concert, and fireworks. On February 4, there is a procession of the fercolo -- a large, highly decorative tent-like structure made of silver -- which houses a bejewelled reliquary shaped like St. Agatha containing her skull crowned with a crown given for the purpose by King Richard the Lionheart. The solid silver fercolo -- which was built by goldsmith Vincenzo Archifel who worked in the area between 1486 and 1533 --  is bourne by men through the city, and is then taken to the Cathedral. During the festivities of the 4th, it is decorated with pink carnations to symbolize St. Agatha's martyrdom; on the 5th, it is decorated with white carnations to symbolize her purity and faith. St. Agatha's feast itself begins with Mass at dawn and is followed by another procession of the reliquary and the frecolo which houses it. All along the procession routes, people wave white handkerchiefs as her relics pass by:







Throughout the celebrations, pastries called Minne di Sant'Agata (Breasts of St. Agatha) are eaten. These pastries come in various forms -- some using pastry dough, some a sponge cake, some a sort of shortbread as a base. Some include marzipan, some come with a zucchini-based sort of marmalade inside, and some include chocolate and candied fruit. Some have a filling that is more custard-based, and some have a filling that is centered around ricotta cheese. But what they all have in common, as you can guess from their name, is that they are shaped like the Saint's breasts. Many are topped with a candied cherry to form the breast's nipple, but in others, the pastry dough itself is used for that effect. A form of this pastry, called Cassatelle, can be found throughout Sicily (and in some Italian American bakeries) all year round, but during celebrations of St. Agatha's life, they are ubiquitous.





Below is a recipe for one version of this pastry. You'll need spherical baking molds or some other means of making rounded pastry. Note that tradition says that Minne di Sant'Agata must be eaten in even numbers -- at least two, never one.

Minne di Sant'Agata (also called Cassatelle)
Makes 6 (3 servings)


Marzipan:
2 cups almonds
1/2 cup sugar
2 egg whites
a few drops of green food coloring, optional


Filling:
1 1/4 cups fresh ricotta (preferably from sheep)
1/4 cup powdered sugar
1 1/2 ounces dark chocolate, chopped finely
1 ounce candied orange, chopped finely, or 2 tsp orange zest

Pastry dough:
2 cups flour
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon cold butter, chopped
1 whole egg
1 egg yolk

Glaze:
Egg white
1 c. powdered sugar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
6 candied cherries

Marzipan: Blend almonds and sugar together in a blender, grinder, or processor until you get a fine powder, and place in a bowl. Mix the egg white with the food coloring, if using, and then add to the almond mixture, kneading until you get a pie-dough like malleable clump. Wrap in saran, and set aside.

Filling: Mix ricotta with 1/4 cup of powdered sugar and whisk until smooth. Add the chocolate and orange. Cover and chill for 1 hour.

Dough: Mix the flour and sugar. Add the butter, and mix until crumbly and the butter is evenly distributed. Add the egg and yolk and mix until you have a smooth, solid dough.  Chill for 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 375 F . Roll out the dough on a well-floured surface until thin (about 1/10") and cut into circles to line the molds. Fill a half-sphere mold with a piece of pastry dough and trim so it fits perfectly into the sphere. Repeat five more times in other molds. Then roll out the dough again to make 6 circles that will later fit exactly over the spheres and form the flat bottoms of the pastries. Set these circles aside for a moment.

Roll out the marzipan "dough" and cut out 6 circles to fit over the pastry dough already in the spheres. Press the marzipan into the molds over the dough, and then top with the ricotta mixture. Fill the pastry-lined and marzipan-lined molds with the ricotta mixture until the molds are totally full up to the top. Then cover each full mold with the circles of pastry dough you'd set aside earlier. Press down along the edges and seal further with a brushing of egg white. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the pastry is golden.

Let the pastries cool in their molds. Once cool, carefully unmold them and place them on a cake rack which is sitting over waxed paper or a baking sheet (i.e., something to catch dripping glaze). Prepare the glaze:

Glaze: Whip the egg white to soft peaks and set aside. Separately, mix the powdered sugar with the lemon juice. Bit by bit, add the whipped egg white (around two tablespoonsful in all) to the sugar and lemon juice mixture to make a smooth icing that has the consistency of a medium pancake batter. Pour over the pastries, letting the excess drip through the cake rack, and top each with a candied cherry (some like to place the cherries on first and then glaze so they appear more pink than red).

Another food seen everywhere on this day is a marzipan shaped like little green olives. The legend is that St. Agatha came across a barren, dying olive tree, but when she touched it, it began to flourish once again. A recipe:

Olivette di Sant’Agata

1 c. water
1 1/2 c. granulated sugar
1 vanilla bean
1 1/2 c. almond flour (i.e., finely ground almonds)
2 TBSP strega or maraschino liqueur (or use rum)
1/4 to 1/2 tsp powdered green food coloring (you want a light, green olive color)
grandulated sugar for rolling

Put the water, granulated sugar, and vanilla bean into a saucepan. Bring to a boil at low heat. After the sugar dissolves, remove the vanilla bean, and add the almonds  Keep stirring for about 7 minutes. Add the liqueur one tablespoon at a time while continuing to stir. Then add the coloring a bit at a time 'til you get the color you want. Keep stirring until the dough comes away from the sides of the pan. Dump out onto a board, cover with a wet towel, and allow to cool so you can work with it without burning yourself. Pull off pieces of dough and shape each into an olive-shaped and olive-sized ball. Poke the end of each olive on the fat side to make a hole where the stem would have been, then roll in sugar to coat. Let sit overnight in an airtight container, and always store in an airtight container.

And now for a song for the day: "W Sant'Agata" (the "W" stands for "Viva"):




Readings


From a homily on Saint Agatha by Saint Methodius of Sicily, bishop

My fellow Christians, our annual celebration of a martyr’s feast has brought us together. She achieved renown in the early Church for her noble victory; she is well known now as well, for she continues to triumph through her divine miracles, which occur daily and continue to bring glory to her name.

She is indeed a virgin, for she was born of the divine Word, God’s only Son, who also experienced death for our sake. John, a master of God’s word, speaks of this: "He gave the power to become children of God to everyone who received him."

The woman who invites us to this banquet is both a wife and virgin. To use the analogy of Paul, she is the bride who has been betrothed to one husband, Christ. A true virgin, she wore the glow of pure conscience and the crimson of the Lamb’s blood for her cosmetics. Again and again she meditated on the death of her eager lover. For her, Christ’s death was recent, his blood was still moist. Her robe is the mark of her faithful witness to Christ. It bears the indelible marks of his crimson blood and the shining threads of her eloquence. She offers to all who come after her these treasures of her eloquent confession.

Agatha, the name of our saint, means “good.” She was truly good, for she lived as a child of God. She was also given as the gift of God, the source of all goodness to her bridegroom, Christ, and to us. For she grants us a share in her goodness.

What can give greater good than the Sovereign Good? Whom could anyone find more worthy of celebration with hymns of praise than Agatha?

Agatha, her goodness coincides with her name and way of life. She won a good name by her noble deeds, and by her name she points to the nobility of those deeds. Agatha, her mere name wins all men over to her company. She teaches them by her example to hasten with her to the true Good. God alone.

Back to Seasonal Customs
Back to Being Catholic
Index