St. Cecilia, virgin and martyr, has always been most celebrated in the Church of God; even from the fourth century a Church has been dedicated to her honor in Rome; and honorable mention is made of her, not only in all the martyrologies, but even in the Canon of the Mass. In the eighth century there was a report that Astulphus, King of the Longobards, had carried off the body of our saint from Rome; but she appeared, in a vision, to Pope Paschal I, assured him that the report was false, and encouraged him to seek her relics. The holy pontiff found them, in the cemetery of Prætextatus, Prætextatus, on the Appian road; and, having rebuilt her church, placed them there in the year 821.
After a lapse of nearly eight centuries, when the place in which the saint’s body had been deposited was forgotten, it was again discovered, in 1599, in a case of cypress-wood, within a marble sarcophagus, together with some linen cloths, steeped in her blood. The celebrated Cardinal Baronius witnessed this second discovery; and Pope Clement VIII placed the case, containing her body, in another very precious one of silver, where it still remains.
As regards the history of St. Cecilia, we must observe that some writers doubt the authenticity of her original Acts; but, as they have been generally received, in both the Greek and Latin Churches, for fourteen centuries, we shall make use of them in the present narration. According to the most generally received opinion, our saint was born at Rome about the beginning of the third century, and was descended of a most ancient Roman family. She professed the Christian faith from her childhood, although it is uncertain whether her parents were Christians or idolaters.
By reason of her extraordinary natural endowments, she was sued for by the most opulent and noble of the Roman youth, but invariably declined their offers, as she had dedicated herself entirely to Jesus Christ, and resolved that He only should be her spouse. It is said of her, that she took great delight in playing upon musical instruments, accompanying herself upon which, she used to sing the praises of the Lord. Her Acts also relate that she continually carried about with her a copy of the holy Gospels, in order that she might follow the blessed maxims and counsels therein contained; and her life was accordingly spent in holy prayer, and the mortification of the senses.
In the mean time, her parents determined to give her in marriage to a noble youth, named Valerian. Cecilia, however, lost not her courage; but, during the three days that immediately preceded her marriage, she observed a rigorous fast, and put on a rough sackcloth, which she never afterwards took off. To these penitential practices she added continual prayer, beseeching the Lord Jesus Christ, that he would not permit her to lose that virginity which she had already consecrated to him. She was heard. The Lord consoled her through her angel guardian, who, appearing visibly to her, told her that he would assist her, and that Valerian, although destined to be her spouse, should not offend her. With this assurance she consented to the marriage.
Upon the night following the celebration of this ceremony, St. Cecilia said to Valerian: “Know, Valerian, that I am a Christian. From my infancy I have been consecrated to God, by dedicating to him my virginity; and he has appointed an angel from heaven to protect me from every insult. At thy peril, therefore, do not anything to me, by which thou mayest excite the wrath of the Lord.” Upon hearing this, Valerian was afraid to touch her, and said that he also would believe in Jesus Christ, if he were allowed to see the angel.
Cecilia overjoyed at this announcement, told him that he could not expect such a favor without being baptized. Valerian, inflamed with the desire of seeing the angel, said he was willing to comply with this condition. Hereupon Cecilia directed him to St. Urban, who, by reason of the persecution, was concealed in the catacombs; and Valerian, having received the necessary instruction, was baptized by that holy Pope.
On his return home he found St. Cecilia in prayer, and accompanied by the angel, surrounded with rays of heavenly splendor. As soon as he recovered from the vision, he determined to use all his energies in order to induce his brother, Tiburtius, whom he tenderly loved, to embrace the Christian faith. To this end he related what had happened to himself; and Cecilia, who was present at their conversation, undertook to demonstrate to Tiburtius the truth of the Christian religion, and to show that the superstitions of the pagans were a collection of fables and falsehoods, invented by the devil for the perdition of souls. While she spoke, the grace of God touched the heart of Tiburtius, and he also was instructed and baptized by St. Urban.
The two brothers being thus happily made followers of Jesus Christ, employed themselves in relieving the poor, consoling the confessors of the faith, and burying the bodies of the martyrs. Almachius, prefect of Rome, and mortal enemy of the Christians, being informed of this, summoned them to his presence, and rebuked them for thus identifying themselves with the Christians; but they answered that, having been illuminated by God, they were led to know the vanity and deceit of all worldly things, and that it was madness to prefer the transitory goods of this life to the inamissible joys of heaven.
The prefect asked: “Who has taught ye this folly?” They answered: “It is folly, sir, to worship a statue of stone or of wood, instead of the true God, and to prefer a life that lasts but a few days, to an eternal beatitude. Heretofore we also have partaken of this folly, but henceforth we are resolved to be wiser. And thou, Almachius, shouldst thou continue to worship false gods, shalt bewail thy folly after death, when there shall be no remedy for thy eternal ruin.”
Almachius, enraged at this admonition, caused the brothers to be scourged so cruelly that they were very near expiring under the infliction; yet these young Christians ceased not their thanksgiving to Jesus Christ for having made them worthy to shed their blood for his sake. The prefect then decreed that they should be brought to the temple of Jove to sacrifice, commanding at the same time that they should be put to death in case of refusal. The execution of these orders was entrusted to an officer named Maximus.
The latter, seeing the joy with which the martyrs anticipated death, inquired the reason of their rejoicings. Tiburtius answered: “How is it possible that we would not rejoice, finding that we are about to pass from this miserable life to one of ineffable and never-ending felicity?” Maximus: “There is, then, another life after the present?” Tiburtius: “Most undoubtedly. Our souls are immortal; and after this life, which, although short, is so full of tribulation, there is another life prepared by God for those who serve him faithfully.” Maximus, moved by these words, but more so by the grace of God, said: “If things stand thus, I also will be a Christian.”
The execution of the sentence pronounced against the two saints was thus deferred to the following day; and Maximus was instructed and received baptism that same night, in the presence of St. Cecilia, who spoke most encouragingly of the glory of martyrdom. On the day following the two brothers were beheaded; and Maximus saw their souls, like two bright stars, surrounded by angels, entering into heaven; whereupon, weeping with joy, he exclaimed: “O ye blessed servants of the true God! Who can comprehend your glory as I see it? As I also am a Christian, why can I not enjoy the same blessed lot?” Almachius having heard that his officer had been converted, and that his conversion had been followed by that of many others, ordered him to be beaten with rods. This order was so cruelly executed, that the saint expired during the infliction. The relics of the two martyred brothers were first buried in a place four miles distant from Rome, but were translated to the church of St. Cecilia, in the year 821, by Pope Paschal I.
St. Valerian and St. Tiburtius had left all their property to St. Cecilia, who, foreseeing that her death was not far distant, sold all, and distributed the proceeds among the poor. Almachius discovered that she was a Christian, and had her arrested. Those who were leading her to prison wept to see a young lady of noble birth and extraordinary beauty about to be condemned to death, and besought her to abjure Jesus Christ; but she on the other hand, weeping over their blindness, said: “Ye speak thus because you are ignorant of the happiness of dying for Jesus Christ. Know, then, that I desire nothing more ardently.”
Filled with holy zeal, she showed to the crowd of pagans that surrounded her how happy is the lot of those who believe in the true God, and forego all worldly felicity in the hope of an eternal recompense. Having spoken for some time, she asked them if they believed what she said; and they answered: “Yes, we believe, and wish to become Christians.” This discourse was followed by the conversion of four hundred persons, who were baptized by St. Urban, and the greater part of whom laid down their lives for Jesus Christ.
The glorious conquest of the souls which she had made filled our saint with holy jubilee as she proceeded to prison. Upon being brought before Almachius, he was so enraptured with her beauty and her eloquence that he found himself inclined to dismiss her without any further punishment; but being informed that great numbers had been converted through her means, he endeavored to frighten her by threats of death, in case she refused to obey the edicts.
St. Cecilia replied: “You, indeed, condemn us to death; but, instead of the wretched existence which we thus lose, our God gives us an everlasting life of happiness. How, then, can you wonder that Christians have so little fear of death? You adore a statue of stone formed by a sculptor’s chisel, or an image made from a block that has grown in the forest. These are your gods! But the Christians, on the contrary, adore one only God, the Creator of all things; and for so doing you condemn them to die! And why? Because, forsooth, they will not commit acts of impiety!” Almachius became infuriated at these words, and told her she should obey the emperor; the saint replied that she considered the obligation of obeying God much more stringent. The governor then remanded her to prison.
Fearing that the public execution of such a person might cause a sedition, he ordered that she should be shut up in an oven and suffocated. This, however, not having produced the desired effect, an executioner was sent to cut off her head. The law, in such case, permitted only three strokes; these the executioner gave with all his might, but, failing in his attempt, left her still alive, although weltering in her blood. She prayed to the Lord that she might survive for three days, in order to strengthen in the faith those whom she had converted; and during the entire of this period the house was filled with these zealous neophytes, who became thoroughly confirmed in their religion by the exhortations of St. Cecilia. At the expiration of the three days she placidly rendered her soul to God, and went to receive the reward of so many heroic actions, on the 22d November, in the year 232.
St. Urban, who assisted at her death, had her body buried in the cemetery of Calixtus, and formed her house into a Church, which he dedicated.—From Victories of the Martyrs by St. Alphonsus Liguori