St. Agatha Is an Ancient Saint Who Knew All About ‘Modern’ Problems

St. Agatha was a young woman who was martyred in Sicily more than 1,700 years ago during the persecution of Decius.

Sebastiano del Piombo, “St. Agatha,” ca. 1540
Sebastiano del Piombo, “St. Agatha,” ca. 1540 (photo: Public Domain)

According to a poll conducted recently for Newsweek, 18% of U.S. voters say they’re “more likely” or “significantly more likely” to vote for a candidate endorsed by singer Taylor Swift.

While many base their picks for president or even the Super Bowl on the pop culture icon’s preferences, they would find in another saintly role model not only inspiration to grow in virtue but also a sympathetic friend, who almost 2,000 years ago suffered from some of the “modern” problems many experience today.

St. Agatha was a young, consecrated virgin whose martyrdom in Sicily in A.D. 251 during the persecution of Decius has been authenticated by the Church. Some of the details of her story may come more from tradition than historical fact, according to one source, but the sufferings she’s said to have offered for Christ, including being forced to live in a brothel and having her breasts cut off, have for centuries inspired many to honor her holiness and courage.

If her story is accurate, Agatha knew more than most about the experience of sex trafficking. She also had firsthand knowledge of the pain women experience who have their breasts removed surgically.

Agatha was born into a wealthy Sicilian family and consecrated her life to God at a young age. When a prominent senator sought both her hand and her estate, she refused. He had her arrested and threatened to expose her for violating the Emperor’s decree against Christianity. Agatha stood firm and the spurned governor committed her to the care of a woman who ran a brothel with her six prostitute daughters.

It’s hard to imagine how Agatha could have resisted the constant attacks and temptations she must have faced in the brothel but she managed to maintain her chastity, according one account.

Many of the young women, men and children who fall into the hands of human traffickers don’t have the grace or strength to resist their captors. Some, including migrants seeking to reach the U.S., are drugged and abused by cartels who force them into sex trafficking as payment for guiding them to the U.S. border.

Of the 6.3 million worldwide in forced commercial sexual exploitation in 2021, 4.9 million were women and girls, according to statistics reported by the International Labour Organization, a United Nations agency that sets labor standards, and develops policies and programs promoting work. More than 1.6 million of the 27.6 million who were in forced labor were children in commercial sexual exploitation.

Unlike some sex-trafficking victims, Agatha was eventually released from the brothel and brought again before the senator who after learning that she’d maintained her virtue in the brothel ordered that she be stretched on the rack. Her cheerfulness during the torture enraged him and he had his soldiers crush and cut off her breasts.

At this torture, Agatha reproached the senator: “Cruel tyrant, do you not blush to torture this part of my body, you that nursed at the breasts of a woman yourself?”

Not moved, he sent Agatha back to the prison, denying her food and forbidding any salve for her wounds. In prison, she saw a vision of St. Peter in prison who is said to have miraculously healed her breasts.

Without St. Peter’s intervention, Agatha’s martyrdom likely would have been completed with the savage removal of her breasts.

On the other hand, modern breast removal is a common surgical procedure that can be done in several ways to facilitate breast reconstruction when it is done to treat or prevent cancer. Still, according to the Mayo Clinic, there are risks to the surgery, including bleeding, infection, delayed healing, pain, swelling, scar tissue at the surgical site, shoulder pain and stiffness, numbness in the chest, buildup of blood in the surgical site (hematoma) and changes in bodily appearance after surgery.

As Agatha lamented her loss, cancer survivors feel the impact of mastectomy surgery in different ways. A 2018 study showed that mastectomies have a negative impact on women’s body image and quality of life and there was a strong positive correlation between body image and quality of life.

St. Peter probably won’t appear in a vision to heal all the women who, like Agatha, feel the loss of their body parts, but healing may happen in other ways.

The removal of Agatha’s breasts didn’t end her suffering; she was later rolled over burning coals.

According to one report she prayed while being carried back to prison: “Lord, my Creator, you have ever protected me from the cradle; you have taken me from the love of the world, and given me patience to suffer: receive now my soul.”

Without a doubt, Agatha understands what many in our modern culture suffer today. Almost two millennia after giving up her own life for Christ, she a friend to those experiencing pain and a great intercessor for all desiring to reach heaven.

St. Agatha, pray for us!