Feast Day : November 22
Patronage: composers; music; musicians; organ builders; singers
The story of Cecilia, a popular saint, is thought to be fiction built upon fact. Cecilia is said to have been born in Rome to a patrician family and was brought up Christian. Dates of her life vary; by some accounts, she is believed to have lived in the second century and died about 177, and by other accounts she lived in the third century. She decided at a young age that she would remain a virgin for the love of God. Her father, however, pledged her to marry a young patrician man named Valerian. On the day of her marriage, Cecilia wore sackcloth next to her skin, fasted, and invoked the saints and angels to help her guard her virginity. She told her husband, “I have a secret to tell you. You must know that I have an angel of God watching over me. If you touch me in the way of marriage he will be angry and you will suffer; but if you respect my maidenhood he’ll love you as he loves me.” Valerian said, “Show me this angel. If he be of God, I will refrain as you wish.” Cecilia answered, “If you believe in the living and one true God and receive the water of baptism, then you shall see the angel.” Valerian agreed. Cecilia sent him to Urban (destined to be pope from 223 to 230), who baptized him. When he returned, he found Cecilia praying in her chamber. Standing beside her was an angel with flaming wings, holding two crowns of roses and lilies. The angel placed the crowns on their heads and vanished. Shortly after, Tibertius, the brother of Valerian, entered the chamber and marveled at the fragrance and beauty of the flowers at that season of the year. He also consented to be baptized. Valerian and Tibertius devoted themselves to burying the martyrs slain daily by the prefect of the city, Turcius Almachius. [Note: There is no record of a prefect by that name.] They were arrested and brought before the prefect, and when they refused to sacrifice to the gods they were beheaded. Dying with them was a man named Maximus, who declared himself a Christian after witnessing their courage. Cecilia was called upon to renounce her faith. Instead she began preaching and converting others. She summoned 400 persons to her home, where Urban baptized them all. Cecilia was arrested and was condemned to be suffocated in the bathroom of her own house. She was shut in for a night and a day. The furnace was stoked with seven times the amount of normal fuel, but Cecilia was not harmed. When Almachius heard this he sent a soldier to cut off her head in the bath. The man struck three times without being able to sever her head. He left her bleeding. Cecilia lived three days. Crowds came and collected her blood with napkins and sponges while she preached to them or prayed. After she died, she was buried by Urban and his deacons in the catacomb of St. Callistus. Pope Paschal I (r. 817–824) wished to transfer the saint’s body to a place of honor but could not locate it. In a dream, she told him where to find it. He translated the relics, along with the bones of Valerian, Tibertius and Maximus, to the Church of St. Cecilia, an old and decayed church dedicated to the saint, and believed to be built on the site of her family home. He founded a monastery in their honor. In 1599 Cardinal Paul Emilius Sfondrati, nephew of Pope Gregory XIV (r. 1590–91), rebuilt the church of St. Cecilia. The sarcophagus of Cecilia was opened and her body and clothing were found intact. The cypress casket was put on display for a month until November 22, the feast of Cecilia. A sweet fragrance issued from it. The relic was then placed in a silver coffin and interred behind the main altar. The story of Cecilia may have arisen along with other stories that glorified virginity and were popular at the time. A Greek religious romance on the “Loves of Cecilia and Valerian” appeared in the fourth century, apparently intended to replace more sensual romances. The Roman calendar of the fourth century and the Carthaginian calendar of the fifth century make no mention of Cecilia, which surely would have been the case had her story been true. Additionally, Christians were not persecuted and condemned by Emperor Alexander Severus, who reigned when Urban was pope, though it is possible some may have suffered. As for the prefect, Urbanus served in that capacity during the time of Pope Urban. Other versions of the story of Cecilia say events took place under the reigns of the emperors Commodus or Marcus. Reportedly a church was dedicated to Cecilia in Rome in the fifth century, in which Pope Symmachus (r. 498–514) held a council in 500. But Symmachus held no council in that year, and subsequent councils were held elsewhere. Cecilia does not appear to have been known or venerated in Rome until about the time when Pope St. Gelasius (r. 492–496) introduced her name into his Sacramentary. Her name was entered into the Eucharistic prayer. Cecilia is regarded as the patron of music because on the day of her marriage she heard heavenly music and sang to God in her heart. In art she is represented with an organ or organ-pipes in her hand.