The last few days has seen the Church celebrate the feasts of three of the martyrs of the Great Persecution - those who were killed under Diocletian. Sebastian, Agnes and Vincent of Saragossa - a Milanese, a Roman and a Spaniard, revealing how widespread that persecution was. Of course they also reveal the variety of people who chose to die rather than renounce Christ, people from various walks of life. Sebastian was a soldier,a man of the world; Agnes was a young girl from a noble and wealthy Roman family, from a generation usually cossetted and taken up with frivolities, Agnes was precocious in her faith and her commitment to Christ. Vincent, a deacon, spending his life, and himself, in the service of the Church. All three lived in the world, would have been happy to live their lives in the midst of the world; but those lives would have been immersed in Christ and the Gospel, and the world, and its secular powers, was threatened by that. I have been thinking about Agnes and Vincent in the context of where we are now.
Agnes chose the way of virginity: she is a virgin martyr dying as much for her virginity as her faith - indeed for her the two were so intimately connected they could not be separated. In other times she may have been a consecrated religious, but not necessarily - there are those who are called to live the virginal life in the midst of the world. Agnes refused to marry, her suitors, offended at being turned down, denounced her as a Christian to the authorities, she was arrested and interrogated. If she agreed to give up her virginity, give in to the sexual mores of Roman society, she would have been spared. She refused and she was killed.
Agnes's witness in terms of her virginity is twofold. While she did not demean marriage, she discerned it was not her calling. As a Christian she understood her relationship as being one of total gift to Christ, of virginal consecration. This witness is beautiful but also challenging, it reveals to all of us that our being disciples of Christ will require a commitment which will effect the way we live our lives - to be a real Christian we have to allow the Gospel soak into our flesh as well as our souls, minds and hearts, and that will have consequences for how we live our lives. Our lives, even the intimate aspects of our lives, may well have to change.
Agnes's witness to virginity also reminds us of something else: sex is not everything. We live in a society that has idolized sex, so much so that there are many people, Christians among them, who cannot understand how anyone can live without having sex, usually on a regular basis. Attacks on priestly celibacy usually emerge from this opinion, not from any concern for individual priests and their lives. There is also a certain Gnosticism attached to sex: having sex regularly, seems in the views of some, to confer a singular wisdom, an insight into reality which is denied to the virginal, the celibate and the chaste. Hence as priests we often hear people tell us we know nothing about real life because we are not married or we are virgins. Even in the context of marriage sex is not everything - the commitment is deeper than that. If a marriage is based on sex alone, or it is the most important aspect of the marriage, that marriage might not last, one of the spouses may well begin to feel that they are nothing more than a slave for the desires of the other.
Agnes, however, teaches us otherwise. She was a confident, free and wise young woman. She was courageous and strong even though she was so young when she was killed. She teaches us that we need to rethink our attitude to sex - it is not the be all and the end all. Of course it is important, it is a gift of God, but must be approached in its proper context (marriage), aware of its proper ends and the powerful passions which attach to it. The desire for sex can become one which can overpower us, and I think we see that clearly in society as morals, laws and the very fabric society is now being dismantled to cater for sexual desire. Lust, if raised to the level of a master and a judge, quickly becomes a tyrant; when given free reign it will never be a servant and will eventually destroy. God gave us reason and virtue to help us control our passions, he gave us the Commandments and the Gospel to assist our reason and help us form our virtues, and we should take account of this. We must also remember that the greatest act of love the world has ever seen was not a physical act of intimacy between lovers but rather the sacrifice of the God-man on the cross.
St Vincent's example is one of fortitude in the midst of tremendous suffering. Like Agnes he would not conform to the desires of his persecutors who wanted to wipe out his virtuous adherence to the Gospel by renouncing his faith. If only Vincent had conformed he would have had it all, they lamented. They tried persuasion, as they usually do: how happy and fulfilled he would be if he followed their way of life. Yet, they were not happy, they were ensnared in vice and greed. The faithful deacon said no, and so they inflicted pain: he will give in if we keep torturing him - we will wear him down, he will have no choice but to renounce his faith and then our consciences will be eased. But Vincent did not give in: it was not stubbornness, it was the grace and strength of God - Vincent's persecutors forgot that they were not just attacking a man, they were attacking God and he has ways and means to resist that attack. We are told in the account of his martyrdom that Vincent was serene in the midst of his sufferings - the Lord he loved was supporting him. And so he died, falling, not into the pit of his enemies, but into the arms of his Saviour.
In the coming months we in Ireland are going to face something of what Vincent faced. The ungodly fury of those who hate our Christian faith will be unleashed as they try to force us to endorse what we know to be wrong. First they will try to persuade, tell us that to be really Christian and kind we have to go along with them. If we resist that, they will turn on us, attack us, and who knows what after that. Vincent's example should inspire us to remain steadfast and serene. We cannot endorse what is wrong nor should we facilitate others in doing what is wrong.
May these holy martyrs watch over us in these times, assist us their prayers, and come down from heaven to stand by our sides in the midst of tribulation.