Years ago, a priest gave me organ lessons, training me to accompany the sacred liturgy for a community of religious sisters. The sisters gifted me a statuette of St. Cecilia, patroness of musicians. It was a miniature of Stefano Maderno’s sculpture depicting Cecilia after her martyrdom. Lying lifeless on her side with a gash in her neck, Cecilia limply holds up three fingers on one hand and a single finger on the other, a silent witness to the Trinity.
Cecilia was born into an aristocratic Roman family in the 2nd century, AD. She vowed to be a perpetual virgin for Christ, but her parents forced her into marriage with a nobleman. Adorned in her wedding dress, Cecilia approached her future husband, but in her heart, she implored God to guard her vow of perpetual virginity. Her prayer has been likened to song in this Vespers antiphon reserved for her feast day: “While the organs were singing, Cecilia sang in her heart to the Lord alone, saying, ‘Let my heart and my body be undefiled, O Lord, that I may not be confounded.’”
“Let my heart and my body be undefiled, O Lord, that I may not be confounded.”
God answered Cecilia’s prayer by providing a way for her to be married yet celibate. Empowered by grace, Cecilia persuaded her husband Valerian and his brother Tibertius to be baptized. The men wholeheartedly followed her example of virtue, and together the trio stealthily provided burials for martyred Christians and shared their wealth with the poor. Christian persecution was a daily terror under pagan authorities in Rome, and soon Valerian and Tibertius were caught, interrogated, and condemned to death.
Like Valerian and Tibertius who were martyred before her, Cecilia refused to deny Christ and burn incense to pagan idols. Placed before a judge who asked for her name, Cecilia replied, “Men call me Cecilia, but my most beautiful name is that of Christian.”
“Men call me Cecilia, but my most beautiful name is that of Christian.”
The judge condemned Cecilia to be suffocated in her palace’s heated baths. Legend holds that instead of suffocating, she sang! Confounded by her survival, her executor attempted to behead her. After three failed attempts, Cecilia was left alone to bleed to death from the wounds in her neck.
Cecilia lay on the floor dying for three days. “To die for Christ,” Cecilia said, “is not to sacrifice one’s youth, but to renew it. It is relinquishing a perishable thing and receiving in turn an immortal gift.” In her final moments, she asked Pope St. Urban to consecrate her palace as a church, so that her home would always be the Temple of God.
“To die for Christ,” Cecilia said, “is not to sacrifice one’s youth, but to renew it. It is relinquishing a perishable thing and receiving in turn an immortal gift.”
Fittingly, St. Cecilia’s incorrupt body has been entombed below the altar of the church that bears her name. In Catholic tradition, the altar of a church signifies both the table of the last supper and the wood of the cross. It is a place of offering, sacrifice, and communion. Seen this way, St. Cecilia’s earthly life was a continual approach to the altar, reaching its ultimate crescendo in her martyrdom.
Feast Day: November 22nd
This reflection was written by Candice Punzalan. Originally from Northern California, Candice moved to Orange County to accept a full-ride scholarship from California State University, Fullerton. She earned both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Accounting. Her favorite job so far was teaching financial accounting to college students. She loved seeing her students grow in confidence and skill. Candice’s current hobbies include playing the piano, learning Spanish, and cooking Filipino food with her mom. Her dream is to travel the world, write, and teach.