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St. Cecilia, Patron Saint of Musicians and Evangelizer Extraordinaire

November 21, 2016

St Cecilia

November 22nd is the feast day of St. Cecilia. She is the patron saint of musicians, especially church musicians, of which I am one. Prior to my ordination I was at various times a Cantor, a choir director, and an organist.

St. Cecilia was born into a wealthy family in Rome in the 2nd or 3rd century A.D. Her parents promised her in marriage to a pagan nobleman named Valerian, even though she had vowed her virginity to God.

It is said that as the musicians played at her wedding, she “sang in her heart to God.” This story led to her being named the patron saint of (church) musicians, who should themselves sing to God rather than in order to impress human beings.

Prior to the consummation of her marriage, Cecilia told her husband Valerian that she had taken a vow of virginity and that an angel was watching over her to guard her purity. Valerian was skeptical and asked to see the angel as proof. Cecilia told him that he needed faith in order to do so and that he should journey to be baptized by Pope Urban, who was living near the third milestone along the Appian Way. Amazingly, Valerian made the journey.

Following his baptism, Valerian returned to his wife and found the angel by her side. The angel crowned Cecilia with a chaplet of roses and lilies. Shortly thereafter Valerian’s brother, Tibertius, was also baptized. The two brothers made it their mission to bury Christian martyrs who were put to death by the prefect of the city, Turcius Almachius.

Both brothers were eventually arrested and brought to trial before the prefect. They were executed when they refused to offer a sacrifice to the gods.

Meanwhile, the courageous Cecilia went about evangelizing. During her lifetime she was able to convert over four hundred people, most of whom were baptized by Pope Urban.

Cecilia was later arrested and condemned to be suffocated and scalded in the baths. The bathhouse doors were shut and the fires were stoked to an intense heat, but it is said that Cecilia did not even sweat. The prefect then sent an executioner to behead her, and although he struck her three times with the sword, was unable to decapitate her. He left her bleeding, and she clung to life for three days, preaching all the while. After her death, she was buried by Pope Urban and his deacons.

When Cecilia’s body was exhumed in 1599 it was found to be incorrupt; she was the first of the incorrupt saints. She was buried draped in a silk veil and wore a gold embroidered dress.

Give thanks to God for this heroic martyr and fruitful evangelizer!

I often go to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception here in Washington D.C. in order to celebrate Mass. On one occasion when I was in the crypt church, I took a series of photographs of the beautiful mosaics of the women of the Scriptures and the early Church. Among the women depicted there are Agatha, Agnes, Anastasia, Anne, Brigid, Catherine, Cecilia, Lucy, Margarita, Perpetua, Felicity, and Susanna.

At right is a mosaic of St. Cecilia.

The mosaics date back to 1927 and were designed and installed by Ravenna Mosaic Co. of St. Louis. They are the backdrops for the 14 side altars that ring the apse and side galleries of the crypt. Inspiring Latin inscriptions are integral to each mosaic. I could spend hours reading the inscriptions and studying them!

Below is a video I created several years ago of some of the images. The music you hear was composed by Francisco Guerrero. The Latin text of the music is from the Song of Songs: Ego flos campi, et lilium convallium. Sicut lilium inter spinas, sic amica mea inter filias (I am the flower of the field, and the lily of the valleys. As the lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters).

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Comments (3)

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  1. Mary Jackson says:

    Thanks, Msgr. Pope!
    I love the Basilica and in particular the crypt chapel. A visit always includes confession there.
    Thank you for sharing the lovely video.
    If you ever edit it, names with the pictures would be nice.

    When we visited the Basilica with my children, it was always fun to find hints of their patrons there. I remember my daughter & I being excited to ‘find’ Joan if Arc in one if the chapels.

    Love your work!

  2. Peter Wolczuk says:

    Thank you for this. I had only read a little about Saint Cecilia and, only just now learned that her betrothed was a pagan and that there was a conversion. Praise God.
    I have felt that this is time to relate an experience which I’ve only told to a trusted friend, prior to now. So, after careful prayer and meditation;
    A few years ago, when the feast day of Saint Cecilia was on a Saturday, I saw a notice at a downtown church that there would be a banquet for her feast on that Saturday, in a smaller church in a satellite community. So, feeling like one of the workers in the vineyard who had arrived for the last hour, I decided to go and fraternize more with the people who seemed so comfortable (than me) with their faith as I still struggled, with the mind boggling aspects – a bit at a time.
    I bought a ticket and awaited the day/evening.
    On that evening I drove along the highway and, as I turned into the exit for the satellite community, I was overwhelmed with a thought that I first go to a doughnut shop and get an appetizer. I was a bit puzzled by the feeling because I wasn’t hungry and felt that there would be lots of food at the banquet, but the compulsion was strong so I went to the doughnut shop and bought a Boston cream filled, which I paid for with a ten dollar bill. The clerk gave me the doughnut, a five dollar bill and some coins.
    Since my job involves handling a lot of money, I habitually check the serial numbers for any that are the same backwards and forwards – like the word “radar” which is a sometimes informal metaphor for “palindrome” The bill was such a bill so I put it separate pocket, away from the rest of the money.
    The feast was a great experience where a fellow told me of being in Brazil during the Pope’s visit and how happy he was that the Pope had drawn a larger crowd than the Rolling Stones had.
    At any rate, come Monday (maybe Tuesday) I engaged in prayer and meditation. Just cannot recall if I was at the Tuesday prayer group because time seems so different during such moments.
    There seemed to be a presence that communicated, not in words but in concepts, that she was Saint Cecilia and that she was present during prayer so that I knew that there was no evil trickery and, that the five dollar bill was a thanking gift for my attendance at her feast.
    My mind is still overwhelmed by this sort of thing, which only comes to me weeks or months apart. Time always feels so different, also, the misinterpretation of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity like/which I suspect. Why money? Well, it’s what I collect.
    My hands are shaking so … will send comment before giving in to temptation to close the page and cause the comment to be lost. Such feelings often remind me of Jeremiah’s reluctance when he received his calling. Only fear of the consequences, of not following through, keep me going.

  3. Peter Wolczuk says:

    http://www.cntraveler.com/stories/2015-12-02/austin-hotel-saint-cecilia-inspired-best-foo-fighters-album-in-a-decade

    This just came up on the page of a facebook group that I belong to. It’s a year old but, now is when it came up.