St. Lucy

(Feast December 13)

Lucy, the little virgin martyr who was executed for the Faith in 304 AD, is another of those saints about whom we know little except that she was internationally popular. The story of her life and death that comes to us is not dependable, but here it is for what it is worth.

Lucy was born to wealthy Christian parents in Syracuse (Siracusa), Sicily. In her teens she made a private vow of virginity. Not knowing about this, her widowed mother proposed that she marry a young man who was a pagan. Now, the mother suffered at this time from a bleeding ailment. Lucy persuaded her that they both go to Catania, Sicily, to pray for a cure at the tomb of St. Agatha. At Catania, the mother was indeed cured. Then Lucy decided to tell her about her vow. Thereafter, the parent no longer pressed her daughter to marry.

However, the pagan suitor was not ready to give up. In fact, he was so angry when Lucy refused him that he denounced her as a Christian to the governor of Catania. One of the cruelest of the torments used on young Christian women in the Roman persecution was to sentence them to imprisonment in a house of prostitution. The pagan authorities believed, understandably, that if a Christian could be broken in morals, she could also be broken in Faith. But, according to her legend, Lucy became miraculously immovable when the guards tried to take her to her prison. Eventually, they executed her by puncturing her throat with a sword. She was then twenty-three.

Lucy’s popularity as a saint is especially testified to by the listing of her name in the Roman Missal. In Eucharistic Prayer I, we invoke the aid, among others, of “Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, Cecilia, Anastasia, and all the saints.”

Legend has made Lucy popular for additional reasons. The name Lucy is associated with the Latin word “lux” (“light”), so she has in various ways been associated with light (and blindness). A late medieval story said that her executioners tore out her eyes, but they were miraculously restored before she died. Therefore, you can usually recognize an image of St. Lucy by the dish she holds bearing two eyeballs! So she has become a patron for those with poor eyesight, and also of photographers.

The day on which Lucy’s feast is kept used to be the shortest day of the year. Therefore, in Scandinavia before the Protestant Reformation, Lucy was looked upon as the bringer of a new light year. The bonfires that were once burned in her honor are no more. However, there is still a custom in Sweden and Norway for a young girl in each family to dress in white on Lucy’s feastday, and, donning a crown in which burning candles are placed, to awaken her family bearing a breakfast tray.

Lucy’s relics were first enshrined in her home city of Siracusa, Sicily, but because of her widespread popularity, she became, as Italians say, “the most kidnapped saint in paradise.” Greeks from Constantinople stole her relics from Siracusa in 1039. In 1204, Venetians stole them from their shrine in Constantinople. But their purpose was not to restore them to Siracusa; rather to enshrine them in Venice. Apparently, the church built for her was near one of the parking stands of the famous Venetian canal-taxies, the “gondolas”. Hence, the familiar “homecoming” song of the Venetian gondoliers, “Santa Lucia”. In 1400 Lucy’s tomb was moved by a group of Augustinian nuns to another part of Venice. Then it was finally moved to the Church of St. Jeremy in the last century. But even that was not the end. On November 7, 1981, armed bandits broke into Lucy’s Venetian tomb and stole all her bones except the head. Whether the relics have ever been restored, I have not learned. One might suspect that this devout robbery was instigated by people from Siracusa, who, understandably, would like to have their own little saint back home.

Isn’t it wonderful when people love saints so much that they will steal their relics? Their devotion sets us an example, even if their methods don’t!

--Father Robert F. McNamara