Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Viva Agata!

Finally, in my fourth year in Sicily, I got to see Sant' Agata (Saint Agatha) in Catania! It was all I had hoped for and easier than I imagined.

Sant' Agata is the patron saint of Catania, a legendary Catholic saint of rock star proportion, who brings out well over a million people to see her for three days every February. Agata was an early Christian virgin from a wealthy family who refused to give up her Christian beliefs even when she was horribly tortured by the Roman governor (who wanted her) at the time. Her breasts were cut off, and this is often portrayed in statues (on a plate) and even as cookies that are made at this time of year. Eventually, she was condemned to be burned at the stake, but a violent earthquake occured and the local Catanians took it as a sign from God to stop the execution. She was brought back to her prison cell (enshrined in a local church on Via Agata) and she soon died there. The year was 251 A.D. Her body was returned to Catania from Turkey in 1126. Since then, Agata has intervened and saved Catanian and it loyal citizens many times, from earthquakes, the volcano, war, and more.

The three day festival of Sant' Agata consists of many events, but all revolves around a 24-hour-a-day procession of the relics of the saint and a bust of her semblance being taken all around the city on an ornate carriage pulled by hundreds of robed devotees pulling it with long, long ropes. It is considered a great honor to be one of these. (Note: Until recently, it was only men who performed this, but now there are a few women doing it, too.) As she goes around the city, various religious events occur at certain places until she is brought back to her silver secured room in the cathedral and locked away for another year.

My friend Jan Sibayan is the one who finally got me to see Agata. The first year I was here, it passed before I knew what it was, the second was horrible weather, and last year the soccer riots practically stopped the whole thing. Jan and I left school as soon as we could on Monday and got downtown early. After a cappucino at the Bar Kennedy, we found a great position in the Piazza Carlo Alberto where the main Catania market usually is and waited with hundreds of others for the procession. The atmosphere was festive with singing, vendors, families, and an air of expectancy. I had the feeling that many of the people were parishioners of the Church of the Carmine, on whose very steps we found a great place to wait for Agata.

When the procession appeared, some time after 4:30, many people took out white handkerchiefs and waved them in the air, which is symbolic of the return of Agata to Catania. They stopped right in front of the church, and us, for prayers, speeches, fireworks, crowd cheering, and the passing of candles, flowers, notes/interecessions, and even babies onto the 16-foot long silver "Vara" carrying the statue and relics of the saint herself. The purpose of these actions is to give thanks or ask for help from Agata. A priest and several robed helpers were there to collect all the stuff from people. This went on for quite a while and the towers got a little rest.

I didn't realize that it wasn't just the processors who wore the robes and little black hats and the medals, but nearly everybody there--man, woman, and child--wear the same outfit. It's wild. Flint, Jan's husband, joined us there. I told them we should all get the outfit and wear it next year, especially as we expect it to be our last year in Sicily. (See their guest blog from two years ago HERE.)

We then walked further into the heart of the city and the route the saint would be taking was lined with thousands as it began to get dark. Many people were on the sides of the street that passed her prison cell and went up a hill. Apparently it's really something to see them pull the very heavy Agata carriage up this hill. We saw Agata's carriage again later, from a distance, and experienced more fireworks. The city is decked out during these days with the traditional festa lights and lots of vendors with souvenirs, candles, and food. I already can't wait for next year. "Viva Agata!"

See all photos from this event HERE.


At February 06, 2008 3:23 PM, Anonymous Susan said...

Very interesting blog entry. It is a nice combination of history and experience! -Susan


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