Malta, with its still devoutly Christian population, is justly famed as the island which was hospitable to the shipwrecked Apostle Paul (Acts 27-28). Indeed, there are several sites on Malta associated with the Apostle of the Nations, for example St Paul’s Bay. Moreover, Publius, the ‘chief man of the island’ (Acts 28, 7) is later said to have become the Bishop of Athens, where he suffered as a martyr in the year 112. Nevertheless, the island’s patroness is St Agatha, a martyr of the island of Sicily, barely fifty miles away. Her Life is as follows:
Agatha was born in the third century in Palermo in Sicily to a noble and prosperous family. She was renowned for her Christian piety, virtue, beauty and also wealth, which she later inherited from her parents. When in 251 the Roman Emperor Decius began a persecution of Orthodox, Agatha was arrested and taken to Catania on the east coast for judgement before the governor Quintian.
On seeing Agatha's beauty, Quintian desired her for his wife. When he suggested this to her, she replied that she was the bride of Christ and could not be faithless to her Betrothed. Quintian tried to make her renounce her Orthodox Faith through his blandishments. Failing in this, he turned to barbaric tortures. First, Agatha was shamelessly hung from a tree, then mocked and beaten with iron bars until she bled. After this the governor again urged her to deny Christ and so escape further torture, to which she replied: ‘These tortures are of great help to me. As wheat cannot come to the granary, until it is cleansed of its chaff, so my soul cannot enter Paradise, until my body has first been broken by torture’. The torturer then ordered that her breasts be cut off and that she be thrown into prison.
It was here that the holy Apostle Peter appeared to her and restored her to physical wholeness and health. Once again, however, she was taken out for torture. Seeing that she had been healed, Quintian asked who had done this. She answered: ‘Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God’. The governor was enraged and again Agatha was tortured. At this an earthquake took place. Quintian, besieged by the local inhabitants, relented from torture and cast Agatha back into prison. Here, in prison in Catania, she gave up her soul to God.
After her death, her demonic torturer Quintian at once set out to appropriate St Agatha’s lands and riches. Accompanied by his troops, Quintian had at one point to cross a deep river by ferry. While crossing the river, Quintian’s horse bit him in the face, disfiguring him, trampled on him, and threw him into the river, where he drowned. His body was never found - like his soul it was lost for ever. Very soon a church was built over St Agatha’s relics and her clothing placed on her tomb.
Exactly a year after this, on 5th February 252, the nearby volcano Mt Etna erupted. Local people gathered and begged the prayers of St Agatha, using her clothing as if it were a shield. The fire and lava from the volcano returned and subsided. After this St Agatha’s fame spread to the island of Malta, where her memory is kept, as all over the Orthodox world, on 5th February.
Holy Virgin-Martyr Agatha, pray to God for us and the people of Malta!