When I was a kid, my parents had an old, battered and tattered Family Bible, in the back of which was a long list of saints. I was fascinated by the entry for St. Aquilina. It was nothing but her name, of course — but her name was my name, and I was not accustomed to seeing my last name in lights. At nine years old, I couldn’t imagine a time or a place where people observed naming conventions that were different from my own. (Even Jesus had a last name, right? Jesus Christ.) What’s more, I could hardly imagine a Church where all the important people didn’t have names like McCormick and O’Brien.
Yet here was this little-girl saint, who apparently went by her last name, which happened to be my last name — a last name that ended in a vowel.
My distant cousin, my paesan, St. Aquilina had made it to the back pages of a Catholic Bible — and from an Irish publisher, no doubt, like P.J. Kenedy & Sons. I don’t recall whether I fantasized about a Da Vinci Code-style bloodline transmitting fortitude across the centuries, but I might have.
Fast-forward many years, to the advent of the World Wide Web. When my son first taught me how to surf, he plugged in our surname, to impress me with a vanity search. And who should we find but my long-lost cuz, St. Aquilina, the child martyr of Byblos, Lebanon. The Maronite Research Institute had built up an impressive virtual shrine of scholarship in her honor, all sumptuously illustrated.
She’s not a Father. She never even reached the age to be a mother! But she lived in the patristic era, and so she lives within the purview of this blog, and she’s worth getting to know.
Aquilina was born in Byblos in 281 … She received her catechism from Evthalios, Bishop of Byblos. Her heart was inflamed with the love of Christ; hence her faith and fervor radiated like the sun in Byblos and its surroundings. At the age of twelve, Aquilina began an endeavor to spread Christianity among her compatriots. That was done through her example and teachings driven by the zeal of apostles and the innocence of children. Due to her preaching, many of the pagans were baptized, especially young lads and maidens. She was reported to and brought before Magistrate Volusian during the reign of Emperor Diocletian, and, according to ancient tradition, this dialogue took place:
“I am Christian,” she answered, when Volusian questioned her.
The Magistrate said, “You are leading your friends and comrades away from the religion of our gods to the belief in Christ, the Crucified. Don’t you know that our kings condemn this Christ and sentence to death those who worship Him? Leave this error and offer oblation to the gods and you shall live. If you refuse, you shall undergo the most atrocious sufferings.”
You can guess where this story is going. I’m told that Aquilina is to the eastern churches what Agnes is to the west: an icon of Christian innocence crushed under the heel of Diocletian, in the Roman Empire’s last, worst, and most systematic persecution.