What's in a Name?
by Mike Aquilina
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 8 years old, living in an immigrant ghetto in small-town Pennsylvania, 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 in which all the important people didn’t have names like McCormick, Hafey, and Hannan.
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 printed by an Irish- American publisher. 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. (It now resides on Wikipedia.)
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 column. And she’s worth getting to know.
Aquilina was born in Byblos toward the end of the third century. Like Catholic kids today, she learned her catechism. But she didn’t stop at being a good student. When she was 12, she began to speak to her pagan neighbors about the Christian faith. Her words bowled them over because they flowed from a good life and innocence of soul. Aquilina made many friends, and she made them for Christ. Under her influence, they asked for baptism.
This made some pagan parents furious, and they looked upon Aquilina as a menace. When persecution began to heat up, they seized the opportunity and denounced her before a magistrate. Professing Christianity was, after all, a crime punishable by death—a sentence backed up by two centuries of Roman legal precedent.
In court, Aquilina admitted without hesitation: "I am Christian."
The magistrate fumed, "You are leading your friends and companions 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 sacrifice to the gods, and you shall live. But, if you refuse, you shall undergo the most atrocious sufferings."
You can guess where this story is going. Aquilina was executed on June 13 in the year 293.
Today, St. Aquilina is to the Eastern Churches what St. Agnes is to the West: an icon of Christian innocence crushed under the heel of a hostile pagan world.
But is she really my cousin? Well, as far as I know, no one’s drawn DNA from her relics, so I can’t say for sure. But she is family because she and I were born from the same Mother Church. I like to share her story with my kids—and hope we can all live up to the name.
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Mike Aquilina is vice president of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology and a general editor of The Catholic Vision of Love catechetical series. Please visit his blog
for more articles on the early church. “What's in a Name?” first appeared in the Jul/Aug 2007 Issue of Lay Witness Magazine. Copyright Catholics United for the Faith
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