Deus, qui inter cetera potentiae tuae miracula,
etiam in sexu fragili victoriam martyrii contulisti:
ut, qui beatae Apolloniae Virginis et Martyris tuae natalitia colimus,
per ejus ad te exempla gradiamur.
O God, who among the other wonders of Your might,
conferred also upon the weak sex the victory of martyrdom:
that we who celebrate the heavenly birthday of blessed Apollonia the virgin and martyr
may through her examples advance unto You.
St. Apollonia was a virgin who suffered martyrdom in Alexandria c A.D. 249 during an uprising against the Christians just before persecutions by Decius. During the celebrations for the millennium of the founding of Rome the pagan population were roused up against Christians. The Bishop of Alexandria Dionysius (+265) in a letter to Fabius of Antioch described the situation. Excerpts from the letter were cited by Eusebius in his Ecclesiatical History (1, 4, 41). He describes the death of St. Apollonia: "These men seized her also and by repeated blows broke all her teeth. They then erected outside the city gates a pile of fagots and threatened to burn her alive if she refused to repeat after them impious words. Given, at her own request, a little freedom, she sprang quickly into the fire and was burned to death."
In the early Church the examples of brave women like Apollonia were the basis for reflection on the equality of men and women by great theologians such as St. Augustine of Hippo (+430). While asserting the usual position that women were by nature subordinate to men in the order of things, Augustine argued that in matters of faith and the bravery shown in martyrdom men and women were equals and equally in God’s image and likeness.
The newest edition of the Martyrologium Romanum describes her day this way:
1. Alexandriae in AEgypto, commemoratio sanctae Apolloniae, virginis et martyris, quae post multa a crudelia persecutorum tormenta, cum impia verba proferre recusavisset, flammis se dari maluit quam a fide deficere.
This echoes the tale told by Eusebius.
Sometimes scoffers and scholars (often overlapping categories) will deny the historical veracity of the stories of ancient virgin martyrs saying, among other things, that they can’t be true because a) their stories are often very similar and b) young girls (much less most adults) don’t have it in them to resist the sort of cruelty inflicted on them. It is true that many of the stories of ancient virgin martyrs are similar in some of their details. To me that merely suggests that people often behave in much the same way in similar circumstances and that the evils that men are wont to inflict on their fellow man have much the same origin. Furthermore, if the lives of martyrs are examples, then why should not people imitate them? Furthermore, one of God’s gifts to humanity is that He chooses the weak and makes them strong in order to show forth His own love and power to the world. Thus, why should not a young girl be as bold and steadfast as a company of Marines when being put to the ultimate challenge for the sake of the Faith and not just their country? If anyone were ever to wonder if these ancient stories were true or not, that young girls and women endured boldy torments which are hard to even imagine, one need only look at the stories of the Chinese martyrs. There is a fine website for the Church of the Chinese Martyrs in Toronto which has the stories of many of the martyrs, who died in ways that nearly exactly duplicate the tales of the martyrs of ancient Rome. Among these Chinese martyrs was the little girl Anna Wang, 14 years old, not much older than the Roman virgin martyr Agnes.
Indeed, here is an example of three amazing saints, women killed at the time of the Boxer Rebellion. St. Maria Zhao-Guo (mother 1840-1900), St. Rosa Zhao (daughter 1878-1900) and St. Mary Zhao (daughter – 1883-1900) were from from Zhaojiacun of Wuchiao County in Hebei Province. Maria was the mother of two daughters, Rosa and Mary, who both remained celibate their entire lives. Rosa was also a catechist. On 28 July 1900, they hid in a well to avoid a band of Boxers. The Boxers found then and tried to force them to deny their Catholic Faith. Rosa answered: "We have already made up our minds that we would rather die then deny our Faith." Then Rosa told her mother and sister to pray to Jesus, asking for help and strength to give up their lives for the Faith. A man named Zhao Wuhai begged the Boxers to spare them, but Rosa said, "Don’t waste your time trying to save us. Since we want to keep our faith, we are happy to die for it." Rosa then told the Boxers: "This is not a proper place for execution. If you want to kill us, take us to the cemetery where our ancestors are buried and kill us there." The Boxers took them to the Zhao family cemetery, where they decapitated them and burned their heads to ashes. They were beatified by Pius XII on 17 April 1955, and canonized by John Paul II 1 October 2000 (much to the rage of the Communist Party of the PRC).