Saints of the Day – 4 November – St Vitalis (Died c 304) and St Agricola (Died c 304) Martyrs, Laymen. They died in c 304 in Bologna, Italy in the persecution of Diocletian. Patronage – Bologna.
The Roman Martyrology reads: “In Bologna, Saints Vitalis and Agricola, Martyrs, of whom, according to what Saint Ambrose recounts, the first was first a slave to the other, then a companion in Martyrdom: Vitalis, in fact, suffered such torments that there was no longer any part of his body without wound. Agricola, not at all terrified by the torture of his slave, imitated him in Martyrdom by undergoing crucifixion.”
At the roots of the Bolognese Church, there is the figure of two Martyrs, distinguished by social class but united by the Palm of death due to faith. Vitalis and Agricola, servant and master, launched, with their testimony, a message of equality and solidarity that would have public recognition, at the rise of freedom, with the decree of liberation of the serfs (Liber Paradisus).
The oldest memory of the two Proto-martyrs of Bologna, dates back to St Ambrose (340-397) and St Paulinus of Nola (354-431), who attest to their “connection and bonds of Martyrdom.” Their bodies were rediscovered in the Jewish cemetery by Bishop Eusebius and, in 393, were transferred by St Ambrose to the Milan.
Their cult was already widespread in the 5th and 6th Centuries. Their Relics are venerated in the Mother Church of Bologna. At the end of the sixth Century, St Gregory of Tours, in one of his works complained that there was no “passio” of the Saints Vitalis and Agricola. However, this was not entirely correct, as the reports on the two Bolognese Proto-martyrs is based on an authentic statement by the Milanese Bishop St Ambrogio in 392, as well as one of St Paulinus ofi Nola in 403. Two stories have also been included in the Acta Sanctorum also attributed to St Ambrose himself.
In reality, Vitalis and Agricola had been absolutely unknown until 392, the year in which the Bolognese Bishop, St Eusebius, announced the discovery of their remains in a Jewish cemetery in today’s Emilian capital. He gave them a new burial, with a Christian rite, an event which was also attended by St Ambrose, who spoke of the Martyrs in his sermon and invited the population to venerate their Relics.
The cult of the two holy Martyrs spread, thanks to the impulse given by St Ambrose, who, in addition to writing about them, wanted to transfer part of the Relics to Milan and then donated part of them to Florence. Numerous Bishops too, felt compelled to request some for their Cathedrals. However, the cult maintained its epicentre in Bologna, where a Basilica was built specifically to house their remains, which were later transferred to the adjacent Chapel.
So we know little about the life of the two Saints. It seems that Agricola was a Christian citizen of Bologna and Vitalis was his servant. The latter had also followed his master in his religion and was the first to crown his life with Martyrdom. Both were led to the arena, Vitalis was tortured throughout his body until death. The torturers thought that at the sight of his sufferings, Agricola would lose his determination to declare himself a Christian but instead, all this had the opposite effect of what was hoped for. Agricola was in fact fortified and encouraged by the death of his faithful servant and faced the crucifixion with great courage, testifying his Christian faith to the end. His body was also pierced with nails.
We bless and thank Thee, Father,
for the gift of Martyrdom in our brothers, Vitalis and Agricola:
from their fruitful blood,
Thou made the Church of Bologna sprout
and in the fraternal solidarity
of the slave and the master
Thou gave us a shining example
of humanity reconciled in the love of Christ.
Through their solidarity,
grant us to be courageous witnesses of the Faith,
living stones of Thy Church,
operators of communion and peace.
We ask Thee Father, in the Holy Spirit,
through Christ our Lord.