Weninger’s Lives of the Saints – Saint Afra, Martyr

detail of a painting of Saint Ulrich and Saint Afra of Augsburg by Karl Radinger, date unknown; Marian altar, Church of the Holy Trinity, Augsburg, Bavaria, Germany; photographed on 4 February 2018 by Neutram; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsArticle

The Holy Church today commemorates the feast of Christ’s Transfiguration upon Mount Thabor, but as this is sufficiently familiar to all from the Gospel, I will here give the life of Saint Afra, whose name is recorded in the Roman Martyrology on the 5th of August, as it may serve to comfort and reanimate many souls.

The native place of Saint Afra is not known. Some write that she was born in the island of Cyprus, others, at Augsburg, at that time a heathen city. It is quite certain that she lived in that city, blinded by heathenism, and led the life of a prostitute. When, at the time of Dioclesian and Maximian, the Christians were most cruelly persecuted in Spain, Saint Narcissus, bishop of Gerona, in Spain, and his deacon Felix, by the especial decree of Providence, came to Augsburg. As they were entirely unacquainted in the city, they took lodging in the first house they came to, which was the one in which Afra lived. Whilst she was preparing their supper, she perceived that they prayed most devoutly; and when they came to table she saw them make the sign of the cross and noticed that they partook of but very little food. Surprised at this, she asked them who they were. Narcissus replied, that he was a bishop of the Christians, and was seeking to win souls for Heaven. Afra, frightened, dropped on her knees before him, and said that she was not worthy of such a guest, on account of the disorderly life she had been leading for so long a time. Requesting her to rise, he said: “Christ, whose gospel I preach, took lodgings with sinners, and sat at their table. Yes, it is for them that He came upon earth, and suffered a most cruel death.” He told her moreover of His great kindness towards the great sinner, Magdalen, and of the means He had instituted to make all men partakers of His grace and to pardon their sins.

Afra was touched in her inmost heart, by the words of the bishop, and she was greatly rejoiced when he promised to cleanse her of all sin and make her a partaker of the inheritance of Heaven, if she would, with a truly repentant spirit, receive holy baptism. She called her maids, Digna, Eutrepia, or Eutropia, and Eunomia; she related to them what she had heard, adding that she was determined to follow the bishop and become a Christian. The maids replied that she was their mistress and as they had sinned with her, they would reform with her and adopt the Christian faith.

Afra, pleased at their willingness, was also anxious that her mother Hilaria, who lived elsewhere, should be a partaker of the heavenly grace. Narcissus, therefore, repaired to her house and found her no less willing to receive the Christian faith than Afra and her maids had been. He began to instruct them and exhorted them, by prayer and fasting, and above all by true repentance for their sins to prepare for holy baptism. All this having been done according to his direction, Narcissus baptized them, admonished them to remain faithful, and then proceeded to lead others of the inhabitants of the city to the knowledge of the true God. He converted Afra’s house into a church where he administered the Sacraments and preached the Gospel, and remained at Augsburg nine months, after which he returned to Spain, leaving a certain Dionysius in his place, whom he had consecrated bishop.

Nothing more painful could have happened Afra, than the departure of her holy teacher; but continuing in her penitential life, she allowed nothing to disturb her. She daily repented of her past life, constantly performed good deeds, and endeavored, with great zeal, to convert others. The number of Christians continually increased and it was the fervent desire of this holy penitent to give her life for her faith. God granted her wish; for, when, in 303 or 304, a cruel persecution of the Christians took place, Afra was taken prisoner and brought before the prefect Gaius. “Sacrifice to the gods,” said he to her, “for it is better for you to live, than to die in pain and torments.” “I have committed a great number of iniquities,” replied Afra, “but the sin you command me to commit, I shall never be guilty of.” Gaius tried to persuade her to return to her former life, as in this way she would gain great wealth. Indignantly she replied: “Never more shall my hand touch such accursed money. All I possessed, I have given to the poor.” “But Christ does not esteem you, and those who have led such an unchaste life can never be called Christians.” “I know that I am not worthy to be called a Christian,” replied Afra, “but the mercy of God has deigned to confer upon me this name. Jesus Christ, my Lord, descended from Heaven to save sinners, and His Gospel testifies that He does not despise them; He even granted complete absolution to. a public sinner who bathed his feet with her tears.” When the prefect understood, by these and similar words, that he could accomplish nothing by persuasion, he threatened her with death, saying: “Sacrifice to the Gods, or I will have you cruelly tortured and burnt to death.” “That is what I desire,” replied Afra; “the body, with which I sinned, may suffer all sorts of torments; but I will not stain my soul with such a crime.” Gaius enraged, immediately gave orders to burn her alive, and the executioners seizing her, carried her over the river to an island, and bound her to a stake. The Christian heroine, turning her eyes to Heaven, cried aloud: “Jesus Christ! Thou hast come into the world to call not the just but the sinner to repentance; graciously accept this hour of suffering as my penance, and let this fire, which is prepared to consume my body, free me from the eternal flames which destroy both soul and body.” Meanwhile, the wood was piled around her and lighted; but she, fearlessly standing up, broke out in the following words: “I give Thee thanks, Jesus Christ, that Thou hast deigned to accept me as a sacrifice, Thou, who became a sacrifice for the whole world; I offer myself to Thee, who livest and reigns with the Father and the Holy Ghost, world without end, Amen.” When she had said these words, the smoke suffocated her and her spirit departed, but her body remained unharmed by the fire. Her three maids standing on the other side of the river, witnessed her martyrdom. After all was over, they crossed the river, and finding the body uninjured, they hastened to tell her mother, Hilaria, who, with some priests, went in the night and took the body secretly and buried it with all due honors, not far from Augsburg. Hilaria and the maids remained for some time at the grave to pray; and returned the next day and for several days after; until the prefect hearing of it, sent his officers to tell them, that if they refused to sacrifice to the gods, they, too, should be burned alive. As neither Hilaria nor the maids would consent to this, they were seized and burned without further examination.

Practical Considerations

• Afra, a prostitute, reformed, became a zealous Christian and a holy martyr. This was surely a greater miracle, than if many dead had been raised to life. What cannot the grace of God perform, if man earnestly works with it! It is true that there is no sin from which it is so difficult to extricate one’s self as from unchastity; yet we have, in Saint Augustine, an example of its possibility. It can be done. It needs only strong resolution. If you are free from this sin, give thanks to God and be careful to remain unspotted. If, however, you have followed the sinful Afra, follow her also in her repentance and penance. Make a strong resolution. As soon as Afra recognized the danger in which she stood of eternal perdition, on account of her sins, and heard of the infinite mercy of Jesus Christ, who is ever ready to absolve the greatest sinner, she immediately became a convert to Christianity and began a severe penitential life. She never again returned to her former vices. You also know, or can easily learn, the danger of eternal perdition into which your sin places you, and the immeasurable mercy of the Redeemer, who could have a thousand times taken you while in sin, but who has spared you till this hour. He is ready to pardon your iniquities. Therefore hasten to repent and do penance. Penance or hell! Which of these will you choose?

• Saint Afra committed her sins while in the darkness of heathenism. As soon as she had become a Christian, she sullied her soul no more, either with her former sins, though they had become habitual to her, or with any other, “I have sinned enough,” said she. She repented of her sins as long as she lived, and wept over them, offering her suffering as atonement for her iniquities. This offers food for reflection and imitation for you. You have certainly committed, sins, perhaps many sins. You ought to take care not to increase their number. You have already enough to expiate and weep for, if you should live a thousand years. Daily repent of your sins, and offer to God in atonement every trial that makes your heart heavy and sore. Be careful henceforth, to fall no more into a sin against chastity; for, you must be aware that this sin is especially offensive to the Almighty, and is much more gross and hideous when committed by a Christian than by a heathen. Baptism makes the Christian a temple, a dwelling of the Almighty. How terrible, then, and how deserving of hell it is to desecrate this temple by that horrible vice and make room for the unclean spirit! The body of the Christian so often receives the most pure, the most holy flesh and blood of Christ. How horrible, then, when a body which has been nourished with such precious food, united so closely with Christ, wantonly leaves Him, giving itself as a sport to the unclean spirit. “Know you not that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If any man violate the temple of God, him shall God destroy. (1st Corinthians 3) Do you not know that your bodies are the members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a harlot?” (1st Corinthians 6) “Spare then, I pray thee,” writes Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, “spare your body as a temple of the Holy Ghost. Do not desecrate its dignity and greatness by a despicable sensuality.”

MLA Citation

  • Father Francis Xavier Weninger, DD, SJ. “Saint Afra, Martyr”. Lives of the Saints, 1876. CatholicSaints.Info. 25 March 2018. Web. 15 November 2018. <>