St. Cæcilia was a cultivated young patrician woman whose ancestors loomed large in Rome’s history. She vowed her virginity to God, but her parents married her to Valerian of Trastevere. Cæcilia told her new husband that she was accompanied by an angel, but in order to see it, he must be purified. He agreed to the purification, and was baptised; returning from the ceremony, he found her in prayer accompanied by a praying angel. The angel placed a crown on each of their heads, and offered Valerian a favor; the new convert asked that his brother be baptised.
The two brothers developed a ministry of giving proper burial to martyred Christians. In their turn they were arrested and martyred for their faith. Cæcilia buried them at her villa on the Apprian Way, and was arrested for the action. She was ordered to sacrifice to false gods; when she refused, she was martyred in her turn.
The Acta of Cecilia includes the following: “While the profane music of her wedding was heard, Cæcilia was singing in her heart a hymn of love for Jesus, her true spouse.” It was this phrase that led to her association with music, singers, musicians, etc.
The Catholic Encyclopedia gives the full account in greater detail, but concludes, “In this shape the whole story has no historical value; it is a pious romance, like so many others compiled in the fifth and sixth century. The existence of the aforesaid martyrs, however, is a historical fact.”
Dom Prosper Guéranger adds:
But we must not think that to-day’s feast is meant to excite in us a mere theoretical and fruitless admiration. The Church recognizes and honours in Saint Cecilia three characteristics which, united together, distinguish her among all the Blessed in heaven and are a source of grace and an example to men. These three characteristics are virginity, apostolic zeal, and the superhuman courage which enabled her to bear torture and death. Such is the threefold teaching conveyed by this one Christian life.
Her grave was discovered in 817, and her body removed to the church of Saint Cæcilia in Rome (Santa Cecilia in Trastevere). The tomb was opened in 1599, and her body found to be incorrupt. Every year, there is a festival, Festa di Santa Cecilia, and her crypt is visited, along with the Catacombs of San Callisto.