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Apollonia, the saint with the smile

· The saint of the month ·

The first time that I went to the dentist, when I was eight years old, my grandmother told me not to be frightened. “St Apollonia is protecting you”. She showed me the holy card of a girl with pincers and told me her story. In the third century in Alexandria, Egypt, in the Pharos neighbourhood, a merchants’ caravan stopped. When it departed, it was seen that a little girl in a basket had been left behind. Forgotten or abandoned, the basket was picked up by two market gardeners, a husband and wife with no children who took her for a gift from heaven. That’s what she was. She would frequently smile and laugh, even though her adoptive father told her, “be careful, laughter is the gateway to hell. A respectable woman must never laugh”. Her new mother too warned her, “We must lie low, because we are Christians and our neighbours are all pagans. If someone reports us it’s the end”.

Giovan Battista Salvi known as “il Sassoferrato”, “St Apollonia” (17th century)

The Emperor Decius had declared Christianity to be a crime against the state. In everyday life, however, pagans and Christians were living side by side in peace. Her mother spoke to Apollonia about Jesus and wept for him, who had made himself a victim of God. Such a gift could only be reciprocated by imitating his death. And the girl accepted her mother’s words joyfully, because this was what she had felt in her relations with the world. Mothers entrusted their children to her when she was still a child, if someone was hungry she would share her bread, she nursed the sick and made them happy. This is how she was, the suffering of others became her own and she had to soothe it. Her parents got angry when she gave away fruit from the orchard but she smiled and everything was illuminated and they ended up by smiling too.

Her parents died and she put herself entirely at the service of others. She lived in her vegetable garden. She sang with the children and their singing civilized others’ souls. Meek but brave, she did not tolerate injustices and did not shrink from defending the weak: like Jesus. When their neighbour, Ampelius, the chief of the district, a fanatic pagan, bossed everyone about and harassed them Apollonia was the only one who managed to stand up to him. Ampelius both desired and hated her. He hated her mouth: he could not bear her smile and her proud words. He would have liked to extinguish the sparkle of her teeth. To have her at his mercy he asked her to be his wife. But she answered that she couldn’t marry because she had too much to do. There was always someone who needed her and she had to be always on the go. There were those who were giving birth, those who had lost their goat, or a child who had had a bad dream – to the dying she did not speak of heaven but of the one who was dying, she treated the dying as living until their last breath, she called them by their name. The dying person felt loved and died in God’s grace.

Apollonia is the saint of small things. She never left her neighbourhood. She offered help, and that suffices. She did nothing sensational, except at her end. She worked only one miracle and even that was a small one: the multiplication of a loaf. A poor woman with five children asked Apollonia for help and she kneaded a golden loaf. The bread was eaten. But from that time forth it reappeared every day on this family’s table. However, even without miracles she always succeeded in feeding and comforting the forsaken. In her devotion she made no distinctions between Christians and pagans, Egyptians and foreigners, men and women, the wicked and the good. Her favourites, however, were children. They sang together. Apollonia told them about Jesus, taught them mercy and courage, and played tag with them. With them laughter was prayer. The years passed. Her neighbour never forgave her and he lay in wait to insult her.

“Look how you have come down in the world! You are dying of hunger and you bring behind you a band of snotty children, the lame and tramps. And you are even growing ugly. If you had married me... you are a dry stick, you don’t even have children of your own!”.

“But I have all the children of others”, Apollonia answered and smiled – and everything sparkled and Ampelius fell silent.

“That smile”, he thought, “should be wiped out for ever”.

How could he avenge himself? He did not dare to kill her, she was loved too much by the people. The devil came to his help. The persecution of Christians began, with the accusation that they had started the epidemic that was then spreading. It was a great opportunity for sacking and revenge. Many Christians fled but Apollonia did not want to move. As always she had too much to do, even to save herself. An imperial commission summoned citizens one by one, and asked them to make sacrifices to the gods. Those who refused were accused of being followers of Jesus and were executed. Ampelius hastened to denounce Apollonia: not only did she practise the prohibited religion but she also taught it to children, she had infected the entire neighbourhood, she was dangerous....

A troop of Roman soldiers arrived with spears to arrest this small woman. They were preceded by Ampelius, who wanted to put her in chains himself.

“You’re not laughing any more now, are you? Go on, why don’t you have a good laugh?”.

She was brought before a commission. They asked her to deny Christ. She refused, and a cry of admiration rose from the crowd. Then Ampelius threw himself on her with pincers in his hand and wrenched out her teeth.

Silent and bleeding, Apollonia still made signs of refusal. They threatened to burn her alive. Ampelius lit the pyre with his torch, with voluptuous thoughts in his mind as he spied the fear in her face.

“So do you carry on insisting?

She looked at the flames that were raging. He gave the sign that her chains should be removed.

“Ah, so you gave in did you? “ Ampelius exclaimed while the reflections of the fire reddened his evil face. Triumphantly he tore off her chains.

As soon as she had been released, Apollonia with a single leap threw herself on to the fire and burned, liberating herself from her persecutors. For the last time Ampelius saw her smile gleam among the flames, the sparkle of those teeth which he had torn out from her.

One never hears “ Sant’Apollonia, help me!”. But the devotion to her endured through the centuries. Those whose teeth cause them suffering turn to her who having suffered so much herself, understands them. One of her teeth was a precious relic and it multiplied to the point that when Pius vi ordered fake relics to be requisitioned, three kilos of the saint’s teeth were gathered up. In certain regions of Italy and Spain St Apollonia has been turned into a mouse, which leaves a gift in exchange for a child’s first tooth. A saint of playfulness, a saint of children. That first time the dentist didn’t hurt me.

Barbara Alberti

The author

Barbara Alberti, a writer, lives in Rome. Her work is eclectic, aiming to combat a losing image of the female sex. The books she has published differ widely. They range from the picaresque Memorie malvage (1976) [naughty memories] to the meditative Vangelo secondo Maria (1979) [the Gospel according to Mary], to endeavours streaked with humour and provocation such as Il Signore è servito (1983) [the Lord is served], Povera bambina (1988) [poor little girl], Parliamo d’amore (1989) [let’s speak of love], Delirium [English], and Gianna Nannini da Siena [Gianna Nannini of Siena], the latter two both published in 1991. In 2003 she published Gelosa di Majakovskij [jealous of Majakovskij] (Alghero Donna Prize) and Il principe volante [the flying prince], in which she recounts the life of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. She is also the author of numerous screenplays, including The Night Porter directed by Liliana Cavani (1974) and plays (Ecce homo). In 2017 she wrote with great enthusiasm Fratello Francesco, sorella Chiara, published serially in L’Osservatore Romano.

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