On January 21st the Church celebrates the memorial of St. Agnes, virgin and martyr. She came from a noble Roman family and was about thirteen years old when she suffered martyrdom. She was tortured and beheaded. Her name is included in the Roman Canon.
When I received the Sacrament of Confirmation at the age of 10, I chose St. Agnes as my patron. How I wanted to be like her! Yes, to be pure and brave and holy and to be a martyr for the love of God. I wanted to be like her then and I wish to be like her now. In these intervening years, I do not know that I have come any closer to this ideal but it is one I still place before my heart. St. Agnes, pray for us! Pray for our young people who see so much impurity in the world. Help them, and help all of us, to love God as you did, even unto death.
St. Ambrose wrote the following concerning St. Agnes in a work called 'De Virginibus':
She is said to have suffered martyrdom when twelve years old. The more hateful was the cruelty, which spared not so tender an age, the greater in truth was the power of faith which found evidence even in that age. Was there room for a wound in that small body? And she who had no room for the blow of the steel had that wherewith to conquer the steel. But maidens of that age are unable to bear even the angry looks of parents, and are wont to cry at the pricks of a needle as though they were wounds. She was fearless under the cruel hands of the executioners, she was unmoved by the heavy weight of the creaking chains, offering her whole body to the sword of the raging soldier, as yet ignorant of death, but ready for it. Or if she were unwillingly hurried to the altars, she was ready to stretch forth her hands to Christ at the sacrificial fires, and at the sacrilegous altars themselves, to make the sign of the Lord the Conqueror,34-3171–> or again to place her neck and both her hands in the iron bands, but no band could enclose such slender limbs.
A new kind of martyrdom! Not yet of fit age for punishment but already ripe for victory, difficult to contend with but easy to be crowned, she filled the office of teaching valour while having the disadvantage of youth. She would not as a bride so hasten to the couch, as being a virgin she joyfully went to the place of punishment with hurrying step, her head not adorned with plaited hair, but with Christ. All wept, she alone was without a tear. All wondered that she was so readily prodigal of her life, which she had not yet enjoyed, and now gave up as though she had gone through it. Every one was astounded that there was now one to bear witness to the Godhead, who as yet could not, because of her age, dispose of herself. And she brought it to pass that she should be believed concerning God whose evidence concerning man would not be accepted. For that which is beyond nature is from the Author of nature.
What threats the executioner used to make her fear him, what allurements to persuade her, how many desired that she would come to them in marriage! But she answered: "–>It would be an injury to my spouse to look on any one as likely to please me. He who chose me first for Himself shall receive me. Why are you delaying, executioner? Let this body perish which can be loved by eyes which I would not."–> She stood, she prayed, she bent down her neck. You could see the executioner tremble, as though he himself had been condemned, and his right hand shake, his face grow pale, as he feared the peril of another, while the maiden feared not for her own. You have then in one victim a twofold martyrdom, of modesty and of religion. She both remained a virgin and she obtained martyrdom.
We do not know for sure exactly when St. Agnes was martyred. It had been thought that it was at the time of the persecuation of Diocletian about 304, but it may have been some years before that, perhaps in the persecuatino of Decius.
The body of the virgin martyr was placed in a separate sepulchre on the Via Nomentana, and around her tomb there grew up a larger catacomb that bore her name. The original slab which covered her remains, with the inscriptions Agne sanctissima, is probably the same one which is now preserved in the Museum at Naples. During the reign of Constantine, through the efforts of his daughter Constantina, a basilica was erected over the grave of St. Agnes, which was later entirely remodelled by Pope Honorius (625-638), and has since remained unaltered. In the apse is a mosaic showing the martyr amid flames, with a sword at her feet. A beautiful relief of the saint is found on a marble slab that dates from the fourth century and was originally a part of the altar of her church.
Since the Middle Ages St. Agnes has been represented with a lamb, the symbol of her virginal innocence. On her feast two lambs are solemnly blessed, and from their wool are made the palliums sent by the Pope to archbishops.
A Legend of St. Agnes:
Agnes is one of the most glorious saints in the calendar of the Roman Church. The greatest Church Fathers vie with one another in sounding her praise and glory. St. Jerome writes: "All nations, especially their Christian communities, praise in word and writing the life of St. Agnes. She triumphed over her tender age as well as over the merciless tyrant. To the crown of spotless innocence she added the glory of martyrdom."
Our saint's name should be traced to the Greek hagne – the pure, rather than to the Latin agna – lamb. But the Latin derivation prevailed in the early Church. The reason may have been that eight days after her death Agnes appeared to her parents with a train of virgins, and a lamb at her side. St. Augustine knew both derivations. "Agnes", he writes, "means 'lamb' in Latin, but in Greek it denotes 'the pure one'. The Latin interpretation occasioned the yearly blessing of the St. Agnes lambs; it takes place on this day in the Church of which she is patron, and the wool is used in weaving the palliums worn by archbishops and, through privilege, by some bishops. In the church built by the Emperor Constantine over the saint's grave, Pope Gregory the Great preached a number of homilies. Reliable details concerning the life of St. Agnes are very few. The oldest material occurs in St. Ambrose's De Virginibus.
From such liturgical sources we may construct the following "life of St. Agnes". One day when Agnes, then thirteen years old, was returning home from school, she happened to meet a son of the city prefect. At once he became passionately attracted to her and tried to win her by precious gifts. Agnes repelled him, saying: "Away from me, food of death, for I have already found another lover. I love Christ, into whose chamber I shall enter, whose Mother is a virgin, whose Father knows not woman, whose music and melody are sweet to my ears. When I love Him, I remain chaste; when I touch Him, I remain pure; when I possess Him, I remain a virgin". I am betrothed to Him whom the angels serve, whose beauty the sun and moon admire. For Him alone I keep my troth, to Him I surrender with all my heart".
Incensed by her rebuff, the young man denounced Agnes to his father, the city prefect. When he threatened her with commitment to a house of ill fame, Agnes replied: "At my side I have a protector of my body, an angel of the Lord". When Agnes entered the house of shame, she found an angel of the Lord ready to protect her. A light enveloped her and blinded all who tried to approach. Then another judge condemned her to the stake because the pagan priests accused her of sorcery.
Surrounded by flames she prayed with outstretched arms: "I beseech You, Father almighty, most worthy of awe and adoration. Through Your most holy Son I escaped the threats of the impious tyrant and passed through Satan's filth with feet unsullied. Behold, I now come to You, whom I have loved, whom I have sought, whom I have always desired." She gave thanks as follows: "O You, the almighty One, who must be adored, worshipped, feared – I praise You because through Your only begotten Son I have escaped the threats of wicked men and have walked through the filth of sin with feet unsullied. I extol You with my lips, and I desire You with all my heart and strength."
After the flames died out, she continued: "I praise You, Father of my Lord Jesus Christ, because by Your Son the fire around me was extinguished". And now she longed for union with Christ: "Behold, what I yearned for, I already see; what I hoped for, I already hold in embrace; with Him I am united in heaven whom on earth I loved with all my heart". Her wish was granted; the judge ordered her beheaded.
Patron: Engaged couples; bodily purity; chastity; Children of Mary; Colegio Capranica of Rome; crops; gardeners; Girl Scouts; girls; rape victims; diocese of Rockville Centre, New York; virgins.
Symbols: Lamb; woman with long hair and a lamb, sometimes with a sword at her throat; woman with a dove which holds a ring in its beak; woman with a lamb at her side.