21 Jan Saint Agnes, Virgin and Martyr
Today is the feast day of Saint Agnes. Ora pro nobis.
Almighty and everlasting God, who choose those whom the world deems powerless to put the powerful to shame: Grant us so to cherish the memory of your youthful martyr Agnes, that we may share her pure and steadfast faith in you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Of all the virgin martyrs of Rome none was held in such high honour by the primitive church, since the fourth century, as St. Agnes.
In the ancient Roman calendar of the feasts of the martyrs (Depositio Martyrum), incorporated into the collection of Furius Dionysius Philocalus, dating from 354 and often reprinted, e.g. in Ruinart [Acta Sincera Martyrum (ed. Ratisbon, 1859), 63 sqq.], her feast is assigned to 21 January, to which is added a detail as to the name of the road (Via Nomentana) near which her grave was located. The earliest sacramentaries give the same date for her feast, and it is on this day that the Latin Church even now keeps her memory sacred.
Since the close of the fourth century the Fathers of the Church and Christian poets have sung her praises and extolled her virginity and heroism under torture. It is clear, however, from the diversity in the earliest accounts that there was extant at the end of the fourth century no accurate and reliable narrative, at least in writing, concerning the details of her martyrdom. On one point only is there mutual agreement, viz., the youth of the Christian heroine. St. Ambrose gives her age as twelve (De Virginibus, I, 2; P.L., XVI, 200-202: Haec duodecim annorum martyrium fecisse traditur), St. Augustine as thirteen (Agnes puella tredecim annorum; Sermo cclxxiii, 6, P.L., XXXVIII, 1251), which harmonizes well with the words of Prudentius: Aiunt jugali vix habilem toro (Peristephanon, Hymn xiv, 10 in Ruinart, Act. Sinc., ed cit. 486). Damasus depicts her as hastening to martyrdom from the lap of her mother or nurse (Nutricis gremium subito liquisse puella; in St. Agneten, 3, ed. Ihm, Damasi epigrammata, Leipzig, 1895, 43, n. 40). We have no reason whatever for doubting this tradition. It indeed explains very well the renown of the youthful martyr. (6)
from the Liturgical Year, 1904
How rich is the constellation of Martyrs, which shines in this portion of the sacred Cycle. Yesterday, we had St. Sebastian; tomorrow, we shall be singing the name which means Victory, for it is the Feast of Vincent; and now, today, between these two rich palm-branches, we are rejoiced with the lovely rose and lily-wreath of Agnes. It is to a girl of thirteen that our Emmanuel gave this stern courage of martyrdom, which made her meet the enemy with as bold a front as either the valiant Captain of the Pretorian band or the dauntless Deacon of Saragossa. If they are the soldiers of Jesus, she is his tender and devoted Spouse. These are the triumphs of the Son of Mary! Scarcely has He shown himself to the world, and lo! every noble heart flies towards Him, according to that word of his: Wheresoever the body shall be, there shall the eagles also be gathered together (St. Matth. xxiv. 28).
It is the admirable result of the Virginity of His Blessed Mother, who has brought honour to the fecundity of the soul, and set it far above that of the body. It was Mary that first opened the way, whereby certain chosen souls mount up even to the Divine Son, and fix their gaze, in a cloudless vision, on His beauty; for He Himself said: Blessed are the clean of heart, for they shall see God (Ibid. v. 8).
What a glory is it not for the Catholic Church, that she alone has the gift of this holy state of Virginity, which is the source of every other sacrifice, because nothing but the love of God could inspire a human heart to vow Virginity! And what a grand honour for christian Rome, that she should have produced a Saint Agnes, that angel of earth, in comparison with whom the Vestals of paganism are mere pretences of devotedness, for their Virginity was never punished by fire and sword, nay, rather, was flattered by the recompense of earthly honours and riches!
Not that our Saint is without her recompense–only, her recompense is not marred with the flaw of all human rewards. The name of this child, who lived but thirteen short years, will be echoed, to the end of time, in the sacred Canon of the universal Sacrifice. The path trod by the innocent maiden, on the way to her trial, is still marked out in the Holy City. In the Circus Agonalis (Piazza Navona), there rises the beautiful Church of Saint Agnes, with its rich cupola; and beneath are the vaults which were once the haunts of infamy, but now are a holy sanctuary, where everything reminds us of her who here won her glorious victory. Further on, on the Nomentan Road, outside the ramparts, is the beautiful Basilica, built by Constantine; and here, under an altar covered with precious stones, lies the Body of the young Saint. Round this Basilica, there are immense crypts; and in these did Agnes’ Relics repose until the epoch of peace, surrounded by thousands of Martyrs, whose holy remains were also deposited here.
Nor must we pass over in silence the gracious tribute of honour paid by Rome each year, on this Feast, to her beloved Martyr. Two lambs are placed on the altar of the Basilica Nomentana; they are emblems of the meekness of Jesus and the innocence of the gentle Agnes. After they have been blessed by the Abbot of the Religious Community, which serves this Church, they are taken to a Monastery of Nuns, where they are carefully reared. Their wool is used for making the Palliums, which the Pope sends to all Patriarchs and Metropolitans of the Catholic world, as the essential emblem of their jurisdiction. Thus, this simple woollen ornament, which these prelates have to wear on their shoulders, as a symbol of the sheep carried on the shoulders of the good Shepherd, and which the Sovereign Pontiff takes from off the Altar of Saint Peter in order to send it to its destination, carries to the very ends of the world the sublime union of these two sentiments–the vigour and power of the Prince of the Apostles, and the gentleness of Agnes the Virgin.
We will now quote the beautiful eulogium on St. Agnes, written by St. Ambrose in his Book, On Virgins (Book I. post initium). The Church gives almost the entire passage in her Office of today’s Feast; and, assuredly, the Virgin of Christ could not have had a finer panegyrist than the great Bishop of Milan, who is the most eloquent and persuasive of all the Fathers on the subject of holy Virginity. We read, that in the Cities, where Ambrose preached, Mothers were afraid of their daughters being present at his Sermons, lest he should persuade them to such love of Christ, as to choose the better part.
“Having resolved,” says the holy Bishop,”to write a Book on Virginity, I think myself happy in being able to begin it on the Feast we are keeping of the Virgin Agnes. It is the Feast of a Virgin; let us walk in the path of purity. It is the Feast of a Martyr; let us offer up our Sacrifice. It is the Feast of St. Agnes; let men admire, and children not despair; let the married wonder, and the unmarried imitate. But what can we speak worthy of this Saint, whose very name is not void of praise? As her devotedness is beyond her years, and her virtue superhuman–so, as it seems to me, her name is not an appellation, but a prophecy, presaging that she was to be a Martyr.” The holy Doctor is here alluding to the word Agnus, from which some have derived the name Agnes; and he says, that the young Saint had immolation in her very name, for it called her victim. He goes on to consider the other etymology of Agnes, from the Greek word agnos, which means pure; and he thus continues his discourse:
“The maiden’s name is an expression of purity. Martyr, then, and Virgin! Is not that praise enough? There is no praise so eloquent, as merit that is too great to need seeking. No one is so praise”worthy, as he who may be praised by all. Now, all men are the praisers of Agnes, for when they pronounce her name, they say her praise, for they say A Martyr.
“There is a tradition, that she suffered martyrdom at the age of thirteen. Detestable, indeed, the cruelty, that spared not even so tender an age! but oh! the power of faith, that could find even children to be its witnesses! Here was a victim scarce big enough for a wound, for, where could the sword fall? and yet she had courage enough to conquer the sword.
“At such an age as this, a girl trembles if she but see her mother angry, and cries, as though it were a grievous thing, if but pricked with a needle’s point. And Agnes, who stands amidst blood-stained murderers, is fearless! She is stunned with the rattle of the heavy chains, and yet not a flutter in that heart! She offers her whole body to the sword of the furious soldier, for though she knows not what death is, yet is she quite ready to endure it. Perchance, they will take her by force to the altars of their gods! If they do, she will stretch out her hands to Jesus, and, amidst those sacrilegious fires, she will sign herself with that blessed sign, the trophy of our divine conqueror; and then, if they will, and they can find shackles small enough to fit such tender limbs, they may fasten her hands and neck in their iron fetters!
“How strange a martyrdom! She is too young to be punished, yet she is old enough to win a victory. She cannot fight, yet she easily gains a crown. She has but the age of a scholar, yet has she mastered every virtue. Bride never went to nuptials with so glad a heart, or so light a step, as this young virgin marches to the place of execution. She is decked, not with the gay show of plaited tresses, but with Christ; she is wreathed, not with flowers, but with purity.
“All stood weeping; Agnes shed not a tear. Some wondered, how it could be, that she, who had but just begun her life, should be as ready to sacrifice it, as though she had lived it out; and every one was amazed, that she, who was too young to give evidence even in her own affairs, should be so bold a witness of the divinity. Her oath would be invalid in a human cause; yet, she is believed, when she bears testimony for her God. Their surprise was just: for a power thus above nature could only come from Him, who is the author of all nature.
“Her executioner does all he can to frighten her; he speaks fair words to coax her; he tells her of all the suitors who have sought her as their bride; but she replies: ‘The Spouse insults her Beloved if she hesitate. I belong to Him who first betrothed me:–why, executioner, dost thou not strike? Kill this body, which might be loved by eyes I would not wish to please.’
“She stood, she prayed, she bowed down her head. “The executioner trembles, as though himself were going to be beheaded. His hand shakes, and his cheek grows pale, to strike this girl, who loves the danger and the blow. Here, then, have we a twofold martyrdom in a single victim–one for her chastity, the other for her faith. She was a Virgin before; and now, she is a Martyr.” (3)
We do not know with certainty in which persecution the courageous virgin won the martyr’s crown. Formerly it was customary to assign her death to the persecution of Diocletian (c. 304), but arguments are now brought forward, based on the inscription of Damasus, to prove that it occurred during one of the third-century persecutions subsequent to that 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. (6)
Prayer in Honor of St. Agnes
O Sweetest Lord Jesus Christ, source of all virtues, lover of virgins, most powerful conqueror of demons, most severe extirpator of vice! deign to cast Thine eyes upon my weakness, and through the intercession of Mary most blessed, Mother and Virgin, and of Thy beloved spouse St. Agnes, glorious virgin and martyr, grant me the aid of Thy heavenly grace, in order that I may learn to despise all earthly things, and to love what is heavenly; to oppose vice and to be proof against temptation; to walk firmly in the path of virtue, not to seek honors, to shun pleasures, to bewail my past offenses, to keep far from the occasions of evil, to keep free from bad habits, to seek the company of the good, and persevere in righteousness, so that, by the assistance of Thy grace, I may deserve the crown of eternal life, together with St. Agnes and all the saints, forever and ever, in Thy kingdom. Amen.
(Indulgence 100 days, Pius IX, 1854) (3)
She is the patron saint of chastity, gardeners, girls, engaged couples, rape survivors, virgins, and the Children of Mary.
Agnes is depicted in art with a lamb, as the Latin word for “lamb”, agnus, sounds like her name. The name “Agnes” is actually derived from the feminine Greek adjective hagnē (ἁγνή) meaning “chaste, pure, sacred”.
Image: Saint Agnes. Engraving by R. Strange, 1759, after D. Zampier (14)
Research by Ed Masters, REGINA Staff