by Rev. Vic Kevin Ferrer
St. Agnes of Rome lived in the late 3rd century AD at the time when Christians were heavily persecuted under the emperor Diocletian. According to tradition, Agnes was a very beautiful girl who attracted numerous suitors from wealthy Roman families. A faithful Christian that she was, Agnes has decided not to get married and remain a virgin for Christ while she was just 12 years old. She would explain to her suitors that she has vowed to remain a virgin for the sake of the Kingdom and this irritated many of the young men who came to her. At one point, Agnes’ faith, which was illegal at that time, was reported to the authorities.
Roman officials threatened Agnes with various punishments in order to persuade her to change her mind about marrying. They failed. Agnes was ready to suffer for Christ and even become a martyr. Because of her strong conviction and faith, a judge ordered that she be brought to a house of prostitution where her purity will be violated. Miraculously, God protected her and she remained untouched. One legend says that a man who attempted to touch her was suddenly struck blind only to be healed by the prayers of St. Agnes herself.
A man who had wanted to marry Agnes now wanted officials to execute her on account of her faith and her refusal to marry. Given one final chance to renounce her faith, Agnes refused and remained steadfast in professing Christ. She was sentenced to be burned at stake and she submitted courageously but the flames would not consume her. Finally she was beheaded and ultimately won the crown of martyrdom.
Pictures from the Church of St. Agnes in Rome, Italy. (1) The façade, (2) the skull relic of the saint-martyr, (3) the chapel of the relic and (4) the original grave of St. Agnes. | Photos by Fr. JR Alojipan
Here are some facts you might not know about St. Agnes:
1. Everything we know about her life is based on tradition. The earliest mention of her name among Christian writings appeared 100 years after her death. All that came to be known about her were stories respectfully passed down from one generation to the next. It is for this reason that so many different versions of her story exist. What we know for sure, however, was that she was martyred and buried in a tomb that has been revered by pilgrims throughout the centuries.
2. She is one of the most celebrated Roman Martyr. Many Church Fathers and Spiritual Writers since the 4th century have written about the martyrdom of St. Agnes. She was extolled as a model of purity. The emperor Constantine built a huge basilica over the tomb where she was buried in Via Nomentana. She was venerated as a saint by great personalities of the ancient Church such as Pope St. Damasus, St. Ambrose of Milan and St. Augustine of Hippo.
3. She is one of only seven women whose name are mentioned in the Roman Canon. During the most important solemnities in the Church calendar, such as Easter or Christmas, you must have heard the longer version of the prayer of consecration at Mass where so many names are mentioned of the apostles and other saints. That is the Eucharistic Prayer I also called the Roman Canon. It has been used for the longest time in the Church and is reserved usually for the most important feasts. In it only seven women saints are mentioned aside from the Blessed Virgin Mary of course. One of them is St. Agnes. This only means that the Church, for the longest time ever since the 4th Century, gives a very high regard to St. Agnes. The other women mentioned are Felicity, Perpetua, Lucy, Agatha, Cecila and Anastasia.
4. The name Agnes means lamb in Latin. In art she is also often depicted with a lamb. The lamb symbolises her virginal purity.
5. Two lambs are blessed by the pope on her feast day every year. Wool is taken from these lambs and made into special vestments called pallium. A pallium is a band of white woolen cloth embroidered with six black crosses and worn around the shoulders exclusively by archbishops who head an archdiocese. An archbishop may only wear the pallium given to him by the pope. It is a symbol of authority as an archbishop and at the same time of unity with the pope.
6. St. Agnes is Sta. Ines in Spanish. You might not have noticed that many places in the Philippines are actually named after St. Agnes. Her name is also a pretty common family name.
7. St. Agnes is patron saint of young girls and chastity.
Let us pray.
Almighty ever-living God, who choose what is weak in the world to confound the strong, mercifully grant, that we, who celebrate the heavenly birthday of your Martyr Saint Agnes, may follow her constancy in the faith. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, for ever and ever.
Feast day: January 21