Early Fourth Century?
St. Agnes, the little virgin-martyr, is one of the most perennially popular of the ancient saints. By 349 a splendid church had been erected over her Roman tomb. St. Ambrose in the fourth century, and poet Prudentius in the fifth, both broadcast her praise; and we still invoke her help in the First Eucharistic prayer (the “Roman Canon”). Indeed, until recently, there were two feasts of St. Agnes, January 21 and January 28. But the “narrative” of her life and death, set down only in the sixth century, is not historically dependable. So Agnes is both famous and unknown.
Here is her legend in summary, however, for it may embody some genuine biographical facts.
All the sources agree with this legend that St. Agnes was only 12 or 13 at the time of her death. She was a beautiful girl, says the legend, and many of the young pagan noblemen of Rome aspired to have her as wife (early marriage was common for women in those days). But Agnes always replied that she had already consecrated her virginity to a greater but invisible Spouse. One of her suitors, we are told, angered at her refusal, sought vengeance by denouncing Agnes to the governor as a Christian.
The governor, according to the story, first tried to persuade Agnes to relent and marry. When she clung to her vow, however, he tried to break her will by imprisoning her in a house of prostitution. But the very lechers who came to her were so awed by her strength of character that they kept their distance. Only one of them showed rudeness, and for that, he was stricken blind by heaven. Agnes prayed for him, however, (says the legend) and he recovered his sight.
Unmoved by these marvels, the magistrate condemned Agnes to death (some say by decapitation; others by burning). Those who witnessed her execution wept at the untimely end of this frail but heroic young woman. She was buried on the Via Nomentana in the “catacomb of St. Agnes” where her basilica would later be constructed.
If there are dubious aspects in this sixth-century legend, the bare facts known about her are sufficient to explain her popularity. Although a girl in her earliest teens – an age when those of her sex are often impressionable and immature – Agnes stood forth with the courage of an experienced adult in defense of her vowed purity and her staunch Christian faith. What is more touching, more thrilling, more cautionary to the lukewarm Catholic than the heroism of this woman-child? “A new type of martyrdom,” St. Ambrose would call it. “She was too young to suffer, yet old enough to conquer. All the others wept, but she wept not.”
The world finds purity admirable but too difficult. Agnes proved that with God’s grace it can be preserved. The world also finds faith admirable but inconvenient to maintain when threatened. Agnes proved that, with God’s grace, belief can triumph over unbelief.
Today we are assaulted, as perhaps never before, by temptations against purity and against faith. Television, for instance, presents in our very homes, unchristian attitudes regarding both chastity and doctrine. Maybe a modern virgin-martyr like the eleven-year-old St. Maria Goretti (1890-1902) will serve young minds of today as a clearer prophet of faith and purity. But the young Agnes who stunned the Ancient Roman world with her inspired courage still teaches to youth the same lesson that St. Maria Goretti taught: “With God’s help we can preserve both purity and belief.”
As Jesus said, we must all change and become like little children if we are to enter heaven. St. Agnes and St. Maria had adult principles but the trusting hearts of little ones.
–Father Robert F. McNamara
Father McNamara wrote a second story of her life, shown below:
Twice Crowned: St. Agnes, Virgin and Martyr
The story of St. Agnes’ brief but heroic life was written down a whole century after her death, which may make its correctness dubious. There is no doubt, however, that Agnes was a really teenage martyr. Christian devotion to her is ancient and touching.
Here is the traditional legend of the little Roman saint.
Agnes was thirteen, and obviously of good Christian family. Although of great physical beauty, she had already dedicated her virginity to God. Many suitors sought her, but to all she declared that her only spouse would be Jesus Christ.
She lived in Rome in the first years of the fourth century. In those years, Roman Emperor Diocletian was waging an all out war against Christianity. No Christian, young or old, he vowed, would escape his hands.
In due time, therefore, Agnes was haled before a magistrate holding court in the temple of Vesta, and ordered to offer sacrifice to the goddess Minerva. She would be burned alive, the official warned, if she refused.
She did refuse. The judge punished her, but by a torment even more cruel than burning. He remanded her to a house of ill repute, reasoning that if he could destroy her morals he might destroy her faith.
Condemnation to rape was one of the Roman persecutorial tricks, but Agnes withstood it. They stripped her naked, yet there was something in the radiance of her modesty that frightened off the usual patrons. Only one man dared to approach her, the magistrate’s own son. For his boldness he was struck blind. But the young victim forgave him, and her forgiveness brought back his sight. Admitting defeat, the judge stopped the torment, but not the persecution. He ordered her beheaded. The year of her execution was around 305.
Whatever the exactitude of the details of this narrative, it is certain that as early as 354, the Roman Church’s official calendar of martyrs included Agnes’ name. She is mentioned in the sermons of several leading Christian writers of the same era; there is an ancient inscription about her in her Church on the Via Nomentana; and her portrait, accompanied by her symbol, a lamb, has been found painted on a circlet of gilded glass dating from the fourth century. Early veneration of her centered on two Roman sites: one, that of her death, is marked by the Church of St. Agnes in the Piazza Navona; the other, at the place of her burial by St. Agnes’ Church on the Via Nomentana outside the city walls.
Agnes has remained one of the most popular saints of all times. Like St. Ursula, St. Catherine of Alexandria, Ss. Dorothy, Faith and Barbara, she has been venerated for having won two crowns, that of vowed virgin and that of martyr. Her name was inserted into the “Nobis quoque peccatoribus” of the Canon of the Latin Mass (the First Eucharistic Prayer). Since her day the Church has canonized other twin-crowned saintly women, of course, including, more recently, St. Maria Goretti. But of all these young virgin martyrs, Agnes remains the archetype. They are all presented by the Church as models for Catholic adolescents and young women.
A lovely liturgical custom arose centuries ago, in connection with the Via Nomentana, shrine of St. Agnes. It is customary for the popes, when they name Latin Rite Metropolitan archbishops, to bestow upon them the little collar-like woolen vestment called the pallium. Quite likely because the name “Agnes” is close to the Latin word for lamb (Agnus), it has become a custom to present two white lambs at her suburban church on her feast day, January 21. These are blessed, and confided to the care of a Roman convent. The nuns raise them, and when they are first sheared, weave and stitch their wool into pallia. The pallia, presented to the pope on the eve of the feast of SS. Peter and Paul, are deposited in an urn close to the tomb of St. Peter. Bestowed by the pope to each new archbishop, they become a symbol of the archbishop’s unity with the successor of St. Peter.
The pope also wears a pallium at solemn Masses. Note carefully when you next see him pictured at Mass. You will see this white wool, cross-embroidered collarette around his neck, resting on the chasuble.
When you see the pallium, think also of its connection with Agnes, the heroic virgin-martyr of ancient Rome.
–Father Robert F. McNamara