Saint Agnes, Virgin, Martyr
Patron Saint of: Children of Mary, girls, young
Saint Agnes from the "Master of the Saint Bartholomew Altar"
Saint Austin observes that Saint Agnes' name means chaste or pure in Greek, and lamb or victim in Latin. She has always been regarded by the Church as a special patroness of purity.
Agnes was martyred early in the persecution of Diocletian, who began his persecution of Christians in March of 303. She was only twelve or thirteen years old at the time of her death (accounts differ). Even at that young age, her wealth and beauty had attracted the attention of the young noblemen of Rome, who competed with each other for her hand in marriage. She spurned them all, saying that she had consecrated her virginity and chosen a Spouse Who could not be seen with mortal eyes.
Her suitors accused her to the governor as a Christian. At first, the judge was mild, gentle and kind to the young saint, promising her money and position if she would offer incense to another god. Agnes refused. He then threatened her with terrible fires, iron hooks, racks and other instruments of torture, but the young girl was filled with courage and remained steadfast, unafraid of what might befall her.
Seeing that his threats were ineffective, the judge then threatened to send Agnes to a house of prostitution. Agnes replied that Jesus Christ was too jealous and protective a spouse to allow her purity to be violated. Angered, the judge ordered that she be taken immediately to the public brothel with instructions that all persons were at liberty to abuse her person.
Many people came to see and join in the spectacle. But at the sight of the young saint, still calm and trusting in Christ to protect her, they were frightened and dared not approach. Only one young man, bolder than the rest, attempted to molest her. At that instant, in a flash, he was struck blind and fell to the ground trembling. His friend picked him up and brought him to Saint Agnes whose prayers restored him to sight and health.
The governor, finally realizing that little or nothing would sway her conviction, condemned her to be beheaded. The executioner had secret instructions to induce her to change her mind when faced with death, but Agnes answered that she would never betray Jesus Christ in that way, by serving another god. Making a short prayer, she knelt and allowed the executioner to carry out his work.
She went to the arms of her Heavenly Spouse, Whom with her faithfulness and courage proved that she loved more than life itself.
The Feast of St Agnes is marked every year in Rome with a custom rich in symbolism and tradition. Two very young lambs from the sheepfold belonging to the Trappist fathers of the monastery of Tre Fontane near St Paul's Basilica are crowned and placed in straw baskets, which have been carefully decorated with red and white flowers and streamers: red standing for Agnes' martyrdom, and white for her purity. They are then taken to the Basilica of St Agnes Outside the Walls. There, at the end of the solemn feast day Mass, a procession composed of young girls in white dresses and veils, as well as carabinieri in red and blue uniforms and hats, who bear the lambs on their shoulders, proceeds down the center aisle. The lambs are ceremoniously incensed and blessed. They are then shown to the Pope at the Vatican and finally placed in the care of the Benedictine nuns of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, who rear them until Maundy Thursday, when they are sheared.
From the lambs' wool are woven approximately 12 pallia a year. The pallia are made by the Oblates of St Frances of Rome. The pallium is an article of ecclesiastical apparel consisting of a narrow circular band of white wool embroidered with six small crosses and which has a weighted pendant in the front and the back. It slips over the head and hangs down in front and back in the shape of a "Y". It is worn during ceremonies by the Pope, metropolitan archbishops, and patriarchs. Until an archbishop receives a pallium, he may not exercise metropolitan jurisdiction, and if he should be transferred to a new archdiocese, he must ask for a new pallium. The archbishops are buried with their pallia. Each archbishop receives the pallium directly from the Pope as the special insignia signifying the dignity and jurisdiction of his position and his communion with the Holy See. On June 28, the Vigil of the Feast of SS. Peter and Paul, the pallia are placed in St Peter's Basilica.
There they repose overnight on an altar in the confessional surrounding the crypt that contains the tomb of St Peter, which signifies the twofold consciousness of the strength of the Prince of the Apostles and the virginal meekness of Agnes. The pallia are then kept, ready for future use, encased in a chest of precious metal in the confessional's niche of the pallia.
All-powerful and ever-living God,
You chose the weak in this world to confound the powerful.
As we celebrate the anniversary of the martyrdom of Saint Agnes,
may we like her remain constant in faith.