Today we move on to another saintly woman in the Roman Canon, St. Agnes. She was 12 years old when we catch up with her traditions, and was raised in a Christian family during the reign of Diocletian. Because of her high social rank, she held many suitors, with many men wanting to take advantage of her. Agnes, though, made a vow to the Lord early on, and she dedicated herself to being chaste, responding to her suitors with, “Jesus Christ is my only spouse.” The governor’s son, Procop, sought her out especially, buying her jewelry and other expensive gifts, and making her promises of power if she would take his hand in marriage. St. Agnes continued to deny him, and so Procop reported her to the prefect, a man named Sempronius, accusing her of being a Christian.
When you tell others that you have promised your marriage to Christ alone, it’s pretty clear that you’re a Christian, and so when Agnes was convicted, she was dragged naked through the streets of Rome to a brothel as punishment. As the Roman Martyrology states, an angel protected her, and it was said that any man who tried to abuse or take her virginity from her was struck blind. Ultimately, St. Agnes was sentenced to death by burning her at the stake in the arena. When the wood refused to burn, the presiding Roman officer drew his sword and dispatched her.
The body of St. Agnes was laid to rest along the Via Nomentana (where St. Alexander was buried, remember?!?), and devotion to her quickly spread throughout Rome. Her sister, St. Emerentiana, was discovered praying at the grave on the anniversary of her martyrdom, and when she refused to leave, she was martyred as well! Several years later, St. Constance, the daughter of the great Emperor Constantine, was miraculously cured of leprosy while praying at St. Agnes’ tomb. The church of Sant’Agnese fuori le mura (St. Agnes Outside the Walls) was built over her tomb. Her skull is preserved as well at Sant’Agnese in Agone, built near the Piazza Navona over the supposed site of her martyrdom.
Interestingly, the name “Agnes” looks a lot like the Latin word Agnus, which means “lamb”. Who knows if this was intentional or a mistake, but a white lamb has come to be a symbol for St. Agnes. Each year, two lambs belonging to a Roman monastery are sheered on her feast day to make the wool pallium, a small vestment given to newly consecrated archbishops when they are officially instituted by the pope on the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul (June 29). Archbishop Carlson received his pallium from Pope Benedict XVI in 2009.
St. Agnes is considered one of the “virgin martyrs”, a separate class of the saints similar to the soldier martyrs we discussed with Sts. John and Paul. Even the name “Agnes” comes from the Greek word meaning “chaste” or “pure”. Sometimes, it can be easy to think of chastity as being for “goody two-shoes”, and to assume that people follow chastity because they are scared or boring. The truth is that there is happiness and joy in being pure and holy, and these virgin saints are wonderful examples of this.