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 as they are officially instituted by Pope Francis 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 special 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.
Next on our list are Sts. Perpetua and Felicity. Even if their names are not easily recognizeable, they are among the most well-known and widely studied martyrs of the 3rd century. Many martyrdom account manuscripts have been lost to time, decay, or barbarian hordes, but we have received The Passion of St. Perpetua, St. Felicity, and their Companions as a complete text! It preserves the account of the arrest and imprisonment of the saints as given by eyewitnesses and the saints’ own testimony.
Vibia Perpetua was a 22-year-old married noblewoman and nursing mother, and Felicity was her servant, friend, and expectant mother. Perpetua had made her decision to be baptized in 203 AD under the rule of Emperor Septimius Severus, even though she knew that it could mean her death. Her father and family members pleaded with her to recant, but she replied that she couldn’t and said, “Neither can I call myself by any other name than what I am – a Christian.”
Perpetua and Felicity were imprisoned and awaited execution in the arena in their hometown of Carthage in North Africa. The conditions were terrible, but the Church sent deacons to minister to them and other Christians, even bribing the guards to provide better living conditions. The two women and their companions (Saturus, Revocadus, Rusticus, and Saturninus) continued to be people of prayer, even as they awaited their death, and their example resulted in the conversion of the jail warden, a man named Pudens.
The actual martyrdom account interestingly mirrors many of the aspects of Jesus’ own Passion. Perpetua, Felicity, and their companions were led into the center of the arena to await judgment of the crowds (like Jesus). Beautifully, the servant and master had become sisters and friends in their suffering for Christ. The crowd demanded that they be scourged first (like Jesus), and they were stripped naked for humiliation (like Jesus). The group of martyrs was then attacked by leopards, wild boars, and bears (oh my!), and Perpetua and Felicity were chained to the side of a crazed bull, which beat and trampled them severely. When the brutal attacks by the beasts had concluded, soldiers were dispatched to ensure that the martyrs were dead (like Jesus). When one of them, a young novice, approached Perpetua, he was so moved by her loving suffering that he couldn’t bring himself to dispatch her. Perpetua, fully aware of the consequences for the soldier disobeying his order, and willing to lay her own life down (like Jesus), steadied his hand and guided the sword into her body.
We have so much that we can take away from this passion account, including evidence for many closely held teachings of the Church, including baptism by desire (Perpetua’s brother died as a catechumen, but she dreamed he was saved) and prayers for the souls in Purgatory (her other brother Dinocrates, who had died with a disfiguring illness, appeared to her in a vision and was healed after she prayed for his soul). There is also a scene where the martyr Saturus gives his family ring to Pudens the warden in gratitude; Pudens later dips the ring in Saturus’ blood and keeps it to venerate the martyrs’ death, which seems to be clear evidence of the use of relics!
Perhaps the greatest lesson we learn follows the last recorded words of St. Perpetua: “Stand fast in faith, and love one another.” Sts. Perpetua, Felicity, and their Companions, pray for us!
So earlier this week, I was writing this column on St. Marcellinus, and had spent a few hours researching and writing when I suddenly discovered that the Marcellinus mentioned in the Eucharistic Prayer is actually a different Marcellinus, who had a companion named Peter. Who knew that “Marcellinus” was such a popular name, right?
As it is, St. Marcellinus was a priest, and St. Peter was an exorcist. Now before you all start thinking about the horror movie, let me explain. The order of “exorcist” was one of the “minor orders” of the Church. It didn’t serve as a ministerial order like the priest, deacon, or bishop, but an exorcist mostly had responsibilities connected to the catechumens (Christians in training). A close equivalent today might be the combination of a baptismal sponsor, a catechist for the RCIA, and a drill sergeant. The exorcists would lay hands on catechumens, pray for them, and make sure they were up to the challenges of the Christian life. In some cases, yes, the exorcists would assist clergy in formal rites of exorcism. This order actually became part of priestly formation, and men were instituted as exorcists on their way to priesthood all the way up the Second Vatican Council!
Anyway, back to Marcellinus and Peter. Not much is known of them other than their martyrdom, which was recounted by Pope Damasus I. However, he himself gave testimony on behalf of the martyrs’ executioner and their jailer (a man named Artemius), both of whom were converted by St. Marcellinus. The companions were martyred in the year 304 during the Great Persecution of Diocletian – incidentally, the same year as the martyrdom of their pope – the other Marcellinus. Confused yet?
Damasus’ testimony goes that the martyrs were led out of the city by the magistrate to a place along the Via Labicana southeast of Rome – out of the way, so as to hide the bodies from the Christian community. Even in the 4th century, it was well known that Christians would gather at the martyrs’ tombs to celebrate Mass on the anniversary of their death – hence our modern practice of saints’ feast days! Even as they were stripped naked, Marcellinus and Peter joyfully carried out their orders to clear the site of their martyrdom from a huge thicket of thorn bushes. When finished, they were beheaded and buried on the spot.
The Romans’ strategy to hide the graves didn’t work too well, as the Christian community soon located them and built a church near the site in the 4th century. Santi Marcellino e Pietro al Laterano was restored several times, but still stands today, and contains the relics of Sts. Marcellinus and Peter.
Incidentally, the ancient catacombs which were built around the graves of the martyrs were only fully excavated in 2006. They were found to be filled with colorful frescos depicting scenes from Scripture. The archaeologists also found the remains of thousands of bodies of early Christians, still wearing the togas they were buried in. Some were the bodies of saints and other Christians of the early Church, but most of the bodies were likely the victims of an ancient epidemic of typhus or smallpox. Interesting stuff!