Saint Agnes, Virgin and Martyr

St Agnes, Virgin and Martyr (Memorial)

Agnes was martyred at the end of the persecution of the Roman Emperor Diocletian, probably in the early years of the 4th century.  She is thought to have been between 12 and 15 years of age.  It is clear that her death was the result of a determination to preserve her virginity.  The Church, following the teaching of St Paul, had considered a state of virginity or celibacy preferable, in itself, to a state of marriage. And, of the many virgin martyrs in Rome, few were held in greater esteem than Agnes by the early Church.

Very few details of Agnes’ life are known.  However, in the ancient Roman calendar of the feasts of the martyrs (Depositio Martyrum), her feast is listed on January 21.  This record also mentions the name of the road (via Nomentana) near which her grave was said to be located. 

Today, in the Latin Church, the same date is still observed for her feast. Although few reliable details of how she met her death are recorded in writing, Church writers and poets praised her virginity and heroism under torture.  On only one point does there seem to be agreement: she was very young when she gave her life to preserve her integrity.  St Ambrose says she was just 12; St Augustine says she was 13.  Damasus even describes her as going to her martyrdom from the lap of her mother or nurse.  She is among the women saints commemorated in the Roman Canon.

The name ‘Agnes’ comes from the Latin word for ‘lamb’ (agna), so traditionally on this feast, the wool from two lambs is presented annually as a tax by the Lateran Canons Regular in Rome to the Chapter of St John.  They are solemnly blessed on the high altar of the church after a pontifical Mass and then offered to the Pope.  This wool goes into the making of the pallium, which only the pope and archbishops are entitled to wear over their liturgical vestments.

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