“By the writings and the tongues of all nations, particularly in the churches, hath St. Agnes been praised, who overcame both the tenderness of her age and the cruelty of the tyrant and sanctified the honor of her chastity with the glory of martyrdom.” –Saint Jerome, S. Hier. Ep. viii.
On the 21st of January we have yet another wonderful Virgin Martyr in the liturgical cycle. She is one like Saint Cecilia who has the great privilege and honor of holding a sacred place in the litany of saints named in the Roman Canon of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. She is a Saint for the Saints with a following of devotees that are numerous and widespread, being found in both the East and the West. The purity and simplicity of this saint are evident even from her very name which according to Saint Augustine means in Latin: lamb, and in the Greek means: chaste. She too offered her life for love of her Divine Spouse, just as He did for love of all of us.
Dom Gueranger makes an interesting observation in The Liturgical Year for today’s feast concerning virginity:
“What a glory is it not for the Catholic Church, that she alone has the gift of this holy state of Virginity, which is the source of every other sacrifice, because nothing but the love of God could inspire a human heart to vow Virginity! And what a grand honour for Christian Rome, that she should have produced a Saint Agnes, that angel of earth, in comparison with whom the Vestals of paganism are mere pretences of devotedness, for their Virginity was never punished by fire and sword, nay, rather, was flattered by the recompense of earthly honours and riches!”
Oh how indeed we are blessed in the Catholic Church. How blessed we are who have the one true faith, the only one by which we may be saved!
The Sacred Liturgy is a treasure trove of beautiful prayers and hymns, and the hymn designated for all virgin martyrs when they are commemorated in the Divine Office at the hour of Lauds is no exception. This hymn is called, Iesu Corona Virginum (the English translation is below):
Jesu, the virgins’ crown, do thou
Accept us as in prayer we bow;
Born of that Virgin, whom alone
The mother and the maid we own.
Amongst the lilies thou dost feed,
By virgin choirs accompanied;
With glory decked, the spotless brides
Whose bridal gifts thy love provides.
They, wheresoe’er thy footsteps bend,
With hymns and praises still attend:
In blessed troops they follow thee,
With dance, and song, and melody.
We pray thee therefore to bestow
Upon our senses here below
Thy grace, that so we may endure
From taint of all corruption pure.
All laud to God the Father be,
All praise, eternal Son, to thee;
All glory as is ever meet,
To God, the holy Paraclete. Amen.
St. Agnes, Virgin
The name of St. Agnes has obtained universal celebrity. St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, St. Maximus, Prudentius, and other illustrious writers 1 have been her panegyrists, and she is also mentioned in the canon of the Mass.
She is said to have been descended of very noble and pious parents, and to have been but twelve or thirteen years of age at the time of her martyrdom. Her extra ordinary beauty caused her to be desired by many as their future spouse, but her principal suitor was Procopius, son of Symphronius, governor of Rome, who sent her a rich present, signifying that he was most anxious to be her husband. But the saint, who had dedicated her virginity and all her affections to Jesus Christ, answered him that she had been promised to another spouse. Procopius, nothing discouraged by this answer, continued his ineffectual importunities, until at last the saint, wishing to free herself forever from his unwelcome attentions, said to him: Begone from me, thou food for death ! I am already engaged to another and a far better spouse. He is the King of Heaven, to whom I have consecrated my entire being.”
Procopius not knowing what to do, employed the assistance of his father Symphronius, whose authority, he thought, might induce Agnes to comply. The governor accordingly summoned her to his presence, and told her he could not conceive why she should refuse the hand of his son, as it was impossible for her to obtain a more advantageous match. The saint replied, that she had a divine spouse, who was far preferable to his son. The governor being unable to conceive what she meant by a “divine spouse,” one of the gentlemen in waiting said to him: “That young lady is a Christian, and the divine spouse to whom she refers is none other than the God of the Christians.” Hereupon the governor, changing his tone, told her that she should abandon that sect and its maxims altogether, or else not only lose the good fortune which now presented itself, but be exposed to infamy and the most cruel torments. He concluded by giving her four-and-twenty hours to consider whether, under these circumstances, she would obstinately continue to be a Christian. Agnes boldly replied that she required no time for deliberation, as she was already resolved to have no other spouse than Jesus Christ, and that neither torments nor death could frighten her, as she was most anxious to lay down her life for him.
The governor then thought to intimidate her by threatening to have her sent to an infamous place, to be there dishonored; but the saint replied: “My confidence is placed in Jesus Christ, my spouse, who is omnipotent he will defend me from all outrage.” Enraged at this answer, Symphronius ordered her to be handcuffed, and dragged in chains before the idols, that she might offer incense; but on arriving at the place, she made the sign of the cross, declaring that her Crucified Spouse alone should be adored. She was then led, by force, to a house of prostitution; but if any approached her with an immodest intent, he became so overawed as not to be able to look at the saint. Only one rash young man, whom some suppose to have been Procopius, attempted to offer her any violence; but as Cardinal Orsi 1 here observes, the impure wretch soon experienced the jealousy with which the “ Spouse of Virgins” defends them, for a flash of lightning struck him blind, and he fell as if dead upon the ground. While his companions were endeavoring to afford him some relief, and were already be wailing him as dead, the saint was requested to pray for him, and this she did; whereupon he instantly recovered, and again received his sight.
The governor, surprised at this miracle, was inclined to dismiss the holy virgin; but the idolatrous priests exclaimed that it was the effect of magic, and excited the people to demand that Agnes should be put to death as a witch. The governor, fearing a sedition if he should discharge her, and, on the other hand, being unwilling to put her to death, left the judgment of the case to his lieutenant, Aspasius, who being obliged to it by the populace, condemned her to be burned alive. The fun eral pile was accordingly erected, the saint was placed upon it, and the fire enkindled; but the flames, respecting her person, divided themselves on either side, and consumed many of the idolaters who were assisting at the execution.
The priests and the people continued to cry out that it was the work of the devil, and obliged the lieutenant to send an executioner to behead her. The horror of such an execution caused even this minister of cruelty to turn pale, and, says St. Ambrose (De Virginib. L. I.), he trembled to give the stroke: but the saint animated him, saying: “Haste thee to destroy this my body, which could give pleasure to others, to the offending of my divine Spouse. Fear not to give me that death which shall be to me the commencement of eternal life.” Having raised her eyes to heaven, and besought Jesus Christ to receive her soul, this tender virgin received the stroke of death, and went to receive from her Saviour the palm of her triumph.
As early as the time of Constantine the Great, a church was erected in honor of St. Agnes; and her festival is celebrated twice a year by the Church on the 21st January, in honor of her earthly triumph; and on the 28th of the same month, in commemoration of her heavenly reward.
The martyrdom of St. Agnes took place, according to Ruinart, about the year 304. Her virginal body was religiously deposited in a place belonging to her parents. The following is what is contained in the Roman Breviary in her office of January 28: “One night when the parents of the blessed Agnes were watching at her grave, she appeared to them in company with a band of virgins, and said to them: Father and mother, weep not for me as though I were dead; for now these virgins and 1 live together in Him whose love was my whole life upon earth. Some years afterwards, Constance, the daughter of the Emperor Constantine, being sick of an incurable ulcer, betook herself to the said grave, although she was not yet a Christian, and as she lay by it and slept, she seemed to hear the voice of Agnes, saying to her: Constance, be of good courage; believe in Jesus Christ the Son of God, and he will make thee whole. The princess, being healed, was baptized, along with many others of the emperor s family and house hold, and afterwards built over the grave of the blessed Agnes a church named in her honor.”
Alban Butler or Godescard adds: “This church gives title to a Cardinal. Every year, on the feast of St. Agnes, the abbot of St. Peters ad Vincula blesses in it, at High Mass, two lambs, which are thence carried to the Pope, by whom they are again blessed. After this they are sent to the nuns of St. Laurence, in Panisperna, or sometimes to the Capucinesses, who make of the wool of these lambs palliums, which the Pope blesses and sends to the archbishops and bishops who occupy privileged sees. These palliums are emblems of meekness and spotless purity.”