Jan. 21, 2020

January 21, 2020: ST. AGNES


Rank: Double.


It is the blessed Virgin Agnes’ feast, for, to-day, she was sanctified by shedding her innocent blood, and gave to heaven her heaven-claimed spirit.

She is a Martyr, that wears a double crown; for she was a spotless, innocent, virgin; and a glorious victim that freely died for Christ.


Prayer (Collect).

O Almighty and Eternal God, who makest choice of the weak things of the world, to confound the strong; mercifully grant, that we who celebrate the festival of blessed Agnes, thy Virgin and Martyr, may be sensible of the effects of her prayers. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, thy Son, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, God, world without end. Amen.


O happy Virgin! Singular in thy glory! Noble inhabitant of heaven! Decked with a twofold crown! Oh! look upon us who live in misery and sin; for, to thee alone did our Heavenly Father give the power to change impurity's abode into the shelter of chastity.


How rich is the constellation of Martyrs, which shines in this portion of the sacred Cycle. Yesterday, we had St. Sebastian; to-morrow, we shall be singing the name which means Victory, for it is the Feast of Vincent; and now, to-day, between these two rich palm-branches, we are rejoiced with the lovely rose and lily-wreath of Agnes. It is to a girl of thirteen that our Emmanuel gave this stern courage of martyrdom, which made her meet the enemy with as bold a front as either the valiant Captain of the pretorian band [St. Sebastian] or the dauntless Deacon of Saragossa [St. Vincent]. If they are the soldiers of Jesus, she is his tender and devoted Spouse. These are the triumphs of the Son of Mary! Scarcely has he shown himself to the world, and lo! every noble heart flies towards him, according to that word of his: Wheresoever the body shall be, there shall the eagles also be gathered together (St. Matth, xxiv. 28).

It is the admirable result of the Virginity of his Blessed Mother, who has brought honour to the fecundity of the soul, and set it far above that of the body. It was Mary that first opened the way, whereby certain chosen souls mount up even to the Divine Sun, and fix their gaze, in a cloudless vision, on his beauty; for he himself said: Blessed are the clean of heart, for they shall see God (St. Matth, v. 8).

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!

Not that our Saint is without her recompense—only, her recompense is not marred with the flaw of all human rewards. The name of this child, who lived but thirteen short years, will be echoed, to the end of time, in the sacred Canon of the universal Sacrifice. The path trod by the innocent maiden, on the way to her trial, is still marked out in the Holy City. In the Circus Agonalis (now, the Piazza Navona), there rises the beautiful Church of Saint Agnes, with its rich cupola; and beneath are the vaults which were once the haunts of infamy, but now are a holy sanctuary, where everything reminds us of her who here won her glorious victory. Further on, on the Nomentan Road, outside the ramparts, is the beautiful Basilica, built by Constantine; and here, under an altar covered with precious stones, lies the Body of the young Saint. Round this Basilica, there are immense crypts; and in these did Agnes' Relics repose until the epoch of peace, surrounded by thousands of Martyrs, whose holy remains were also deposited here.

Nor must we pass over in silence the gracious tribute of honour paid by Rome each year, on this Feast, to her beloved Martyr. Two lambs are placed on the altar of the Basilica Nomentana; they are emblems of the meekness of Jesus and the innocence of the gentle Agnes. After they have been blessed by the Abbot of the Religious Community, which serves this Church, they are taken to a Monastery of Nuns, where they are carefully reared. Their wool is used for making the Palliums, which the Pope sends to all Patriarchs and Metropolitans of the Catholic world, as the essential emblem of their jurisdiction. Thus, this simple woollen ornament, which these prelates have to wear on their shoulders, as a symbol of the sheep carried on the shoulders of the good Shepherd, and which the Sovereign Pontiff takes from off the Altar of Saint Peter in order to send it to its destination, carries to the very ends of the world the sublime union of these two sentiments —the vigour and power of the Prince of the Apostles, and the gentleness of Agnes the Virgin.

We will now quote the beautiful eulogium on St. Agnes, written by St. Ambrose in his Book, On Virgins. The Church gives almost the entire passage in her Office of to-day's Feast; and, assuredly, the Virgin of Christ could not have had a finer panegyrist than the great Bishop of Milan, who is the most eloquent and persuasive of all the Fathers on the subject of holy Virginity. We read, that in the Cities, where Ambrose preached, Mothers were afraid of their daughters being present at his Sermons, lest he should persuade them to such love of Christ, as to choose the better part.

“Having resolved,” says the holy Bishop, “to write a Book on Virginity, I think myself happy in being able to begin it on the Feast we are keeping of the Virgin Agnes. It is the Feast of a Virgin; let us walk in the path of purity. It is the Feast of a Martyr; let us offer up our Sacrifice. It is the Feast of St. Agnes; let men admire, and children not despair; let the married wonder, and the un-married imitate. But what can we speak worthy of this Saint, whose very name is not void of praise? As her devotedness is beyond her years, and her virtue superhuman—so, as it seems to me, her name is not an appellation, but a prophecy, presaging that she was to be a Martyr.” The holy Doctor is here alluding to the word Agnus, from which some have derived the name Agnes; and he says, that the young Saint had immolation in her very name, for it called her victim. He goes on to consider the other etymology of Agnes, from the Greek word agnos, which means pure; and he thus continues his discourse:

“The maiden's name is an expression of purity. Martyr, then, and Virgin! Is not that praise enough? There is no praise so eloquent, as merit that is too great to need seeking. No one is so praise-worthy, as he who may be praised by all. Now, all men are the praisers of Agnes, for when they pronounce her name, they say her praise, for they say A Martyr.

“There is a tradition, that she suffered martyrdom at the age of thirteen. Detestable, indeed, the cruelty, that spared not even so tender an age! but oh! the power of faith, that could find even children to be its witnesses! Here was a victim scarce big enough for a wound, for, where could the sword fall? and yet she had courage enough to conquer the sword.

“At such an age as this, a girl trembles if she but see her mother angry, and cries, as though it were a grievous thing, if but pricked with a needle's point. And Agnes, who stands amidst blood-stained murderers, is fearless! She is stunned with the rattle of the heavy chains, and yet not a flutter in that! She offers her whole body to the sword of the furious soldier, for though she knows not what death is, yet is she quite ready to endure it. Perchance, they will take her by force to the altars of their gods! If they do, she will stretch out her hands to Jesus, and, amidst those sacrilegious fires, she will sign herself with that blessed sign, the trophy of our divine conqueror; and then, if they will, and they can find shackles small enough to fit such tender limbs, they may fasten her hands and neck in their iron fetters!

“How strange a martyrdom! She is too young to be punished, yet is she old enough to win a victory. She cannot fight, yet she easily gains a crown. She has but the age of a scholar, yet has she mastered every virtue. Bride never went to nuptials with so glad a heart, or so light a step, as this young virgin marches to the place of execution. She is decked, not with the gay show of plaited tresses, but with Christ; she is wreathed, not with flowers, but with purity.

“All stood weeping; Agnes shed not a tear. Some wondered, how it could be, that she, who had but just begun her life, should be as ready to sacrifice it, as though she had lived it out; and every one was amazed, that she, who was too young to give evidence even in her own affairs, should be so bold a witness of the divinity. Her oath would be invalid in a human cause; yet, she is believed, when she bears testimony for her God. Their surprise was just: for a power thus above nature could only come from Him, who is the author of all nature.

“Her executioner does all he can to frighten her; he speaks fair words to coax her; he tells her of all the suitors who have sought her as their bride; but she replies: ‘The Spouse insults her Beloved if she hesitate. I belong to Him, who first betrothed me:—why, executioner, dost thou not strike? Kill this body, which might be loved by eyes I would not wish to please.’

“She stood, she prayed, she bowed down her head. The executioner trembles, as though himself were going to be beheaded. His hand shakes, and his cheek grows pale, to strike this girl, who loves the danger and the blow. Here, then, have we a twofold martyrdom in a single victim—one for her chastity, the other for her faith. She was a Virgin before; and now, she is a Martyr.”

The Roman Church sings, on this Feast, the sweet Responsories, in which Agnes expresses her tender love of her Jesus, and her happiness at having Him for her Spouse. They are formed from the words of the ancient Acts of her Martyrdom, which were long attributed to the pen of St. Ambrose.



℟. My Spouse has set precious stones on my right hand, and on my neck; he has hung priceless pearls in my ears:
*And he has laden me with gay and glittering gems.

℣. He has placed his sign upon my face, that I may have none other to love me but Him.
*And he has laden me with gay and glittering gems.

℟. I love Christ; I shall be the spouse of Him, whose Mother is the Virgin, and whose Father begot him divinely, and who delights me with sweet music of organs and singers:
*When I love him, I am chaste; when near him, I am purest; when I possess him, I still wear my Virgin's wreath.

℣. He has betrothed me with the ring of his fidelity, and has decked me with a necklace of priceless worth.
*When I love him, I am chaste; when near him, I am purest; when I possess him, I still wear my Virgin's wreath.

℟. Milk and honey have I received from his lips;
*and his Blood has graced my cheek.

℣. He has shown me incomparable treasures, and these has he promised to give me.
*and his Blood has graced my cheek.

℟. Already have I communicated of his sacred Body, and his Blood has graced my cheek:
*His Mother is the Virgin, his Father is God.

℣. I am espoused to Him whom the Angels obey, and whose beauty is gazed on by the sun and the moon.
*His Mother is the Virgin, his Father is God.


The Trial and Martyrdom of St. Agnes.

A.D. 304 or 305

St. Jerom says, that the tongues and pens of all nations are employed in the praises of this saint, who overcame both the cruelty of the tyrant and the tenderness of her age, and crowned the glory of chastity with that of martyrdom. St. Austin observes, that her name signifies chaste in Greek, and lamb in Latin. She has been always looked upon in the church as a special patroness of purity, with the immaculate Mother of God and St. Thecla. Rome was the theatre of the triumph of St. Agnes; and Prudentius says, that her tomb was shown within sight of that city. She suffered not long after the beginning of the persecution of Dioclesian, whose bloody edicts appeared in March in the year of our Lord 303. We learn from St. Ambrose and St. Austin, that she was only thirteen years of age at the time of her glorious death. Her riches and beauty excited the young noblemen of the first families of Rome, to vie with one another in their addresses, who should gain her in marriage. Agnes answered them all, that she had consecrated her virginity to a heavenly spouse, who could not be beheld by mortal eyes. Her suitors finding her resolution impregnable to all their arts and importunities, accused her to the governor as a Christian; not doubting but threats and torments would overcome her tender mind, on which allurements could make no impression. The judge at first employed the mildest expressions and most inviting promises; to which Agnes paid no regard, repeating always, that she could have no other spouse than Jesus Christ. He then made use of threats, but found her soul endowed with a masculine courage, and even desirous of racks and death. At last, terrible fires were made, and iron hooks, racks, and other instruments of torture displayed before her, with threats of immediate execution. The young virgin surveyed them all with an undaunted eye; and with a cheerful countenance beheld the fierce and cruel executioners surrounding her, and ready to dispatch her at the word of command. She was so far from betraying the least symptom of fear, that she even expressed her joy at the sight, and offered herself to the rack. She was then dragged before the idols, and commanded to offer incense: “but could by no means be compelled to move her hand, except to make the sign of the cross,” says St. Ambrose.

The governor seeing his measures ineffectual, said he would send her to a house of prostitution, where what she prized so highly should be exposed to the insults of the debauchees. Agnes answered that Jesus Christ was too jealous of the purity of his spouses, to suffer it to be violated in such a manner; for he was their defender and protector. “You may,” said she, “stain your sword with my blood, but will never be able to profane my body, consecrated to Christ.” The governor was so incensed at this, that he ordered her to be immediately led to the public brothel, with liberty to all persons to abuse her person at pleasure. Many young profligates ran thither, full of the wicked desire of gratifying their lust; but were seized with such awe at the sight of the saint, that they durst not approach her; one only excepted, who, attempting to be rude to her, was that very instant, by a flash, as it were, of lightning from heaven, struck blind, and fell trembling to the ground. His companions, terrified, took him up, and carried him to Agnes, who was at a distance, singing hymns of praise to Christ, her protector. The virgin by prayer restored him to his sight and health.

The chief prosecutor of the saint, who at first sought to gratify his lust and avarice, now labored to satiate his revenge, by incensing the judge against her; his passionate fondness being changed into anger and rage. The governor wanted not others to spur him on; for he was highly exasperated to see himself baffled, and set at defiance by one of her tender age and sex. Therefore, resolved upon her death, he condemned her to be beheaded. Agnes, transported with joy on hearing this sentence, and still more at the sight of the executioner, “went to the place of execution more cheerfully,” says St. Ambrose, “than others go to their wedding.” The executioner had secret instructions to use all means to induce her to a compliance: but Agnes always answered she could never offer so great an injury to her heavenly spouse; and having made a short prayer, bowed down her neck to adore God, and receive the stroke of death. The spectators wept to see so beautiful and tender a virgin loaded with fetters, and to behold her fearless under the very sword of the executioner, who with a trembling hand cut off her head at one stroke. Her body was buried at a small distance from Rome, near the Nomentan road. A church was built on the spot in the time of Constantine the Great, and was repaired by pope Honorius in the seventh century. It [was then] in the hands of Canon-Regulars, standing without the walls of Rome; and is honored with her relics in a very rich silver shrine, the gift of pope Paul V, in whose time they were found in this church, together with those of St. Emerentiana. The other beautiful rich church of St. Agnes within the city, built by pope Innocent X, (the right of patronage being vested in the family of Pamphili,) stands on the place where her chastity was exposed. The feast of St. Agnes is mentioned in all Martyrologies, both of the East and West, though on different days. It was formerly a holyday for the women in England, as appears from the council of Worcester, held in the year 1240. St. Ambrose, St. Austin, and other fathers have wrote her panegyric. St. Martin of Tours was singularly devout to her. Thomas à Kempis honored her as his special patroness, as his works declare in many places. He relates many miracles wrought, and graces received through her intercession.

Marriage is a holy state, instituted by God, and in the order of providence and nature the general or most ordinary state of those who live in the world. Those, therefore, who upon motives of virtue, and in a Christian and holy manner engage in this state, do well. Those, nevertheless, who for the sake of practising more perfect virtue, by a divine call, prefer a state of perpetual virginity, embrace that which is more perfect and more excellent… Voluntary chastity, for the kingdom of heaven's sake, [is] an excellency, and an excellent state of life. This is also the manifest inspired doctrine of St. Paul, and in the revelations of St. John, spotless virgins are called, in a particular manner, the companions of the Lamb, and are said to enjoy the singular privilege of following him wherever he goes. The tradition of the church has always been unanimous in this point; and among the Romans, Greeks, Syrians, and Barbarians, many holy virgins joyfully preferred torments and death to the violation of their integrity, which they bound themselves by vow to preserve without defilement, in mind or body. The fathers, from the very disciples of the apostles, are all profuse in extolling the excellency of holy virginity, as a special fruit of the incarnation of Christ, his divine institution, and a virtue which has particular charms in the eyes of God, who delights in chaste minds, and chooses to dwell singularly in them. They often repeat that purity raises men, even in this mortal life, to the dignity of angels; purifies the soul, fits it for a more perfect love of God and a closer application to heavenly things, and disengages the mind and heart from worldly thoughts and affections. It produces in the soul the nearest resemblance to God. Chastity is threefold; that of virgins, that of widows, and that of married persons; in each state it will receive its crown, as St. Ambrose observes, but in the first is most perfect, so that St. Austin calls its fruit an hundred fold, and that of marriage sixty fold; but the more excellent this virtue is, and the higher its glory and reward, the more heroic and the more difficult is its victory; nor is it perfect unless it be embellished with all other virtues in an heroic degree, especially divine charity and the most profound humility.

Taken from: The Liturgical Year – Christmas, Vol. II, Edition 1868;
The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Other Principal Saints, Vol. I, 1903; and
The Divine Office for the use of the Laity, Volume I, 1806.


St. Agnes, pray for us.