January 21 — St. Agnes, Virgin, Martyr – Memorial

All Saints for Today

Memorial; Liturgical Color: Red or White

Only the names of the earliest saints and martyrs are embedded in the the Roman Canon, the 1st Eucharistic Prayer. Saint Agnes is among those listed (Felicity, Perpetua, Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, Cecilia, Anastasia, etc….) Devotion to Agnes as both Virgin and Martyr is of ancient origin, and is specifically mentioned by 4th century writers, including Pope Damasus. A Basilica was built during the reign of Constantine himself over the catacombs where St. Agnes’ relics were deposited. A later structure, with an ancient mosaic showing St. Agnes, is still an active church on that exact site today. The mobs of tourists and pilgrims who crowd the eternal city today, and who shuffle through Piazza Navona, may not realize that they are walking by the very site where Agnes was martyred. The beautiful Baroque Church of St. Agnes on Piazza Navona reminds the discerning pilgrim that our saint met her death at that exact spot.

Agnes was of a tender age when she was killed. She was just a girl. Tradition says that she was beautiful and wanted to dedicate her virginity to the Lord, despite numerous suitors desirous of her beauty. She was killed, then both for her faith and for her steadfastness in refusing to violate her vow of chastity.  It was a double martyrdom, made all the sweeter because of her youth. With poetic license and rhetorical power St. Augustine imagines St. Agnes’ final moments:  “You could see fear in the eyes of the executioner, as if he were the one condemned; his right hand trembled; his face grew pale as he saw the girl’s peril; while she had no fear for herself. One victim, but a twin martyrdom, to modesty and to religion. Agnes preserved her virginity, and gained a martyr’s crown.”

When making solemn vows at his ordination a man marries the Church so that he can make her fruitful. But a woman’s vows make her a spouse of Christ Himself. A man marries the Church, a woman marries Christ. This beautiful bridal imagery speaks the human language of love and commitment. God is a person, not just a prime mover or a higher power. So he loves us like a person and we love Him back like a person. Part of this love is jealousy. God is a jealous spouse. He wants total commitment from those who have dedicated their lives to him. He demands total fidelity. In extreme cases, even to the point of death. Little St. Agnes understood all of this with girlish simplicity combined with a will of iron. Innocence alongside maturity. Chastity alongside toughness. And beauty hand in hand with death.

St. Agnes, help all young people commit themselves to Christ when young, giving Him the most fruitful years of their lives. Be an inspiration for them to live chastity in a mature and thoughtful way, seeing it as a “yes” to God and not just as a “no” to another. By your intercession, help all, young and old, to see that although life is a gift, there are greater things than life, such as God in his glory.

More from Butler’s Lives of the Saints:

ST. AGNES was but twelve years old when she was led to the altar of Minerva at Rome and commanded to obey the persecuting laws of Diocletian by offering incense. In the midst of the idolatrous rites she raised her hands to Christ, her Spouse, and made the sign of the life-giving cross. She did not shrink when she was bound hand and foot, though the gyves slipped from her young hands, and the heathens who stood around were moved to tears. The bonds were not needed for her, and she hastened gladly to the place of her torture. Next, when the judge saw that pain had no terrors for her, he inflicted an insult worse than death: her clothes were stripped off, and she had to stand in the street before a pagan crowd; yet even this did not daunt her. “Christ,” she said, “will guard His own.” So it was. Christ showed, by a miracle, the value which He sets upon the custody of the eyes. Whilst the crowd turned away their eyes from the spouse of Christ, as she stood exposed to view in the street, there was one young man who dared to gaze at the innocent child with immodest eyes. A flash of light struck him blind, and his companions bore him away half dead with pain and terror. Lastly, her fidelity to Christ was proved by flattery and offers of marriage. But she answered, “Christ is my Spouse: He chose me first, and His I will be.” At length the sentence of death was passed. For a moment she stood erect in prayer, and then bowed her neck to the sword. At one stroke her head was severed from her body, and the angels bore her pure soul to Paradise.

Reflection.— Her innocence endeared St. Agnes to Christ, as it has endeared her to His Church ever since. Even as penitents we may imitate this innocence of hers in our own degree. Let us strictly guard our eyes, and Christ, when He sees that we keep our hearts pure for love of Him, will renew our youth and give us back the years which the canker-worm has wasted.

Lives of the Saints, by Alban Butler, Benziger Bros. ed. [1894]

Further Reading:


Catholic Online

Franciscan Media

New Advent

Passionist Nuns