January 21: Saint Agnes, Virgin and Martyr

c. 291-c. 304
Memorial; Liturgical Color: Red or White
Patron Saint of young girls, rape victims, and chastity


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Only the names of the earliest saints and martyrs are embedded in the Roman Canon, Eucharistic Prayer I. 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 to the religious life 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 united to a will of iron. Innocence alongside maturity. Chastity alongside toughness. Beauty holding hands with death.

St. Agnes, help all young people commit themselves to Christ when young, giving Him the most fruitful years of their lives. Inspire them to say “Yes” to God and not just as a “No” to the world. Help both young and old to see that although life is a gift, there are greater things than life, such as God in His glory.

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