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Catholic Heroes… St. Agnes

January 13, 2014 saints No Comments

By CAROLE BRESLIN

Throughout the history of the Church, the personal pronoun used when referring to the Church has been “she.” Frequently we pray for Holy Mother Church. Thus, in similarity to the wedding feast of eternity in Heaven, we have the priests who are in some sense “married” to the Church. Perhaps this is one reason why women are not called to the priesthood. Yet it would seem that women are called to a much higher dignity to which men can never hope to aspire: becoming the bride of Christ Himself. Thus some orders have their nuns wear a wedding gown on the day of their final profession.
Some women saints have had mystical marriages with Christ, one such being the doctor of the Church, St. Catherine of Siena. She alone could see the beautiful jewels of her wedding ring bestowed upon her by Christ during a mystical encounter. Many centuries ago, in the springtime of the Church, there lived a young maiden who also died in order to preserve the union with her beloved and eternal spouse — St. Agnes. Her name in Greek means “chaste.”
St. Agnes lived before Constantine issued the Edict of Milan in 313, proclaiming religious toleration, especially of Christians. Agnes appears to have been raised in a Christian home, a child of uncommon beauty and grace. From an early age she promised herself, body and soul, to Christ to whom she referred as her Eternal Spouse. Since she also came from a wealthy and noble family, many young men sought her hand in marriage.
The exact details of her life are obscure. St. Ambrose placed her age at 12 at the time of her death, while St. Augustine placed her age at 13. Likewise, while the details of her youth seem consistent, the details of her death are somewhat conflicting.
Many of the young men of noble families sought the hand of Agnes in marriage. She turned them all down. Nevertheless, these men thought they could win her by threats and bribes. In fact, Procop, the son of the governor, was unrelenting in his pursuit of her. Although she repeatedly refused him, saying she already had an eternal spouse, he would not give up.
He went to his father and denounced her as a Christian, thinking that the threat of death would change her mind. Subsequently, she was brought before the Prefect Sempronius, who urged her to deny her god. He dangled the riches of the world in front of her, which she refused. He also promised her status and power, but none of this would deter her. Finally she was put in chains, as they thought that would make the girl of tender years relent. This, however, only brought her joy, as she knew she was suffering with and for Christ.
When her face glowed with joy even though she was chained and imprisoned, the authorities became incensed. Still, she refused all of their pleas and threats. Because she held to her purity and virginity, they threatened that very treasure. She was ordered to be placed in a brothel where her chastity would be destroyed.
To those who remain faithful, Christ also remains faithful. Though a man tried to take advantage of her, he was struck blind and struck down. Evidently, this happened to more than one man. When yet another man was struck dead in his pursuit of her, he came back to life as a result of her prayers. Thus she was released from her sentence in the brothel.
She was, however, again brought before the magistrate. This time Sempronius excused himself from the proceedings. She was again found guilty of being a Christian and sentenced to death by burning at the stake. But first she was to be dragged through the streets naked to the stadium where she would be executed.
Some legends claim that, in order to preserve her modesty, her hair grew long and covered her body.
Once this ordeal had been accomplished, she then was tied to the stake and a bundle of wood brought to be placed at her feet. According to some accounts, the wood could not be ignited. Other sources state that the flames would part and not touch her person. At any rate, there seems to be agreement that the soldier attending her martyrdom drew his sword and either slit her throat or beheaded the maiden.
So respected and revered was she among the Christians that they brought cloths to soak up her blood that had fallen on the floor of the stadium.
St. Agnes was buried beside the Via Nomentana in Rome in the cemetery that would later bear her name. In 354, Constantina, daughter of Constantine and wife of Gallus, had a basilica built in honor of St. Agnes. Along with St. Agatha and St. Lucy, St. Agnes is mentioned in the First Eucharistic Prayer as representative of the order of virgins.
Her sacred remains are held in the Church of St. Agnes in Rome, which was built over the catacombs that held her tomb. Her skull is preserved in a separate chapel in the Church of St. Agnes in Agony in Rome’s Piazza Navona.
Because of her chastity and purity and partly in remembrance of her name, Agnes, which in Latin is “lamb,” she is depicted with lambs at her feet or with one in her arms.
Another tradition of the Church also relates to her. On her feast, January 21, in the church where she is kept, two white lambs are brought to the altar.
These lambs are offered to the Church. They are blessed and then taken to be cared for until they are ready to be sheared of their wool. When that time comes, the lambs’ wool is taken and woven into the pallia that are sent to the sent to the archbishops in the Western Church, in token of the jurisdiction which they derive from the Holy See.
Dear St. Agnes, with what uncommon resolve did you protect the purity of your virginity! In these troubled times, may the young women of today turn to you as a model of modesty, chastity, and purity. May they too seek to imitate your love of Christ when you were called to be His beloved bride. Help parents today to guide their daughters to appreciate the virtue of chastity and to be persevering in their efforts to protect them from evil. Amen.

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(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. Mrs. Breslin’s articles have appeared in Homiletic & Pastoral Review and in the Marian Catechist Newsletter. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)

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