St. Agnes, a martyr of Faith and purity
Pope John Paul II said to the young people gathered in Toronto, they should
not wait until they are older to become saints. For the World Youth Day, the
Holy Father proposed nine “patron saints” — nine Saints and Blesseds who
died at a very young age, like St. Thérèse of Lisieux and Blessed Kateri
Tekawitha, who died at the age of 24. One of these nine patrons is St. Agnes
of Rome, who died around 304 A.D., at the age of 13. She was martyred for
refusing to marry a rich Roman. She declared that she would never accept any
spouse except Jesus Christ.
Agnes' life, heroism, and death inspire us to be pure also. Her name means
pure in Greek and lamb in Latin. Her feast is celebrated on January 21. Here
is an article written in 1970 by the late Bishop William Adrian of Nashville,
U.S.A., published in the Jan. 29, 1970 issue of the excellent Catholic weekly
“The Wanderer” (201 Ohio Street, St. Paul, MN 55107, 612-224-5733):
Bishop William Adrian
rise of immorality and crime, so alarming in our country today, is in large
part due to the weakening or to the complete loss of faith in God, the
desertion of religion. A residue of ineradicable savageness, whose prick can
always be felt, infests human nature. On the first occasion, this shameful
inclination is always ready to revive, to show itself, and to humiliate us.
First, it is individuals, without hope and laws, who break away from the
restraint of civilized society; but others quickly follow, coming out of the
best reputable classes themselves.
reason, one complains about the spreading chaos resulting from ramping
immorality, riots, pillages, and other lawless outbursts, but one must admit
that nothing could better demolish the argument of those who pretend that
material progress is enough to make the world more human. No, and the majority
of the best thinkers support that, to be sound, civilization must rest on the
four pillars of Christian ethics, which are the four cardinal virtues:
prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude.
progress: moral progress
worthy of its name — moral progress — cannot be obtained by following the
law of the least effort. Such a progress will have to face the most violent
kinds of opposition. It will have to undergo the shock of sensual temptations.
It will have to resist the gnawing of waves that repeatedly storm against the
Faith. Morality must be authentically Christian to survive through the
torments, and it must be sustained by a defined practice and authoritative
teaching. Blind are the guides who take morality as a foundation in itself,
when it is rather a roof outstretched over society, and supported by the
authority of a revealed religion.
passing on the scene of the world of a young girl, smiling and joyful, but
modest and pure, commonly expresses more graphically the excellence of moral
chastity, the “strength of self-control,” given by Christianity, than the
life of a solitary hermit who prays and fasts, retired from the world.
testimony to this reflection, I choose the case of a virgin living in the age
of the Romans, of a pure and attracting teenager, whose example is for the
young and old, an attracting invitation to a holy emulation on the path of
purity: Saint Agnes of Rome.
world has not changed
do not think that the world has radically changed since the time that Agnes
lived her short life in the world, some nineteen centuries ago. It is always
the same strong and greedy world that we know today. The same world with three
heads, which the martyrs of the first three centuries of Christianity had to
face, still hinders the road to Heaven in our twentieth century: pride,
impurity, and the thirst for power stand armed against the Kingdom of Christ,
are bad.” We, Catholics, are living in a time of paganism. Our government
and society are about as pagan as the governments and society in the times of
paganism in Rome. Many do not adore the true God anymore; they rather adore at
the altars of Venus, or of Moloch, or of some other false deity of the human
passions, just like the Romans did.
Denys the philosopher used to say about paganism in Rome is still true today:
“Paganism was due in large part to the weakness it had of controlling moral
behavior, the character of the passions, and to the approval accorded to all
concessions made to the beast which, unfortunately, sleeps in the heart of
each one of us.”
the year 304, a large and curious crowd surrounded the court of the powerful
Roman prefect. Before him stood Agnes, pale but clam, barely aged thirteen.
The daughter of a distinguished patrician family of Rome, she was accused of
being a Christian.
parents were still pagan. But it was a custom then for rich parents to entrust
the education of their daughters to nurse-slaves until they were of age to get
married. Some of these slaves had a remarkable instruction, especially those
who came from Greece. They were often Christian: this was obviously the case
of the one to whom Agnes was entrusted.
couple of days before this court scene, Phocus, the son of the prefect of
Rome, went to Agnes' home — either on the invitation of Agnes' father in the
hope of making an advantageous marriage, or of his own initiative. Having been
won over by Agnes' modest beauty, he probably wanted to show her his love,
coupled with promises of a brilliant union.
this end, Phocus displayed sumptuous ornaments and jewels before Agnes. But
she coldly refused his advances, saying: “I am already the spouse of a Lover
much more noble and powerful than you.”
answer stunned Phocus. With a rage of jealousy, he asked: “Who is this
lover, more noble and more powerful than I, the son of Rome's prefect, I whom
all the girls of the empire would be happy to marry?”
is a Prince,” answered Agnes. “A Prince whose bride keeps, as the most
glorious of crowns, a spotless virginity. To this Lover, I have vowed my
fidelity.” And on this, she fled.
left, downcast, but with vengeance in his heart. Afterwards, he learns that
Agnes is a Christian, and reports this to his father. The father orders Agnes
to be arrested, boasting that he will be able to subject her with the threat
his seat of judge, the prefect addresses Agnes: “My child, you are accused
of the great crime of being a Christian. Do you persist in this state?”
answers Agnes. “I am a Christian. I have vowed my fidelity and my virginity
calm, the judge says: “I see that you are stubborn. I could use force, but I
respect your tender age. Go then willingly to the temple of Vestra, offer her
a sacrifice, and you could vow your virginity to this goddess.”
Judge,” pleads Agnes, “do not consider my youth; I search no compassion
because of my age. I have refused your son, who is a living being. Do you
believe that now I could bow my head before idols, simple rocks, mute and
rage, the prefect explains: “Your blasphemy against the gods deserves death.
But I will give you another chance. You choose. You can sacrifice to the
goddess with the vestal virgins, or you will be dragged in the house of
dishonor to be the toy of those who have of virginity a totally different idea
than yours. Consider also the honor of your family.”
receives a visible shock at the threat of being helplessly left at the mercy
of such bestial perverts. But counting on the help of God, she calmly answers:
“Mr. Prefect, if you only knew who was my God, you would not dare speak this
way. He will send an angel to protect me.”
prefect-judge then stands up: “May this young girl, Agnes, convinced of
blasphemy and of sacrilege, be stripped of her clothing, and be exposed in the
house of shame!”
the guards unclothe Agnes, says the “Acts of the Martyrs”, her hair starts
to grow, coming down and covering her body like a veil, while they lead her
away under the eyes of the crowd that had been set against her.
guards barely left her alone in a room of the house of dishonor when an angels
stands before Agnes, holding a robe white as snow, which she puts on herself.
first shameful young man to approach the room is Phocus. He barely enters when
lightning hits him, and he falls dead. His friends, surprised at his long
delay to come out, open the door to check, and they see his corpse. The news
is immediately brought to the prefect. Shocked and furious, the prefect
arrives running, and shouts to Agnes:
your witchcraft, you have killed my son! What happened?”
son,” answers Agnes, “entered with evil plans, and the angel of God hit
him in my defense.”
this is true, then you could surely pray so that life may be given back to my
you think,” replies Agnes, “that your faith deserves such a great favor?
Nevertheless, I will not refuse to ask for this grace, if you will leave me by
leaves. A few minutes late, Phocus runs out the door and into the street,
shouting: “There is only one God, the God of the Christians! Vain and
useless are our temples and the gods that we adore.”
father is overwhelmed. He willingly would have let Agnes go, if it was not for
the protests of the people who, under the instigation of the priests of the
idols, demand the death of the witch, an enemy of the gods. (A scene similar
to the one of Holy Thursday in front of Pilate's court.)
the prefect entrusts the case to his sub-prefect, who orders that Agnes be
burnt alive on a stake, in the public square. But the flames do not touch
Agnes, as she prays:
bless You, Almighty God, that, by Your Divine Son, I escaped the threats of
faithless men. And behold, now You free me from all harm and worry amidst the
flames. But I cannot wait to go to You.”
the sight of this amazing miracle, where the flames do not touch Agnes, the
crowd only becomes more furious to claim the death of the “witch”.
Therefore, the judge orders a guard to sink his sword into the throat of the
virgin. “A double victim,” St. Ambrose will write, “a victim sacrificed
for the loyalty to her Christian Faith and to her vow of virginity.”
This story of St. Agnes is taken almost entirely out of the writings of the
first Fathers of the Church and of the “Acts of the Martyrs”,
grouped into a collection by Pope Damasus I, who reigned from 366 to 384,
thus, in thed very same century that witnessed Agnes' death.
This article was published in the August-September, 2002 issue of “Michael”.
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