St. Agnes of Rome, who died around 304 A.D. at the age of 13, was martyred for refusing to marry a rich Roman, declaring that she would never accept any spouse except Jesus Christ. St. Agnes’ life, heroism, and death inspire us to be pure also. Agnes 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 (1883-1972) of Nashville, Tennessee, published in the Jan. 29, 1970 issue of the Catholic weekly “The Wanderer”:
The 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.
With 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 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.
The 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.
In testimony to this reflection, I choose the case of a virgin living in the age of the Romans, of a pure and attractive 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.
I 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.
“Times 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.
What 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.”
Around 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.
Agnes’ 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.
A 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.
To 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.”
This 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?”
“He 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.
Phocus 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 of chastisements.
From 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?”
“Yes,” answers Agnes. “I am a Christian. I have vowed my fidelity and my virginity to Christ.”
Still 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.”
”Oh, 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 lifeless?”
With 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.”
Agnes 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.”
The 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!”
As 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.
The guards barely left her alone in a room of the house of dishonor when an angel stands before Agnes, holding a robe white as snow, which she puts on herself.
The 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:
“By your witchcraft, you have killed my son! What happened?”
“Your son,” answers Agnes, “entered with evil plans, and the angel of God hit him in my defense.”
“If this is true, then you could surely pray so that life may be given back to my son.”
“Do 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 myself.”
Everyone 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.”
The 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.)
Therefore, 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:
“I 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.”
At 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.”
N.B.: 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 the very same century that witnessed Agnes’ death.
Bishop William Adrian