Today’s saint, Agnes of Rome, is long overdue for a revival. Why? She was probably the most revered female martyr of the early Church — outstanding in a field that included Blandina and Perpetua, among others. St. Jerome was not a man easily impressed, but of today’s saint, his near-contemporary, he wrote: “Every people, whatever their tongue, praise the name of Saint Agnes.” Prudentius wrote a long poem and a hymn in her honor. Ambrose extolled her as the model virgin. Augustine praised her. Damasus memorialized her in verse. Her name means lamb, and in art she often appears holding a lamb.
At least one modern historian holds that her martyrdom was the tipping point in the long term of Diocletian’s persecution. It was with the brutal, legal murder of this young girl that the tide of opinion began to turn among Rome’s pagans. With this act they realized they had become something they didn’t want to be; and that moment’s repugnance may have been the beginning of their healing.
Agnes was twelve or thirteen when she was denounced as a Christian. A beautiful girl from a noble family, she had reached the age when she could be married. She turned away her suitors, however, explaining that she had consecrated her virginity to Jesus Christ. It was likely one of her jilted suitors who turned her in.
Agnes knew that her martyrdom was likely. She faced the judge fearlessly, even when he brought out the instruments of torture that could be applied to her. She was unmoved. Knowing how much the girl prized her virginity, the judge condemned her to work in a brothel. She was stripped of her clothing, but even the debauched Romans couldn’t bear to look upon her. One man who did was struck blind, only to be healed by Agnes’s prayer. Agnes let down her long, blond hair to cover herself. (Some accounts say that her hair miraculously grew to veil her body.)
Having failed at another punishment, the judge turned her over to the executioner. Ambrose wrote: “At such a tender age a young girl has scarcely enough courage to bear the angry looks of her father and a tiny puncture from a needle makes her cry as if it were a wound. And still this little girl had enough courage to face the sword. She was fearless in the bloody hands of the executioner. She prayed, she bowed her head. Behold in one victim the twofold martyrdom of chastity and faith.”
She died around 304 A.D., and immediately the world knew her story. The emperor Constantine’s daughter invoked St. Agnes to cure her of leprosy; and when she was cured, she had a basilica built at Agnes’s tomb. One of my all-time favorite books is about that fourth-century church. It’s Margaret Visser’s The Geometry of Love: Space, Time, Mystery, and Meaning in an Ordinary Church. Visser has taped a feature-length documentary about St. Agnes Outside the Walls. You can view excerpts here.
Another church in Agnes’s honor stands in Rome’s lovely Piazza Navona. Last year, with my daughter Mary Agnes, I visited both churches. I plan to get there again this November on a St. Paul Center pilgrimage. Please consider joining us!