Tag Archives: St Agnes

Saint Agnes and the lambs

pope-francis-blessing-of-lambsOn the feast of Saint Agnes –one of our early female martyrs– lambs are blessed by the pope and the wool harvested by Benedictine nuns to weave a pallium is given to metropolitan archbishops as a sign of communion with the Bishop of Rome on the feast of Ss. Peter and Paul (June 29); a solemn Mass is celebrated each year by the Holy Father with the presence of the Orthodox bishops because it is a key feast day for the Roman Church. Joan Lewis writes today about the event. Here is the opening paragraph:

Just before 9 am Wednesday morning, in keeping with the tradition for the January 21 liturgical memory of St. Agnes, two lambs, blessed earlier in the morning in the Roman basilica named for this saint, were presented to Pope Francis in the atrium of the Santa Marta residence where he lives. The lambs are raised by the Trappist Fathers of the Abbey of the Three Fountains. When their wool is shorn, the [Benedictine] Sisters of St. Cecelia weave it into the palliums that, on the June 29th feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, Apostles, are bestowed on new metropolitan archbishops as signs of their office.

The rest of the blog post is here.

Saint Agnes

St Agnes lambsThe prayer for Mass has this line that I think is a terrific reminder for us on this feast of Agnes the Virgin Martyr, follow her constancy in the faith. To have steadfastness of purpose in the faith and praxis is not only a terrific grace but also essential.

On the liturgical memorial of Saint Agnes it is custom for Holy Father to receive a couple of lambs. So, today in Rome at 12:30pm at the Domus Sanctae Marthae, two lambs were presented to Pope Francis. The wool of these lambs will be made into to the pallia for the new metropolitan archbishops (nominated since last June 29); six black crosses are placed on the it. The pallium is a stole that the metropolitan wears at “important Masses” in the respective province (unfortunately the archbishop wears the pallium all the time so it takes away from the sign of particular unity between the the particular archbishop and the bishop of Rome).

The wool of the lamb is noted for its purity and what these lambs sacrifice is a symbolic act that points to Christ Himself. Scholars like to point out that the Greek translation of Agnes means pure one while in Latin the name means lamb. The great Church Father Saint Jerome writes: “All nations, especially their Christian communities, praise in word and writing the life of St. Agnes. She triumphed over her tender age as well as over the merciless tyrant. To the crown of spotless innocence she added the glory of martyrdom.”

The lambs are raised by the Trappist monks of the Tre Fontane Monastery and the wool is turned into pallia by the Benedictine nuns of  Saint Cecilia Monastery, where they will care for them and finally shear them on Holy Thursday. The lambs were blessed earlier at the Basilica of St. Agnes Outside-the-walls, where the virgin-martyr is buried.

Thanks to Fr Dominic Holtz, OP for the picture today; Father Dominic teaches at the Angelicum.

The Eve of Saint Agnes

“The Eve of Saint Agnes”

St. Agnes Eve – Ah, bitter chill it was!
The Owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold;
The hare limped trembling through the frozen grass,
And silent was the flock in wooly fold;
Numb were the Beadsman’s fingers while he told
His rosary, and while his frosted breath,
Like pious incense from a censer old,
Seemed taking flight for heaven without a death,
Past the sweet Virgin’s picture, while his prayer saith.

John Keats (1795-1821)

The virgin-martyrs, like the one we honor today, has long been the object of our liturgical and poetic devotion. Some of what is passed on to us us pious legend, yet the substance of her life remains crucial to a vigorous Christian life. Agnes was a girl of 13 when she died —giving her life for Jesus Christ during Diocletian’s reign. Forget not that Constantine was soon to legitimatize Christianity making Agnes among the last of the martyrs. You can read up on those women, like Agnes, who are the most eloquent witnesses to Christ in Michael J.K. Fuller’s The Virgin Martyrs: A Hagiographical and Mystagogical Interpretation.

Keats’ poem develops the theme of lovers who are mortal enemies; his is a poem of the romantic genre which ends well. Indeed, in reality it does end well for Agnes: she gives witness to the love she had for her Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Saint Agnes

Saint Agnes of Rome

Saint Agnes of Rome

What I longed for, I now see; what I hoped for, I now possess; in heaven I am espoused to him whom on earth I loved with all my heart. 

Saint Agnes raised her hands and prayed: Holy Father, hear me. I am coming to you whom I have loved, whom I have sought and always desired.

The feast of Agnes, like the other virgin martyrs of the Church point to the fact that loving Christ is no easy fact, even when the burning desire of the heart is tangible. Much suffering, much rejection, unto death, is the sign of discipleship. In many ways the line from yesterday’s gospel, “Do what he tells you” is very exacting today with Agnes.

The cost of being in love with Jesus Christ and the willingness to suffer for and with His sacrament, the Church, is as much a reality today in all parts of the world as it was for Agnes in hers.

Let is pray for persecuted Christians, those who desire to belong to Christ but can’t.

Saint Agnes

Let us keep the feast of blessed Agnes, and recall the kind of suffering she endured: in the full flower of her youth she died, and found life. She chose to love the Author of life alone; in the full flower of her youth she died, and found life. (the responsory)

The Church gives us a young woman martyr of the early 4th century. She is thought to be about 12 or 13 (records are sketchy) Agnes was martyred under the Emperor Diocletian.

Pope Benedict XVI blesses lambs to mark the feast of Saint Agnes at the VaticanMore often than not our remembrance of Agnes focuses less on her virginity and martyrdom —the supreme gesture of witness to the Lord– and more on the fact that wool is given to the Pope. Sad but true. Agnes’ witness to a life of virginity, possessing without possession, of a complete love for God. On this feast a tradition reaching back centuries lambs are raised by the Trappist monks of Tre Fountane in Rome bring to the Pope the wool that will be made into the pallia by the Benedictine nuns of the Abbey of Saint Cecelia (in Trastevere). The pallium is a white band of wool with six embroidered black crosses (the Pope’s pallium is slightly different with red crosses and wider). The pallium is worn by the metropolitan archbishop for significant ecclesial events, i.e., Masses of Ordination, consecration of churches, altars, bishops, and on certain feast days. Unfortunately, the pallium is worn too often and without proper distinction of festivity and ecclesial communion with the Pope. The Servant of God Pope Paul VI issued a 1978 document, Inter Eximia, limiting the use of the pallium to the pope and metropolitan archbishops. In 1984, John Paul determined the date of the conferral of the pallia.

Before given to the new metropolitan archbishops on June 29th, the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, the pallia rest for short time on the tomb of Saint Peter (the Confessio). You will recall that Saint Agnes is one of the seven women commemorated in the Roman Canon (the BVM would be the 8th).

When the Pope was invested with the pallium on April 25, 2005 by the cardinal proto-deacon Jorge Cardina Medina Estévez, it was prayed: Praise the Lord, who chose you as herdsman of the whole church and embraces you with the white stole of your office. May you act under its briliance for many years of your earthly life and enter his celestial realm vested in the stole of immortality once He calls you.

A poetic work worth noting for the feast is John Keats’ poem “The Eve of St. Agnes.” Written in 1819, this is an extensive poem with great literary accomplishment but of questionable understanding of Agnes’ witness. Keats was no doubt captivated by the life and martyrdom of Agnes, who wouldn’t be? Her brief life and dramatic death is very intriguing and it captivates  the intellect.

The striking figure that the young Agnes was encouraged Roman Christians to build a the Church of Saint Agnes outside the Walls (i.e., outside the City) over the tomb of Agnes. It is the titular church of Camillo Ruini, the former Vicar of Rome.

Saint Agnes is the patron saint for chastity, gardeners, girls, engaged couples, rape victims and virgins.

Nevertheless, one can’t move away from the feast day without reading Saint Ambrose’s treatise On Virgins given in the Office of Readings:

Detail of St Agnes, Fra AngelicoToday is the birthday of a virgin; let us imitate her purity. It is the birthday of a martyr; let us offer ourselves in sacrifice. It is the birthday of Saint Agnes, who is said to have suffered martyrdom at the age of twelve. The cruelty that did not spare her youth shows all the more clearly the power of faith in finding one so young to bear it witness.

There was little or no room in that small body for a wound. Though she could scarcely receive the blow, she could rise superior to it. Girls of her age cannot bear even their parents’ frowns and, pricked by a needle, weep as for a serious wound. Yet she shows no fear of the blood-stained hands of her executioners. She stands undaunted by heavy, clanking chains. She offers her whole body to be put to the sword by fierce soldiers. She is too young to know of death, yet is ready to face it. Dragged against her will to the altars, she stretches out her hands to the Lord in the midst of the flames, making the triumphant sign of Christ the victor on the altars of sacrilege. She puts her neck and hands in iron chains, but no chain can hold fast her tiny limbs.

A new kind of martyrdom! Too young to be punished, yet old enough for a martyr’s crown; unfitted for the contest, yet effortless in victory, she shows herself a master in valour despite the handicap of youth. As a bride she would not be hastening to join her husband with the same joy she shows as a virgin on her way to punishment, crowned not with flowers but with holiness of life, adorned not with braided hair but with Christ himself.

In the midst of tears, she sheds no tears herself. The crowds marvel at her recklessness in throwing away her life untasted, as if she had already lived life to the full. All are amazed that one not yet of legal age can give her testimony to God. So she succeeds in convincing others of her testimony about God, though her testimony in human affairs could not yet be accepted. What is beyond the power of nature, they argue, must come from its creator.

What menaces there were from the executioner, to frighten her; what promises made, to win her over; what influential people desired her in marriage! She answered: “To hope that any other will please me does wrong to my Spouse. I will be his who first chose me for himself. Executioner, why do you delay? If eyes that I do not want can desire this body, then let it perish.” She stood still, she prayed, she offered her neck.

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.

Almighty, ever-living God, you choose what is weak in the world to shame what is strong. Grant that, as we celebrate the martyrdom of Saint Agnes, we may follow her example of steadfastness in faith.

About the author

Paul A. Zalonski is from New Haven, CT. He is a member of the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation, a Catholic ecclesial movement, and an Oblate of Saint Benedict. Contact Paul at paulzalonski[at]yahoo.com.
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