St. Agnes (292-304 AD) is one of the most revered and famous saints of the early Church. Her courageous martyrdom was so inspiring to early Christians that her name was inserted into numerous litanies of saints, and she is included on the list of apostles and martyrs in the Roman Canon, today known as Eucharistic Prayer I.
Agnes was born in Rome into a wealthy family sometime around 292 AD during the reign of the emperor Diocletian (284-305 AD). Christianity was not legal. Undeterred, she became a devout believer already as a young girl. She had a deep, abiding love for God and considered herself espoused to Jesus alone, and she steadfastly upheld her purity and maintained her virginity. She died a cruel martyr’s death at the age of twelve or thirteen. The details of her life are clouded in history, more legend than fact.
As the story goes, Agnes was a beautiful young lady who consecrated herself exclusively to God. She attracted a great deal of attention from many young men, all competing to court her. She rebuffed them one by one. Infuriated by her refusals, her prospective suitors, all pagans, in retaliation revealed her identity as a Christian to the governor. He interrogated her, and she replied, “I have no spouse but Jesus Christ.” He threatened her with fire, iron hooks, and the rack, but she scoffed at them all. She was ordered to offer incense to pagan gods, but she made the Sign of the Cross instead.
Enraged by her defiant attitude, the governor commanded that Agnes be sent to a house of prostitution where lust-filled men could violate her, but his plan was foiled. When she arrived, those who intended to accost her were overcome with her aura of holiness and decided to respect her, all except one. When this solitary individual advanced toward her, filled with wicked desires, he was struck blind. The sightless man’s companions, awestruck by Agnes’ courage and faith, brought their friend to Agnes who offered a prayer and healed him.
Because of the cure, Agnes was accused of witchcraft and returned to the governor who, fuming with rage, condemned her to death by beheading. She was taken to the Stadium of Domitian; the same location as today’s popular tourist attraction, the Piazza Navona. St. Ambrose later wrote, “She went to her place of execution more cheerfully than others go to their wedding.” It was there that she was beheaded by the sword.
St. Agnes has two symbols: a palm branch, the symbol of martyrdom, and a lamb, because her name is so similar to the Latin word agnus which means “lamb.” She is the patron saint of young girls, the Girl Scouts, purity, and Christian virtue.