St. Agnes, virgin and martyr of Rome, Italy

From Butler's Lives of the Saints 1895:

The following relation is taken from Prudentius, de Coron. hym. 14, St.
Ambrose, l. 1, de Virgin. & Offic. t. 1, c. 41, and other fathers. Her
acts are as ancient as the seventh century; but not sufficiently
authentic: nor are those given us in Chaldaic by Stephen Assemani of a
better stamp. They contradict St. Ambrose and Prudentius in supposing
that she finished her martyrdom by fire. See Tillemont, t. 5.

A.D. 304, or 305.

ST. JEROM says,[1] that the tongues and pens of all nations are employed
in the praises of this saint, who overcame both the cruelty of the
tyrant and the tenderness of her age, and crowned the glory of chastity
with that of martyrdom. St. Austin observes,[2] that her name signifies
chaste in Greek, and lamb in Latin. She has been always looked upon in
the church as a special patroness of purity, with the immaculate Mother
of God and St. Thecla. Rome was the theatre of the triumph of St. Agnes;
and Prudentius says, that her tomb was shown within sight of that city.
She suffered not long after the beginning of the persecution of
Dioclesian, whose bloody edicts appeared in March in the year of our
Lord 303. We learn from St. Ambrose and St. Austin, that she was only
thirteen years of age at the time of her glorious death. Her riches and
beauty excited the young noblemen of the first families of Rome, to vie
with one another in their addresses, who should gain her in marriage.[3]
Agnes answered them all, that she had consecrated her virginity to a
heavenly spouse, who could not be beheld by mortal eyes. Her suitors
finding her resolution impregnable to all their arts and importunities,
accused her to the governor as a Christian; not doubting but threats and
torments would overcome her tender mind, on which allurements could make
no impression. The judge at first employed the mildest expressions and
most inviting promises; to which Agnes paid no regard, repeating always,
that she could have no other spouse than Jesus Christ. He then made use
of threats, but found her soul endowed with a masculine courage, and
even desirous of racks and death. At last, terrible fires were made, and
iron hooks, racks, and other instruments of torture displayed before
her, with threats of immediate execution. The young virgin surveyed them
all with an undaunted eye; and with a cheerful countenance beheld the
fierce and cruel executioners surrounding her, and ready to dispatch her
at the word of command. She was so far from betraying the least symptom
of fear, that she even expressed her joy at the sight, and offered
herself to the rack. She was then dragged before the idols, and
commanded to offer incense: "but could by no means be compelled to move
her hand, except to make the sign of the cross," says St. Ambrose.

The governor seeing his measures ineffectual, said he would send her to
a house of prostitution, where what she prized so highly should be
exposed to the insults of the debauchees.[4] Agnes answered that Jesus
Christ was too jealous of the purity of his spouses, to suffer it to be
violated in such a manner; for he was their defender and protector. "You
may," said she, "stain your sword with my blood, but will never be able
to profane my body, consecrated to Christ." The governor was so incensed
at this, that he {189} ordered her to be immediately led to the public
brothel, with liberty to all persons to abuse her person at pleasure.
Many young profligates ran thither, full of the wicked desire of
gratifying their lust; but were seized with such awe at the sight of the
saint, that they durst not approach her; one only excepted, who,
attempting to be rude to her, was that very instant, by a flash, as it
were, of lightning from heaven, struck blind, and fell trembling to the
ground. His companions, terrified, took him up, and carried him to
Agnes, who was at a distance, singing hymns of praise to Christ, her
protector. The virgin by prayer restored him to his sight and health.[5]

The chief prosecutor of the saint, who at first sought to gratify his
lust and avarice, now labored to satiate his revenge, by incensing the
judge against her; his passionate fondness being changed into anger and
rage. The governor wanted not others to spur him on; for he was highly
exasperated to see himself baffled, and set at defiance by one of her
tender age and sex. Therefore, resolved upon her death, he condemned her
to be beheaded. Agnes, transported with joy on hearing this sentence,
and still more at the sight of the executioner, "went to the place of
execution more cheerfully," says St. Ambrose, "than others go to their
wedding." The executioner had secret instructions to use all means to
induce her to a compliance: but Agnes always answered she could never
offer so great an injury to her heavenly spouse; and having made a short
prayer, bowed down her neck to adore God, and receive the stroke of
death. The spectators wept to see so beautiful and tender a virgin
loaded with fetters, and to behold her fearless under the very sword of
the executioner, who with a trembling hand cut off her head at one
stroke. Her body was buried at a small distance from Rome, near the
Nomentan road. A church was built on the spot in the time of Constantine
the Great, and was repaired by pope Honorius in the seventh century. It
is now in the hands of Canon-Regulars, standing without the walls of
Rome; and is honored with her relics in a very rich silver shrine, the
gift of pope Paul V., in whose time they were found in this church,
together with those of St. Emerentiana.[6] The other beautiful rich
church of St. Agnes within the city, built by pope Innocent X., (the
right of patronage being vested in the family of Pamphili,) stands on
the place where her chastity was exposed. The feast of St. Agnes is
mentioned in all Martyrologies, both of the East and West, though on
different days. It was formerly a holyday for the women in England, as
appears from the council of Worcester, held in the year 1240. St.
Ambrose, St. Austin, and other fathers have wrote her panegyric. St.
Martin of Tours was singularly devout to her. Thomas a Kempis honored
her as his special patroness, as his works declare in many places. He
relates many miracles wrought, and graces received through her

* * * * *

Marriage is a holy state, instituted by God, and in the order of
providence and nature the general or most ordinary state of those who
live in the world. Those, therefore, who upon motives of virtue, and in
a Christian and holy manner engage in this state, do well. Those,
nevertheless, who for the sake of practising more perfect virtue, by a
divine call, prefer a state of perpetual {190} virginity, embrace that
which is more perfect and more excellent. Dr. Wells, a learned
Protestant, confesses that Christ[7] declares voluntary chastity, for
the kingdom of heaven's sake, to be an excellency, and an excellent
state of life.[8] This is also the manifest inspired doctrine of St.
Paul,[9] and in the revelations of St. John,[10] spotless virgins are
called, in a particular manner, the companions of the Lamb, and are said
to enjoy the singular privilege of following him wherever he goes. The
tradition of the church has always been unanimous in this point; and
among the Romans, Greeks Syrians, and Barbarians, many holy virgins
joyfully preferred torments and death to the violation of their
integrity, which they bound themselves by vow to preserve without
defilement, in mind or body. The fathers, from the very disciples of the
apostles, are all profuse in extolling the excellency of holy virginity,
as a special fruit of the incarnation of Christ, his divine institution,
and a virtue which has particular charms in the eyes of God, who
delights in chaste minds, and chooses to dwell singularly in them. They
often repeat that purity raises men, even in this mortal life, to the
dignity of angels; purifies the soul, fits it for a more perfect love of
God and a closer application to heavenly things, and disengages the mind
and heart from worldly thoughts and affections. It produces in the soul
the clearest resemblance to God. Chastity is threefold; that of virgins,
that of widows, and that of married persons; in each state it will
receive its crown, as St. Ambrose observes,[11] but in the first is most
perfect, so that St. Austin calls its fruit an hundred fold, and that of
marriage sixty fold; but the more excellent this virtue is, and the
higher its glory and reward, the more heroic and the more difficult is
its victory; nor is it perfect unless it be embellished with all other
virtues in an heroic degree, especially divine charity and the most
profound humility.

1. Ep. 8.
2. Serm. 274.
3. Footnote: S. Ambrose, l. 1, Virgin.
4. Prudent. S. Ambrose.
5. St. Basil witnesses, (l. de vera Virgin.,) that when virgins were
exposed by the persecutors to the attempts of lewd men, Christ
wonderfully interposed in defence of their chastity. Tertullian
reproached the heathens with this impiety, in these words: Apolog.
"By condemning the Christian maid rather to the lewd youth than to
the lion, you have acknowledged that a stain of purity is more
dreaded by us than any torments or death. Yet your crafty cruelty
avails you not: it rather serves to gain men over to our holy
6. This church gives title to a cardinal, and every year on her feast
the abbot of St. Peter's ad Vincula blesses in it, at high mass, two
lambs, which are thence carried to the pope, by whom they are again
blessed. After which they are sent to the nuns of St. Laurence's in
Panisperna, or sometimes to the Capucinesses, who make of their wool
palliums, which his holiness blesses, and sends to archbishops as
emblem of meekness and spotless purity.
7. Matt. xix. 11.
8. Wells, Paraph. on S. Matt. p. 185.
9. 1 Cor. vii. 7, 8, 25, 27, 32, 38.
10. Apoc. xiv. 1, 3, 4, 5.
11. S. Ambr. l. de Viduis, t. 5, p. 635.

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