January 21 is the feast of St. Agnes, a virgin, who was martyred at the age of thirteen in 304. She is invoked as the patron of young girls and serves as a excellent model of chastity.
Born to a Christian family of Roman nobility during the third century, St. Agnes matured into a beautiful, graceful young woman. By the age of twelve, she was already receiving several suitors to ask for her hand in marriage; however, she had developed a deep spirituality which guided her to consecrate her virginity to God. Thus, she turned each suitor away, explaining that Christ was her only spouse. She was even willing to accept death rather than give up her consecrated virginity to marry. Living as a Christian during the politically charged time of the Diocletian persecution of Christians in Rome, she was under the constant threat of torture and death.
A Roman prefect desired that Agnes marry his son. Embittered by her second rejection to marry his son, the prefect turned her in to the political authorities as a Christian. Agnes was arrested. She was brought before statues of gods and told to worship them. When she refused, she was taken to a brothel and was stripped naked, to be displayed before a pagan audience, a terrifying experience for this chaste young woman. Miraculously, God grew Agnes’s hair, quickly lengthening it to cover her body, protecting her modesty. Then, the prefect’s son tried to rape her and immediately lost his sight, which was restored by the saint’s intercessory prayers. Next, Agnes was sentenced to death by fire, which failed to harm her. Finally, she was put to death by the sword. Her body was taken away and buried in a catacomb that later came to bear her name.
Under the reign of the Emperor Constantine, his daughter Constintina built a church at the site of Agnes’s tomb. For centuries, two lambs have been brought to the church of St. Agnes in Rome and blessed every year on her feast day. When the lambs have grown into sheep, their wool is woven into ‘palliums’, which are stoles the Pope confers on archbishops to wear on their shoulders as symbols of the sheep carried by the Good Shepherd.
~ Excerpted from Seven Saints for Seven Virtues, copyright 2014 Jean M. Heimann and Servant Books.