Sunday, January 21, 2018

Veneration of Saint Agnes

Today we attended the blessing of the lambs at the Church of Saint Agnes Outside the Walls built over the catacombs of Saint Agnes who was martyred in 304 CE.  Saint Agnes was born into a noble Roman family like Saint Melania.  At twelve years of age, she was tortured and executed under the Emperor Diocletian for daring to dedicate her life to Jesus Christ rather than assent to marriage to the nobleman chosen for her by her family.  Her martyrdom took place during the lifetime of the elders in Melania’s family who were her role models in faith.  Veneration of Saint Agnes was widely promoted in the latter half of the 4th century, particularly among young Christian girls in Rome.  Today on the Feast of Saint Agnes young girls led the procession of lambs to the altar to be blessed and shorn to make the snow-white pallia that will be given to newly appointed archbishops around the world.  Saint Agnes is the patron of girls, of chastity and of rape victims.

Agnes was commemorated in the Depositio Martyrum of Filocalus as early as 354 CE and in early Roman Sacramentaries.  Today she is one of the seven women commemorated by name in the Canon of the Mass along with the Blessed Virgin Mary.  The basilica we visited today was built in the seventh century, next to the site of the original one built within a century after her death by the Emperor Constantine’s daughter Constanza who had a special devotion to her.  (See my earlier post on the story of Constanza).  We also visited Constanza's mausoleum that is nearby.  After being widowed at a young age, Marcella the Elder (325-410) was influenced by the example of Saint Agnes, and the teachings of Athanasius and Jerome on the ascetic way of life, that she turned her palace on the Aventine Hill into a place of study for women and girls who wanted to dedicate their lives to Christ rather than submit to marriage to decadent Roman nobleman.  Marcella the Elder had two daughters, Asella and Marcella the Younger, who consecrated their virginity to Christ.  Another widow, Paula, and her daughters, Blesilla, Paulina, Eustochium and Rufina joined them.