As a child of twelve years, Agnes suffered for her faith, in Rome, during the cruel persecution of the emperor Diocletian. After rejecting the blandishments of her examiners, and withstanding the threats and torments of her executioner, she remained firm in refusal to offer worship to the gods of the imperial state, and was burned at the stake – or, according to another early tradition, was beheaded with the sword. The early Fathers of the Church praised her courage and chastity, and remarked upon her name, which means “pure” in Greek and “lamb” in Latin.
Pilgrims still visit Agnes’ tomb and the catacomb surrounding it, beneath the basilica of her name on the Via Nomentana in Rome that Pope Honorius the First (625-638 ) built in her honor to replace an older shrine erected by the emperor Constantine. On her feast day at the basilica, two lambs are blessed, whose wool is woven into a scarf called the pallium, with which the Pope invests archbishops. Pope Gregory the Great sent such a pallium in 601 to Augustine, the first Archbishop of Canterbury. A representation of the pallium appears on the coat of arms of Archbishops of Canterbury to this day.
Adapted from Lesser Feasts and Fasts
Almighty and everlasting God, you choose those whom the world deems powerless to put the powerful to shame: Grant us so to cherish the memory of your youthful martyr Agnes, that we may share her pure and steadfast faith in you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, on God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The propers for the commemoration of Agnes, Virgin and Martyr at Rome, are published on the Lectionary Page website.
Agnes is commemorated on January 21.