Born: 291 AD in Rome
Martyred: 304 AD in Rome
Canonized: 4th-5th Century AD
Feast Day: January 21st
Patronage: Virgins, Chastity, Betrothed Couples, The Girl Guides, Gardeners
Near the renowned Piazza Navona in the heart of ancient Rome is the magnificent Church of Sant’Angese in Agone (St. Agnes in Agony). The construction of this chapel, with its towering cupola, makes it an ideal setting for musical concerts. Thus, this Baroque church dedicated to a 4th century virgin martyr has become a popular venue for musical lovers to hear sacred and classical music performed.
But if one ventures into the back rooms of this grand church, you can discover a shocking yet profoundly moving altar wherein lies the visible relics of St. Agnes. The relic that is on display for public veneration for pious pilgrims and curious tourists is none other than the skull of St. Agnes.
When I happened to unexpectedly discover her relics, I was immediately compelled to kneel and ponder what was before me: the tiny skull of a young girl, of the tender age of 13. It was petite and fragile, and amazingly beautiful, and I marvelled at the courage, devotion and above all love of this young virgin martyr who gave her life in witness to Jesus Christ.
Our Church has a venerable company of martyr saints from the days of St. Stephen to the present martyrs who are persecuted and killed for Christ with little to no word from world media outlets. Yet the martyrdom of this young maiden struck me to the core as I realized how much more courageous she was in her witness to Christ than I am and how much more she was in love with Christ than I am! Her relics humbled me and caused me to consider just how willing I am to lay down my life for Jesus Christ, not only if He was to ask of me the ultimate sacrifice, but more immediately in the daily sacrifices He asks of me and in the opportunities I have to stand up for Christ and the Church when she is both subtly and explicitly persecuted.
Her relics also compelled me to consider not only the gift of her martyrdom but also the gift of her virginity and how she fought to persevere in preserving this gift for Christ even to the shedding of her own blood. Our modern world is perplexed by the gift of virginity. It is often seen as something one must part with once they enter their teenage or young adult years and is often the source of jokes, ridicule and mockery when someone seeks to preserve their virginity, whether until their wedding night or if they are consecrated to Christ through religious vocations and the priestly call to a chaste, celibate life.
Virginity is still revered in many cultures and religions, and even those who speak poorly of it still find something beautiful and meaningful in those who keep it precious and safe. Hence there is more and more a need to speak of virginity’s beauty. Too often it is seen as a form of repressed sexuality that leads to deviant behaviour, or it is assumed that one must forgo their virginity if they are to acquire the adequate sexual experience to eventually have a stable relationship with their life partner.
As Catholic Christians, there is a renewed need to speak of virginity as a precious gift from God, whether it is a temporary state of life before one knows the joy of sexual intimacy in marriage and sharing the gift of conjugal love with their beloved, or of those men and women who live as virgins for their entire lives, offering themselves to Christ. Most especially we must rejoice in that gift of mystical union that religious sisters undertake when they consecrate their entire lives to Christ and become His mystical brides. They show us what it looks like to be united to the Lord in this life; for their hearts have been beautifully united to His, and their vocations are a foreshadowing of that spiritual union we all await in the Kingdom of Heaven.
The petite skull of St Agnes humbled me in ways I would have never expected and edified me in ways that I very much needed. I rejoice that this sister in Christ now prays for me and for all those who know that there is no greater love than to lay down your life for your friends and to know that to give everything for the love of Christ is never in vain.
Fr. Nathan Siray
For more information on the life of St. Agnes, please refer to the following links: