Saint Agnes, a singularly beautiful character, was a daughter of one of Rome’s noblest families. Her hand in marriage was sought by the son of the prefect t of Rome. She was imprisoned, and her virginity assailed by every means that might shake her resolution. A youth who attempted to do do her violence was struck dead, but through her prayers was restored to life. To her many suitors she spoke:
“Already has another Lover taken possession of my heart, who far surpasses you in nobility; with unrivalled treasures He has enriched me. His appearance the most, beautiful, His love the sweetest. The angels serve Him. Sun and moon admire His beauty. By the perfume of virtue that exhales from His person the dead are awakened, by His touch the sick are healed. He has prepared for me His bridal-chamber, where music and song resound: For Him I preserve fidelity, to Him I give myself entirely and without reserve.”
Saint Agnes is a special patroness of holy purity. To the present day, so great is the reverence of her name in Rome, that maidens cherish her example as if she were still dwelling among them. The name Agnes means “chaste” in Greek, and “lamb” in Latin. “She went to her place of execution,” writes Saint Ambrose of her, “more gladly than others to their wedding feast.”
At the age of thirteen, about the year 304, this youthful martyr suffered torture and was beheaded. The executioner hesitated to bring his axe down on so young and so beautiful a head. Agnes encouraged him, saying: “Strike without fear for the bride does her spouse an injury if she makes him wait:”
Over her tomb, in the Via Nomentana, is one of the best known of Roman basilicas: Saint Agnes Outside the Walls. There on January 21st each year during the singing of the Agnus Dei at High Mass, two white lambs are placed upon the altar to be blessed by the Abbot General of the Canons Regular of Lateran. They are then brought to the Vatican where the Pope blesses them again. They are handed over to the Benedictine nuns attached to the basilica of Saint Agnes who rear them till Good Friday, and weave from their wool the pallium, the insignia of an Archbishop. Archbishops, on more solemn occasions, wear around their necks this narrow band of white wool in remembrance of the youthful saint who was deemed worthy to imitate the innocent Lamb of God.