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Saint Agnes

by Shonnie Scarola

Saint Agnes
Virgin, Martyr
Feast Day: January 21
Symbol:young woman bearing a palm leaf or sword and holding a lamb

Agnes, a young Christian convert, is honored as one of the four great virgin martyrs of the Christian Church. She died for her faith in the early fourth century during the reign of Diocletian (284-305), the Roman emperor who ordered the last great persecution of Christians, starting in early 303. St. Agnes, not only had no desire to marry, but was prepared to die for the sake of her faith and her virginity as "the bride of Christ", rather than become the wife of the son of a Roman prefect. She was martyred when she was only 12.

Her death made a profound impression and she became one of the most widely honored of Roman martyrs and one of the most popular of Christian saints. Agnes is regarded as the patron saint of young women and the special protectress of bodily purity. After her death, the young saint was buried in her parents' household cemetery which was located a short distance from the city limits of Rome. At first a modest chapel was placed over the saint's grave. After Christianity became one of the lawful religions of the Roman Empire, Agnes's shrine was enlarged and transformed. According to legend, Constantina, Constantine's eldest daughter by his first wife, Fausta, was afflicted with leprosy. She was reputedly cured of the disease after she had prayed as a pilgrim at Agnes's tomb. The shrine, now known as the Basilica of St. Agnes Outside the Walls, is famous for its mosaics and galleried nave and for housing the relics of St. Agnes, in an ornate silver sarcophagus solidly encased beneath the altar.

Agnes has played a prominent role in Christian art. She has been represented as a young woman bearing a palm leaf or sword and holding a lamb. The symbolism of the lamb is suggested both by her innocence and purity. The Latin word for "lamb" is agnus. The flower of St. Agnes is the Christmas Rose. Its delicate white blossoms represent this special patron of purity.

There are many old customs prevalent on the Eve of St. Agnes that concern rites in which the young village maidens discovered their future husbands. Dreams were also important on the Eve of St. Agnes. If a maid went supperless to bed or fasted all day and ate only a salt-filled egg at night, she would certainly dream of her future husband. Another custom was to take a sprig of rosemary and a sprig of thyme, sprinkle each three times with water, and put one in each shoe. Then a shoe with its sprig was put on either side of her bed, while she repeated:

"St. Agnes, that's to lovers kind,
Come, ease the trouble of my mind."

She then was certain to dream of her husband. Yet another custom was for a young woman to take a row of pins, pull them out one by one, and stick them in her sleeve, while singing a Pater Noster (Our Father). Other customs included an unmarried woman to go into a different district from that in which she lived and spend the night. Before going to bed, she was to take her stocking from her right leg and knit it to the garter from the stocking on her left leg, singing as she did so. Then she was to lie on her back in bed with her hands under her head. She was assured that her future husband would appear to her in a dream and press a warm kiss upon her lips. The poet John Keats founded his romantic poem, "The Eve of St. Agnes" upon some of these superstitions.

In northern Scotland, young men and women scattered grain into the corn fields, reciting:

"Agnes sweet, and Agnes fair,
Hither, hither, now repair;
Bonny Agnes, let me see
The lad (or lass) who is to marry me."

The Feast of St. Agnes is marked every year in Rome with a custom rich in symbolism and tradition. Two very young lambs from the sheepfold belonging to the Trappist fathers of the monastery of Tre Fontane near St. Paul's Basilica are crowned and placed in straw baskets, which have been carefully decorated with red and white flowers and streamers: red standing for Agnes' martyrdom, and white for her purity. They are then taken to the Basilica of St. Agnes Outside the Walls. There, at the end of the solemn feast day Mass, a procession composed of young girls in white dresses and veils, as well as carabinieri in red and blue uniforms and hats, who bear the lambs on their shoulders, proceeds down the center aisle. The lambs are ceremoniously incensed and blessed. They are then shown to the Pope at the Vatican and finally placed in the care of the Benedictine nuns of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, who rear them until Maundy Thursday, when they are sheared.

From the lambs' wool are woven approximately 12 pallia a year. The pallia are made by the Oblates of St. Frances of Rome. The pallium is an article of ecclesiastical apparel consisting of a narrow circular band of white wool embroidered with six small crosses and which has a weighted pendant in the front and the back. It slips over the head and hangs down in front and back in the shape of a "Y". It is worn during ceremonies by the Pope, metropolitan archbishops, and patriarchs. Until an archbishop receives a pallium, he may not exercise metropolitan jurisdiction, and if he should be transferred to a new archdiocese, he must ask for a new pallium. The archbishops are buried with their pallia. Each archbishop receives the pallium directly from the Pope as the special insignia signifying the dignity and jurisdiction of his position and his communion with the Holy See. On June 28, the Vigil of the Feast of SS. Peter and Paul, the pallia are placed in St. Peter's Basilica.!

There they repose overnight on an altar in the confessional surrounding the crypt that contains the tomb of St. Peter, which signifies the twofold consciousness of the strength of the Prince of the Apostles and the virginal meekness of Agnes. The pallia are then kept, ready for future use, encased in a chest of precious metal in the confessional's niche of the pallia.

For more information about Saint Agnes.

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