Agnes is one of the most important saints of the early church. She’s among the seven women mentioned in the 1 Eucharistic Prayer: “Felicity, Perpetua, Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, Cecilia, Anastasia.” That prayer goes back to St. Gregory the Great in the 6th century. Some also say his mother and aunt may have promoted that list of women, all strong women who died for their belief. ( cf. Joseph Jungmann)
It’s interesting to see where those women come from. Felicity and Perpetual are from North Africa, Agatha and Lucy from Sicily, Agnes and Cecily from Rome, Anastasia originally from Greece. They’re holy women from all parts of the church of their time.
Agnes’ story appears in legendary 5th century sources, but historians today are more and more appreciative of these early stories, as they are of the infancy narratives of the gospels. They contain more history than legend.
Agnes was a beautiful, wealthy 13 year old girl, probably chosen to be the wife of an influential Roman man, but she refused to marry him or anyone else, because she believed as a Christian she had the right to choose marriage or not.
That choice wasn’t an option for Roman women then. They were expected to marry young, to marry men chosen for them, and to have two or three children. Rome needed soldiers then to grow and hold on to their empire. It preferred its own men and wanted its own women to produce them. Only reluctantly did Rome come to accept and depend on foreigners for its army.
.Agnes’ refusal to marry went against strong Roman expectations. She also lived during the reign of the Emperor Diocletian, who was suspicious of Christians, so Agnes was made an example of what would happen to anyone who made a choice like hers.
Tradition says that after much pressure the authorities brought her to the Stadium of Domitian in the center of Rome, to a brothel of prostitutes there, to commit her to a life of prostitution, but God kept her from harm. She would not yield, and so they took her into the arena and killed her by slitting her throat. Those who saw her die marveled at her courage and her faith.
Agnes was buried in the catacombs along the Via Nomentana outside the walls of the city. An ancient church stands over her grave there. A beautiful church to visit if you are in Rome. ( below) Another 16th century church honors Agnes in the Piazza Navona, where the Stadium of Domition once stood and the young girl suffered and died.
The feast day of St. Agnes, January 21, comes about the time prayer and demonstrations for legal protections for the unborn occur in the United States. Agnes is a good reminder of the important place women have in the issue of unborn life. The choices women make are crucial.
One of the prayers for this time speaks of the importance of unborn children and the role of women who bear them and care for them:
God, author of all life,
bless, we pray, all unborn children;
give them constant protection
and grant them a healthy birth,
for they are signs of our rebirth one day into the eternal rejoicing of heaven.
Lord, grant courage to all women
whom you have gifted with the joy of motherhood,
and give them the determination to bring their children along the way of salvation.