Agnes, a popular Roman woman martyr of the 3rd century, ranks high among the seven women mentioned in the First Eucharistic Prayer. “Agnes, Cecilia, Anastasia…”
That prayer goes back to St. Gregory the Great in the 6th century. Some say his mother and aunt may have promoted the women, all strong women who died for their belief. They come from all parts of the church of their time. Felicity and Perpetual are from North Africa, Agatha and Lucy from Sicily, Agnes and Cecilia from Rome, Anastasia originally from Greece.
Details of the story of Agnes, from 5th century sources, may be questioned, but the essential facts about her are true.
A young Roman girl of 13 or so, Agnes was put to death because she rejected the offer of a highly placed Roman man to become his bride. Incensed, he tried to force Agnes to change her mind; eventually she died for continuing to refuse him.
Women were expected to marry young in those days, to marry men chosen for them, and to have two or three children. They were to produce children for Rome, especially soldiers needed for the empire’s many wars.
Agnes’ refusal then to marry one of Rome’s elite was a dangerous decision. With no support from family or friends, alone in a male-dominated society, at a time suspicious of Christians and their beliefs, the little girl sought strength in Jesus Christ. She was a martyr put to death for her faith.
The Golden Legend, a favorite saint book from the Middle Ages, says that Agnes was true to her name. She was a lamb (Agnus) who followed the Good Shepherd. Though young, she followed truth, never turning away from it. God gave her strength beyond what’s expected for her years.
The story says they put Agnes among the prostitutes found near the racecourse then on the Piazza Navona in Rome. God warded off those who tried to rape her. A church in her honor stands today in the busy piazza; another church over her grave is on the Via Nomentana in Rome. (above)
They finally killed her with a knife to her throat. Heavenly signs surrounded Agnes even then, her story says, assuring her that her faith was not in vain. The One she loved was with her as she struggled.
Agnes, the prayer for her feast says, is an example of how God chooses “what is weak in this world to confound the strong.” The young girl was stronger than her powerful killers. “May we follow her constancy in the faith, through our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.”