Child-Martyr at Rome 304, 21 January
Her special significance is the very young age - 12 or 13 - at which she chose martyrdom rather than an arranged marriage. Even by the standards of the time it was considered shocking. This site says “she was ordered to sacrifice to pagan gods and lose her virginity by rape. She was taken to a Roman temple to Minerva (Athena), and when led to the altar, she made the Sign of the Cross. She was threatened, then tortured when she refused to turn against God. Several young men presented themselves, offering to marry her, whether from lust or pity is not known. She said that to do so would be an insult to her heavenly Spouse, that she would keep her consecrated virginity intact, accept death, and see Christ.” She had a foster sister, St Erementiana, also martyred. (What a wonderful name, I’m surprised it has fallen out of use. I might start using it as an internet pseudonym).
Exciting Holiness says: “The growing veneration for the state of consecrated virginity at this time, combined with the last, major Roman persecution under the emperor Diocletian, climaxing in the shedding of an innocent virgin-child's blood willingly for Christ, placed her at the forefront of veneration almost from the moment the persecution ended. She is believed to have died in the year 304 and her feast has ever since been celebrated on this day.” I find it interesting how Christianity inspires women to act in extremely counter cultural ways. In the early centuries they were often hardly women, but very young girls, and the impetus was often refusing marriage or sexual activity. From our cultural viewpoint we assume this was to escape arranged marriages or forced sexual relations and a laudable act. A refusal to be treated like a chattel. But it seems to have had as much if not more to do with the extreme veneration at the time for virginity and celibacy – a white martyrdom.
I think I have read that in the early years of Christianity martyrdom was sometimes almost sought after, being seen as a fast track to the best seats in heaven. Or, less cynically, the best way to share the suffering of Christ and follow the example of the Apostles. This tendency to offer oneself up for the red martyrdom was deplored and discouraged by some cooler heads. Especially some of the Roman officials tasked with enforcing the persecutions, who found it all very exasperating. (Do not ask me for my sources for these assertions – I cannot remember where I read it). When opportunities for red martyrdom became scarce, the idea of white martyrdom developed. As with red martyrdom, the extremes to which this was carried were eventually discouraged. Agnes managed both.
It is hard to ignore the suspicion that something to do with teenage rebellion focused on extreme states of religious devotion might be going on. Perhaps it was this sort of thing that led John of Damascus to speak out so strongly against the cults of virginity and celibacy that assumed these to be theologically and spiritually superior states. But then, I am a coward and would probably do just about anything to avoid torture and death. Even an off-white or grey, quite dark grey, nearly charcoal, martyrdom being well beyond my reach, so I am likely to take a cynical view. Maybe this is why we venerate people like St Agnes so much. It is all beyond us, but we are grateful that someone is doing it and hopeful that we won't have to. I hope St Agnes will forgive me and pray for me.
Patron: affianced couples; betrothed couples; bodily purity; chastity; Children of Mary; Colegio Capranica of Rome; crops; engaged couples; gardeners; Girl Scouts; girls; rape victims; Diocese of Rockville Centre, New York; virgins.
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