From Dom Guéranger's The Liturgical Year.
HOW rich is the constellation of Martyrs, which shines in this portion of the sacred cycle! Yesterday we had St Sebastian; to-morrow we shall be singing the name which means Victory, for it is the Feast of Vincent; and now to-day, between these two stalwart palm-branches, we find the gentle Agnes decked with the roses and lilies of her virginity. It is to a girl of thirteen that our Emmanuel gave this stern courage of martyrdom which made her meet the enemy with as bold a front as either the valiant captain of the pretorian band or the dauntless deacon of Saragossa. If they are the soldiers of Jesus, she is his tender and devoted Spouse. These are the triumphs of the Son of Mary! Scarcely has he shown himself to the world, and lo! every noble heart flies towards him, according to that word of his: Wheresoever the body shall be, there shall the eagles also be gathered together.
It is the admirable result of the Virginity of his Blessed Mother, who has brought honour to the fecundity of the soul, and set it far above that of the body. It was Mary that first opened the way whereby certain chosen souls mount up even to the Divine Son, and fix their gaze in a cloudless vision on his beauty; for he himself said: Blessed are the clean of heart, for they shall see God.
What a glory it is for the Catholic Church, that she alone has the gift of this holy state of virginity, which is the source of every other sacrifice, because nothing but the love of God could inspire a human heart to vow virginity! And what a grand honour for Christian Rome that she should have produced a Saint Agnes, that angel of earth, in comparison with whom the Vestals of paganism are mere pretences of devotedness, for their Virginity was never punished by fire and sword, nay, rather, was flattered by the recompense of earthly honours and riches!
Not that our Saint is without her recompense; only her recompense is not marred with the flaw of all human rewards. The name of this child, who lived but thirteen short years, will be echoed, to the end of time, in the sacred Canon of the universal Sacrifice. The path trod by the innocent maiden, on the way to her trial, is still marked out in the Holy City. In the Circus Agonalis there rises the beautiful Church of Saint Agnes, with its rich cupola; and beneath are the vaults which were once the haunts of infamy, but now are a holy sanctuary, where everything reminds us of her who here won her glorious victory. Further on, on the Nomentan Road, outside the ramparts, is the beautiful Basilica, built by Constantine; and here, under an altar covered with precious stones, lies the body of the young Saint. Round this Basilica there are immense crypts; and in these did Agnes's relics repose until the epoch of peace, surrounded by thousands of martyrs, whose holy remains were also deposited here.
Nor must we pass over in silence the gracious tribute of honour paid by Rome each year, on this feast, to her beloved Martyr. Two lambs are placed on the altar of the Basilica Nomentana; they are emblems of the meekness of Jesus and the innocence of the gentle Agnes. After they have been blessed by the Abbot of the religious community which serves this Church, they are taken to a monastery of nuns, where they are carefully reared. Their wool is used for making the Palliums, which the Pope sends to all Patriarchs and Metropolitans of the Catholic world, as the essential emblem of their jurisdiction. Thus, this simple woollen ornament, which these prelates wear on their shoulders as a symbol of the sheep carried on the shoulders of the good Shepherd, and the Sovereign Pontiff takes from off the Altar of Saint Peter in order to send it to its destination, carries to the very ends of the world the sublime union of these two sentiments—the vigour and power of the Prince of the Apostles, and the gentleness of Agnes the Virgin.
We will now quote the beautiful eulogy on St Agnes written by St Ambrose in his Book On Virgins. The Church gives almost the entire passage in her Office of to-day’s feast; and, assuredly, the Virgin of Christ could not have had a finer panegyrist than the great Bishop of Milan, who is the most eloquent and persuasive of all the Fathers on the subject of holy virginity. We read that in the cities where Ambrose preached, mothers were afraid of their daughters being present at his sermons, lest he should persuade them to such love of Christ as to choose the better part.
Having resolved,’ says the holy Bishop, ‘to write a book on virginity, I think myself happy in being able to begin it on the feast we are keeping of the Virgin Agnes. It is the feast of a virgin; let us walk in the path of purity. It is the feast of a martyr; let us offer up our Sacrifice. It is the feast of St Agnes; let men admire, and children not despair; let the married wonder, and the unmarried imitate. But what can we speak worthy of this Saint, whose very name is not void of praise? As her devotedness is beyond her years, and her virtue superhuman—so, as it seems to me, her name is not an appellation, but a prophecy, presaging that she was to be a martyr.
The holy Doctor is here alluding to the word Agnus, from which some have derived the name Agnes; and he says that the young Saint had immolation in her very name, for it called her victim. He goes on to consider the other etymology of Agnes, from the Greek word agnos, which means pure; and he thus continues his discourse:
The maiden’s name is an expression of purity. Martyr then, and Virgin! Is not that praise enough? There is no praise so eloquent as merit that is too great to need seeking. No one is so praiseworthy as he who may be praised by all. Now all men are the praisers of Agnes, for when they pronounce her name they say her praise, for they say a Martyr.
There is a tradition that she suffered martyrdom at the age of thirteen. Detestable indeed the cruelty that spared not even so tender an age! but oh! the power of faith, that could find even children to be its witnesses! Here was a victim scarce big enough for a wound, for where could the sword fall? and yet she had courage enough to conquer the sword.
At such an age as this, a girl trembles if she but see her mother angry, and cries as though it were a grievous thing if but pricked with a needle's point. And Agnes, who stands amidst blood-stained murderers, is fearless! She is stunned with the rattle of the heavy chains, and yet not a flutter in that heart! She offers her whole body to the sword of the furious soldier, for though she knows not what death is, yet she is quite ready to endure it. Perchance they will take her by force to the altars of their gods! If they do, she will stretch out her hands to Jesus, and amidst those sacrilegious fires she will sign herself with that blessed sign, the trophy of our divine Conqueror; and then, if they will, and they can find shackles small enough to fit such tender limbs, they may fasten her hands and neck in their iron fetters!
How strange a martyrdom! She is too young to be punished, yet she is old enough to win a victory. She cannot fight, yet she easily gains a crown. She has but the age of a scholar, yet has she mastered every virtue. Bride never went to nuptials with so glad a heart, nor so light a step, as this young virgin marches to the place of execution. She is decked not with the gay show of plaited tresses, but with Christ; she is wreathed not with flowers, but with purity.
All stood weeping; Agnes shed not a tear. Some wondered how it could be that she, who had but just begun her life, should be as ready to sacrifice it as though she had lived it out; and everyone was amazed that she, who was too young to give evidence even in her own affairs, should be so bold a witness of the divinity. Her oath would be invalid in a human cause; yet she is believed when she bears testimony for God. Their surprise was just: for a power thus above nature could only come from him who is the author of all nature.
Her executioner does all he can to frighten her; he speaks fair words to coax her; he tells her of all the suitors who have sought her as their bride; but she replies: "The Spouse insults her Beloved if she hesitate. I belong to him who first betrothed me: why, executioner, dost thou not strike? Kill this body, which might be loved by eyes I would not wish to please."
She stood, she prayed, she bowed down her head. The executioner trembles, as though himself were going to be beheaded. His hand shakes, and his cheek grows pale, to strike this girl, who loves the danger and the blow. Here, then, have we a twofold martyrdom in a single victim, one for her chastity, the other for her faith. She was a Virgin before; and now she is a Martyr.
The Roman Church sings on this feast the sweet Responsories in which Agnes expresses her tender love of Jesus, and her happiness at having him for her Spouse. They are formed from the words of the ancient Acts of her Martyrdom, which were long attributed to the pen of St Ambrose.
℟. Dexteram meam et collum meum cinxit lapidibus pretiosis; tradidit auribus meis inæstimabiles margaritas: * Et circumdedit me vernantibus atque coruscantibus gemmis.
℣. Posuit signum in faciem meam, ut nullum præter eum amatorem admittam. * Et circumdedit me.
℟. Amo Christum in cujus thalamum introibo, cujus Mater virgo est, cujus Pater feminam nescit, cujus mihi organa modulatis vocibus cantant: * Quem cum amavero, casta sum, cum tetigero, munda sum, cum accepero, virgo sum.
℣. Annulo fidei suæ subarrhavit me, et immensis monilibus ornavit me: * Quem.
℟. Mel et lac ex ejus ore suscepi, * Et sanguis ejus ornavit genas meas.
℣. Ostendit mihi thesauros incomparabiles, quos mihi se daturum repromisit. * Et sanguis.
℟. Jam corpus ejus corpori meo sociatum est, et sanguis ejus omavit genas meas: * Cujus Mater virgo est, cujus Pater feminam nescit.
℣. Ipsi sum desponsata cui Angeli serviunt, cujus pulchritudinem sol et luna mirantur. * Cujus Mater.
℟. My Spouse has set precious stones on my right hand and on my neck; he has hung priceless pearls in my ears: * And he has laden me with gay and glittering gems.
℣. He has placed his sign upon my face, that I may have none other to love me but him. * And he has.
℟. I love Christ; I shall be the spouse of him, whose Mother is a Virgin, and whose Father begot him divinely, and who delights me with sweet music of organs and singers: * When I love him, I am chaste; when I touch him, I am pure; when I possess him, I am a Virgin.
℣. He has betrothed me with the ring of his fidelity, and has decked me with a necklace of priceless worth. * When.
℟. Milk and honey have I received from his lips; * and his Blood has graced my cheek.
℣. He has shown me incomparable treasures, and these has he promised to give me. * And his Blood.
℟. Already have I communicated of his sacred Body, and his Blood has graced my cheek: * His Mother is a Virgin, his Father is God.
℣. I am espoused to him whom the Angels obey, and whose beauty the sun and the moon admire. * His Mother.
St Ambrose was sure to write a Hymn on the Virgin-Martyr in whose praise he was so enthusiastic. We almost despair of giving an idea of the beauty of his verses to such as can read only our version of them.
Agnes beatæ virginis
Natalis est, quo spiritum
Cœlo refudit debitum,
Pio sacrata sanguine.
Matura martyrio fuit,
Matura nondum nuptiis,
Nutabat in viris fides,
Cedebat et fessus senex.
Metu parentes territi
Claustrum pudoris auxerant:
Solvit fores custodiæ
Fides teneri nescia.
Prodire quis nuptam putet,
Sic læta vultu ducitur,
Novas viro ferens opes,
Dotata censu sanguinis.
Aras nefandi numinis
Adolere tædis cogitur:
Respondet: Haud tales faces
Sumpsere Christi virgines.
Hic ignis exstinguit fidem,
Hæc fiamma lumen eripit:
Hic, hic ferite, ut profluo
Cruore restinguam focos.
Percussa quam pompam tulit?
Nam veste se totam tegit,
Curam pudoris præstitit,
Ne quis retectam cerneret.
In morte vivebat pudor,
Vultumque texerat manu;
Terram genuflexo petit,
Lapsu verecundo cadens.
Gloria tibi Domine,
Una cum Sancto Spiritu
In sempiterna sæcula.
It is the blessed Virgin Agnes' feast,
for today she was sanctified
by shedding her innocent blood,
and gave to heaven her heaven-claimed spirit.
She that was too young to be a bride
was old enough to be a martyr,
and that too in an age when men were faltering in faith,
and even hoary heads grew wearied and denied our God.
Her parents trembled for their Agnes,
and doubly did they thus defend the treasure of her purity;
but her faith disdained a silent hiding-place,
and unlocked its shelter-giving gate.
One would think it was a bride hurrying with glad smiles
to give some new present to her Spouse;
and so it was: she was bearing to him
the dowry of her martyrdom.
They would fain make her light
a torch at the altar of some vile deity they came to:
'The Virgins of Jesus,' said Agnes,
'are not wont to hold a torch like this.
'Its fire would quench one’s faith;
its flame would put out my light.
Strike, strike me, and the stream of my blood
shall extinguish these fires.'
They strike her to the ground and as she falls,
she gathers her robes around her, dreading,
in the jealous purity of her soul,
the insulting gaze of some lewd eye.
Alive to purity even in the act of death,
she buries her face in her hands;
and kneeling on the ground,
she falls as purity would wish to fall.
Glory be to thee, O Lord!
and glory to thine Only Begotten Son,
together with thy Holy Spirit,
for everlasting ages.
Our admirable Prudentius, who visited Rome in the early part of the fifth century, and witnessed the devotion of the Roman people to St Agnes, consecrated to her sweet memory the following Hymn, which is one of the finest of his poems. Though very long, it is the Hymn used for this Feast in the Mozarabic Breviary.
Agnes sepulchrum est Romulea in domo,
Fortis puellæ, martyris inclytæ.
Conspectu in ipso condita turrium,
Servai salutem virgo Quiritium:
Nec non et ipsos protegit advenas,
Puro, ac fideli pectore supplices.
Duplex corona est præstita Martyri.
Intactum ab omni crimine virginal,
Mortis deinde gloria liberæ.
Aiunt, jugali vix habilem toro
Primis in annis forte puellulam,
Christo calentem, fortiter impiis
Jussis renisam, quo minus idolis
Addicta, sacram desereret fidem.
Tentata multis nam prius artibus,
Nunc ore blandi judicis illice,
Nunc sævientis camificis minis,
Stabat feroci robore pertinax,
Corpusque duris excruciatibus
Ultro offerebat, non renuens mori.
Tum trux tyrannus: Si facile est, ait,
Pœnam subactis ferre doloribus,
Et vita vilis spernitur: at pudor
Carus dicatæ virginitatis est.
Hanc in lupanar tradere publicum
Certum est, ad aram ni caput applicet,
Ac de Minerva jam veniam roget,
Quam virgo pergit temnere virginem.
Omnis Juventus irruat, et novum
Ludibriorum mancipium petat.
Haud, inquit Agnes, immemor est ita
Christus suorum, perdat ut aureum
Nobis pudorem, nos quoque deserat.
Præsto est pudicis, nec patitur sacræ
Integritatis munera pollui.
Ferrum impiabis sanguine, si voles:
Non inquinabis membra libidine.
Sic elocutam publicitus jubet
Flexu in plateæ sistere virginem,
Stantem refugit mœsta frequentia,
Aversa vultus, ne petulantius
Quisquam verendum conspiceret locum.
Intendit unus forte procaciter
Os in puellam, nec trepidat sacram
Spectare formam lumine lubrico.
En ales ignis fulminis in modum
Vibratur ardens, atque oculos ferit:
Cæcus corusco lumine corruit,
Atque in plateæ pulvere palpitat,
Tollunt sodales seminecem solo,
Verbisque deflent exsequialibus.
Ibat triumphans virgo, Deum Patrem,
Christumque sacro carmine concinens,
Quod sub profani labe periculi
Castum lupanar, nec violabile
Experta victrix virginitas foret.
Sunt, qui rogatam rettulerint preces
Fudisse Christo, redderet ut reo
Lucem jacenti: tum juveni halitum
Vitæ innovatum visibus integris.
Primum sed Agnes hunc habuit gradum
Cœlestis aulæ, mox alius datur.
Accensus iram nam furor incitat
Hostis cruenti. Vincor, ait gemens;
I, stringe ferrum, miles, et exere
Præcepta summi regia principis,
Ut vidit Agnes, stare trucem virum
Mucrone nudo, lætior hæc ait:
Exsulto, talis quod potius venit
Vesanus, atrox, turbidus armiger,
Quam si veniret languidus, ac tener
Mollisque ephebus tinctus aromate,
Qui me pudoris funere perderet.
Hic, hic amator jam, fateor, placet:
Ibo irruentis gressibus obviam,
Nec demorabor vota calentia:
Ferrum in papillas omne recepero,
Pectusque ad imum vim gladii traham.
Sic nupta Christo transiliam poli
Omnes tenebras æthere celsior.
Æterne rector, divide januas
Cœli, obseratas terrigenis prius;
Ac te sequentem, Christe, animam voca,
Quum virginalem, tum Patris hostiam.
Sic fata, Christum vertice cernuo
Supplex adorat, vulnus ut imminens
Cervix subiret prona paratius.
Ast ille tantam spem peragit manu:
Uno sub ictu nam caput amputat.
Sensum doloris mors cita prævenit.
Exutus inde Spiritus emicat,
Liberque in auras exilit: Angeli
Sepsere euntem tramite candido.
Miratur orbem sub pedibus situm,
Spectat tenebras ardua subditas,
Ridetque, solis quod rota circuit,
Quod mundus omnis volvit, et implicat,
Rerum quod atro turbine vivitur,
Quod vana sæcli mobilitas rapit:
Reges, tyrannos, imperia et gradus,
Pompasque honorum stulta tumentium:
Argenti et auri vim, rabida siti
Cunctis petitam per varium nefas,
Splendore multo structa habitacula,
Illusa pictæ vestis inania,
Iram, timorem, vota, pericula:
Nunc triste longum, nunc breve gaudium,
Livoris atri fumificas faces
Nigrescit unde spes hominum et decus,
Et, quod malorum tetrius omnium est,
Gentilitatis sordida nubila.
Hæc calcat Agnes, hæc pede proterit,
Stans, et draconis calce premens caput:
Terrena mundi qui ferus omnia
Spargit venenis, mergit et inferis,
Nunc virginali perdomitus solo,
Cristas cerebri deprimit ignei,
Nec victus audet tollere verticem.
Cingit coronis interea Deus
Frontem duabus martyris innubæ
Unam decemplex edita sexies
Merces perenni lumine conficit:
Centenus exstat fructus in altera.
O virgo felix, o nova gloria,
Cœlestis arcis nobilis incoia,
Intende nostris colluvionibus
Vultum gemello cum diademate:
Cui posse soli Cunctiparens dedit
Castum vel ipsum reddere fornicem.
Purgabor oris propitiabilis
Fulgore, nostrum si jecur impleas.
Nil non pudicum est quod pia visere
Dignaris, almo vel pede tangere.
The tomb of Agnes, the intrepid maiden,
the glorious Martyr, is in the city of Romulus.
In her resting-place, fronting the ramparts,
the Virgin watches over the sons of Quirinus;
and to pilgrims, too, that pray to her
with pure and faithful hearts, she extends her protection.
She is a Martyr that wears a double crown;
for she was a spotless, innocent virgin;
and a glorious victim that freely died for Christ.
It is related that when a girl,
and too young to be a bride,
she loved Jesus with tenderest love, and bravely withstood
the impious commands that bade her offer sacrifice
to the idols, and deny the holy faith.
No art was left untried to make her yield;
the judge put on the softness of winning words,
and the grim executioner blustered out his threats:
but Agnes stood firm in stern courageousness,
bidding them put her body to their fierce tortures,
for she was willing to die.
Then spoke the fierce tyrant: 'I know thy readiness
to suffer pain and tortures, and at how low a price
thou settest life; but there is one thing
thou holdest dear—a virgin's purity.
‘Tis this I have resolved to expose to insult in the common brothel,
unless thy head shall bend before the altar of our virgin-goddess Minerva,
and thou, a virgin that darest to despise a virgin such as she,
shalt humbly crave her pardon.
There shall youthful wantons have access,
and thou be minister to passion.'
'And thinkest thou,’ said Agnes, ‘that Christ can so forget
his children as to let our gold of purity be robbed,
and us be outcasts to his care?
He is ever with the chaste, shielding from injury
the gift he has bestowed of holy virginity.
Thy sword may drip, if so thou listest, with our blood;
but contamination and dishonour, never!'
Scarce had she said these words, than order was given
to expose her in the vaults
of the well-known street.
A throng, indeed, was there; but pity put a veil
o'er every eye, and fear imposed respect.
Save one alone, and gaze, he says, he will.
He scorns this modest fear,
which checks the froward eye.
But lo! an Angel, swift as lightning,
strikes and blinds the wanton wretch.
He falls, and writhes amidst the dust.
His fellows raise him from the ground,
lifeless, as he seems to them; and weeping
and lamenting, bear the corpse away.
Agnes had triumphed: and in a hymn of praise,
she sings her thanks to God the Father and his Christ,
for that they had turned the den of infamy
into a shelter for her treasure,
and made virginity victorious.
Some say that she was prayed
to pray to Christ that he would restore
the prostrate sinner to the vision he had lost:
she did so, and the youth regained his consciousness and sight.
But this was only one step towards heaven
for our Saint; a second is to come.
The cruel tyrant boils with furious wrath,
and choked with disappointment, exclaims:
‘Shall I be baffled by a girl? Draw thy sword,
soldier, and do the royal biddings of our sovereign lord.'
Agnes looked up, and saw the savage minion standing
with his unsheathed sword, and thus she spoke with beaming face:
'Oh! happy, happy change! A wild, fierce,
boisterous swordsman, for that young love-sick,
smooth-faced, soft perfumed
murderer of the chaste soul!
‘This is a suitor that does please me.
I will not run from him, nor deny him what he asks.
His steel shall nestle in my bosom,
and his sword shall warm
in my heart's best blood.
Thus wedded to my Christ,
I shall mount above the dark world
to the realms beyond the clouds.
‘Eternal King! the gate of heaven, closed to men before thy coming
on our earth, is opened now: ah! let me enter in.
Call to thyself, my Jesus, a soul that seeks but thee:
thy virgin-spouse, and thy Father’s martyr—call me, Lord, to thee.'
Thus did she pray; and then, with bended head,
adored her Lord, and in this posture was the readier
to receive the uplifted sword.
The soldier’s hand was raised, and all the hopes of Agnes were fulfilled,
for with a single blow he beheads the holy maiden,
and death comes speedily to leave no time for pain.
Quickly her spirit quits its garb of flesh,
and speeds untrammelled through the air,
surrounded, as it mounts, by a choir of lovely Angels.
She sees this orb of ours far far below,
and all beneath her seems a speck of dark.
All earthly things are now so dwindled to her spirit's eye,
that she looks at them and smiles: yea, all seems poor:
the space traversed by the Sun, the globe with all its system, all that lives in the stormy whirlwind of creation, and changes with the vain fickleness of the world.
Kings and tyrants, empires and all ranks;
the pompous pageantry of honours big with folly;
the sovereignty of gold and silver,
which all men seek with rapid thirst,
and gain by varied crime; sumptuous dwellings;
rich coloured garbs, mere graceful lies;
wrath and fear, hope and peril;
grief so long, and joy so brief;
black envy’s smoky flames,
which blight men's hopes and fame;
and last but worst of all earth’s ills,
the gloomy cloud of pagan superstition.
Agnes sees all this, and tramples on it all.
She stands, and crushes with her foot the serpent’s head.
This monster with his venom taints all things on earth,
and plunges into hell the fools that are his slaves;
but now he crouching lies beneath a virgin’s foot,
droops his fiery crest,
and dares not raise his vanquished head.
And now our God girds with two crowns
the Virgin-Martyr's brow:
one is a sixtyfold of light
eternal and reward;
the other is the hundredfold of fruit.
O happy Virgin! Singular in thy glory!
Noble inhabitant of heaven, decked with a twofold crown!
Oh! look upon us who live in misery and sin;
for to thee alone did our Heavenly Father
give the power to change impurity's abode
into the shelter of chastity.
Fill my heart with the bright ray of thine intercession,
and I shall be cleansed;
for all is pure that can from thy pity
gain a look or loving visit.
There is still another hymn to the praise of Agnes. It is from the pen of Adam of Saint-Victor, and is one of the finest of his sequences.
Animemur ad agonem,
Contrectantes sacrum florem,
Respiremus ad odorem
Pulchra, prudens et illustris,
Jam duobus Agnes lustris
Proles amat hanc præfecti:
Sed ad ejus virgo flecti
Mira vis fidei,
Sic Dei Filius,
Prodit in fragili.
Languet amans: cubat lecto:
Languor notus fit præfecto;
Offert multa, spondet plura,
Sed vilescunt omnia.
Quam Christus induit
Fit locus luminis;
Cæcus amans indignatur,
Et irrumpens præfocatur
A maligno spiritu.
Luget pater, lugent cuncti:
Roma flevit pro defuncti
Suscitatur ab Agnete,
Turba fremit indiscrete:
Rogum parant Virgini.
Rogus ardens reos urit,
In furentes flamma furit,
Dans honorem Nummi.
Grates agens Salvatori,
Guttur offert hæc lictori,
Nec ad horam timet mori,
Agnes, Agni salutaris
Stans ad dextram gloriaris,
Et parentes consolaris
Invitans ad gaudia.
Ne te flerent ut defunctam
Jam cœlesti Sponso junctam:
His sub agni forma suam
Revelavit, atque tuam
Nos ab Agno salutari
Non permitte separari,
Cui te totam consecrasti;
Cujus ope tu curasti
Vas electura, vas honoris,
Incorrupti flos odoris,
Angelorum grata choris,
Honestatis et pudoris
Formam præbes sæculo.
Palma fruens triumphali,
Flore vernans virginali,
Nos indignos speciali
Fac sanctorum generali
Vel subscribi titulo.
Let us gain courage for our own battle
by honouring the martyrdom
of the glorious virgin Agnes.
Let us look at this sweet flower of our feast,
and inhale into our souls
the virtues of its fragrance.
Agnes was fair
and wise and rich,
and had reached her thirteenth year.
The Prefect’s son saw and loved her;
but the maiden could not be
induced to grant his suit.
How great is the power of faith!
How wonderful is Virginity!
the purity of a virgin’s heart!
’Tis thus that Jesus,
by a wonderful dispensation,
shows himself strongest
in the weakest.
Sick, then, with love, the suitor takes to bed;
his sickness is made known to the Prefect;
the cure is prepared.
Gifts in abundance, promises without end;
but giver and gifts, both are perishable things;
and Agnes thought both beneath her.
The Prefect condemns her
to the worst of insults;
Christ protects her
with the flowing tresses of her head,
and a garment he sends her from heaven.
He sends an Angel
to stand by her.
The den of infamy
becomes a mansion of light;
and consternation checks the wanton crowd.
The blind suitor is angry,
and rushing at his prey,
is choked by the wicked spirit.
The father mourns, and all mourn;
Rome wept for the death
of the young man.
Agnes raises him to life;
the crowd is in confusion,
and prepares a fire on which to burn the virgin.
The fire burns the guilty;
the flame rages against them,
and avenges the honour of God.
The Saint gives thanks to her Saviour;
offers her head to the executioner,
and dies unfearingly,
for her purity was safe.
O Agnes, standing at the right hand of the Lamb,
thy Saviour, thou art now in glory,
and thou consolest thy parents,
inviting them to bliss.
Thou biddest them not mourn for thee as for one that was dead,
for that thou wast now united to the heavenly Spouse:
and he, under the form of a Lamb,
reveals to them his own
and thy virginal glory.
Suffer us not to be separated
from the Lamb, our Saviour,
to whom thou didst consecrate thy whole being;
and by whose power
thou didst heal the lady Constance.
Vessel of election! vessel of honour!
flower of unfading fragrance!
beloved of the choirs of Angels!
thou art an example to the world
of virtue and chastity.
O thou that wearest a Martyr’s palm
and a Virgin’s wreath!
pray for us, that, though unworthy of a special crown,
we may have our names
written in the list of Saints.
How sweet and yet how strong, O Agnes! is the love of Jesus, thy Spouse! It enters an innocent heart, and that heart becomes full of dauntless courage! Thus was it with thee. The world and its pleasures, persecution and its tortures, all were alike contemptible to thee. The pagan judge condemned thee to an insult worse than a thousand deaths, and thou didst not know that the Angel of the Lord would defend thee! how is it that thou hadst no fear? It was because the love of Jesus filled thy heart. Fire was nothing; the sword was nothing; the very hell of men's making, even that was nothing to thee! for thy love told thee that no human power could ever rob thee of thy Jesus; thou hadst his word for it, and thou knewest he would keep it.
Dear Child! innocent even in the capital of pagan corruption, and free of heart even amidst a slavish race, we see the image of our Emmanuel in thee. He is the Lamb; and thou art simple, like him: he is the Lion of the Tribe of Juda; and like him thou art invincible. Truly these Christians, as the pagans said, are a race of beings come from heaven to people this earth! A family that has martyrs and heroes and heroines like thee, brave Saint! that has young virgins, filled, like its venerable pontiffs and veteran soldiers, with the fire of heaven, and burning with ambition to leave a world they have edified with their virtues, is God's own people, and it never can be extinct. Its martyrs are to us the representation of the divine virtues of our Lord Jesus Christ. By nature they were as weak as we; they had a disadvantage which we have not—they had to live in the very thick of paganism, and paganism had corrupted the whole earth; and notwithstanding all this, they were courageous and chaste.
Have pity on us and help us, O thou, one of the brightest of these great Saints! The love of Jesus is weak in our hearts. We are affected and shed tears at the recital of thy heroic conduct; but we are cowards in the battle we ourselves have to fight against the world and our passions. Habitual seeking after ease and comfort has fastened upon us a certain effeminacy: we are ever throwing away our interest upon trifles; how can we have earnestness and courage for our duties? Sanctity! we cannot understand it; and when we hear or read of it, we gravely say that the Saints did very strange things and were indiscreet, and were carried away by exaggerated notions! What must we think, on this thy feast, of thy contempt for the world and all its pleasures, of thy heavenly enthusiasm, of thy eagerness to go to Jesus by suffering? Thou wast a Christian, Agnes! Are we too Christians? Oh! pray for us that we may love like Christians, that is, with a generous and active love, with a love which can feel indignant when asked to have less detachment from all that is not God. Pray for us, that our piety may be that of the Gospel, and not the fashionable piety which pleases the world, and makes us pleased with ourselves. There are some brave hearts who follow thy example; but they are few; increase their number by thy prayers, that so the Divine Lamb may be followed, whithersoever he goeth in heaven, by a countless number of virgins and martyrs.
Innocent Saint! we meet thee each year at the Crib of the Divine Babe, and we delight, on thy Feast, to think of the wonderful love there is between Jesus and his brave little Martyr. This Lamb is come to die for us too, and invites us to Bethlehem; speak to him for us; the intercession of a Saint who loved him as thou didst can work wonders even for such sinners as we. Lead us to his sweet Virgin-Mother. Thou didst imitate her virginal purity; ask her to give us those powerful prayers which can cleanse even worse hearts than ours.
Pray also, O Agnes! for the Holy Church, which is the Spouse of Jesus. It was she that gave thee to be his, and it is from her that we also have received our life and our light. Pray that she may be blessed with an ever-increasing number of faithful virgins. Protect Rome, the city which guards thy relics, and loves thee so tenderly. Bless the Prelates of the Church, and obtain for them the meekness of the lamb, the firmness of the Rock, the zeal of the good Shepherd for his lost sheep. And lastly, O Spouse of Jesus! hear the prayers of all who invoke thee, and let thy charity for us thy exiled brethren learn from the Heart of Jesus the secret of growing more ardent as the world grows older.
 St Matt. xxiv 28.
 Ibid. v 8.
 Now the Piazza. Navona.
 Book I post initium.