On January 21, Catholics celebrate the feast of the one of the most beloved of all female saints. Though surprisingly little is known about her life, including exactly when and how she died, Saint Agnes of Rome was the subject of strong devotion in the Church at Rome from the early fourth century. The church built during the reign of Constantine over the catacombs in which she was buried after suffering martyrdom still stands today, and my wife and I had the good fortune to be able to visit both the church and the catacombs when we were in Rome in January 2008. (The statue to the left is found in the church.)
Every year on Saint Agnes's feast day, two lambs are blessed at the Basilica of Saint Agnes Outside the Walls to provide wool for palliums, the distinctive vestments worn by archbishops as a sign of their unity with the Pope. The lamb has long been a symbol of Saint Agnes, because it signifies purity, and one of the few details on which everyone agrees is that Saint Agnes was a virgin, likely 12 or 13 years old, who suffered martyrdom for her public embrace of Christ. Attempts were made to rob her of her virginity before she was put to death, but they failed.
You can learn more about the life and the legend of this courageous girl in Saint Agnes of Rome, Virgin and Martyr.
(A statue of Saint Agnes in the Basilica di Sant'Agnese Fuori le Mura, Rome, Italy. Photo © Scott P. Richert)