Today the church remembers an ancient Saint of the early church: Saint Agnes, Martyr and Life-Giver.
Not much is known about St. Agnes. She died during the Diocletian persecution in the year 304 AD, and she is listed in that very first catalogue of saints that was drawn up by the early church around the year 354 AD. We know she was well-known and well-remembered in that ancient church because Constantine’s daughter (or maybe his granddaughter) built a church in her honor.
Here’s the thing about St. Agnes: although we don’t know much about her life, we do know something about her death. When Diocletian was terrorizing the fledgling Christian church, St. Agnes offered herself up to the authorities to be captured and killed. The thought was that, once enough Christians were killed to be shown as “an example,” the persecution would stop.
After all, Diocletian was not killing Christians out of spite or real fear, but rather as a political tool. With this motivation, he largely follows all politicians in power who use religion as a sword or a shield rather than as a food trough for conviction. Perhaps St. Agnes thought that, in volunteering her body, she might bring a quicker end to the rampage and save some lives.
Her offer also stands in stark contrast to the number of Roman Christians who were renouncing the faith in order to save their lives (and could you blame them?). Perhaps her willingness was an effort to keep them from having to do such renunciations as well.
Because St. Agnes is so close in name to “agnus” or “lamb,” today two lambs will be presented at the altar of St. Agnese fuori le Mura. They will be blessed by the priest, shorn, and then cared for by the nuns of Santa Ceclia in Trastavere. The wool from these lambs will be used for the white cloth of pallium that the Holy Father gives to archbishops of the church as a sign of affection.
St. Agnes is a reminder for me, and should be for the whole church, that when religion is used for political points no one wins.
-historical bits gratefully gleaned from Pfatteicher’s New Book of Festivals & Commemorations