St. Agnes was born in Rome during the beginning of the third century. She was brought up as a Christian and grew to be a very beautiful young woman. By the age of twelve, Agnes was already receiving suitors for her hand in marriage. And already by the age of twelve, Agnes had developed a deep spirituality that directed her to devote her life to God as a consecrated virgin.
Several of the suitors who Agnes turned away became bitter at her and turned her in to the authorities as a Christian. The political atmosphere at the time was very charged, and the Diocletian persecution was well under way. Agnes was arrested and thrown into a house of prostitution to await her death. All who came to look lustfully upon Agnes lost their sight, but many had their sight restored by her intercessory prayers. At last Agnes was sentenced to death. Her body was taken away and buried in a catacomb that later came to bear her name.
Under the reign of the Emperor Constantine, a basilica was built in her honor near her tomb. For centuries, two lambs have been brought to the church and blessed every year. The lambs are then reared in a cloister. When they have grown into sheep, their wool is used to make 'palliums' which are special stoles the Pope sends to archbishops to wear on their shoulders as symbols of the sheep carried by the Good Shepherd.
St. Agnes, whose name means both purity and lamb is the patron of Christian virtue confronted by political and social violence and her life was commented on by many of her contemporaries.
"This is a virgin's birthday; let us follow the example of her chastity. It is a martyr's birthday; let us offer sacrifices; it is the birthday of holy Agnes: let men be filled with wonder, little ones with hope, married woman with awe, and the unmarried with emulation. It seems to me that this child, holy beyond her years and courageous beyond human nature, received the name of Agnes (Greek: pure) not as an earthly designation but as a revelation from God of what she was to be."
"Today is the birthday of a virgin; let us imitate her purity. It is the birthday of a martyr; let us offer ourselves in sacrifice. It is the birthday of Saint Agnes, who is said to have suffered martyrdom at the age of twelve."
"There was little or no room in that small body for a wound. Yet she shows no fear of the blood-stained hands of her executioners. She offers her whole body to be put to the sword by fierce soldiers. She is too young to know of death, yet is ready to face it. Draggedagainst her will to the altars, she stretches out her hands to the Lord int he midst of the flames, making the triumphant sign of Christ the victor on the altars of sacrilege. She puts her neck and hands in iron chains, but no chain can hold fast her tiny limbs."
"In the midst of tears, she sheds no tears herself. She stood still, she prayed, she offered her neck."
"You could see fear in the eyes of the executioner, as if he were the one condemned. His right hand trembled, his face grew pale as he saw the girl's peril, while she had no fear for herself. One victim, but a twin martyrdom, to modesty and religion; Agnes preserved her virginity and gained a martyr's crown."