St. Agnes (died c. 305)
Feast day: Jan. 21
These days, invoking God in the Girl Scout Promise is
optional. Nonetheless, for Catholics and perhaps members of
other Christian churches St. Agnes is still on their books as
the Girl Scouts' patron saint.
St. Agnes was chosen not only because she was barely in her
teens when she was martyred, but also because she possessed
many of the qualities Girl Scouts try to cultivate in
themselves: courage, honesty, respect for herself and for
others, service to God and to her neighbor.
Agnes came from a Christian family in Rome, although her
mother and father do not feature in any of the traditions or
stories about Agnes. It is possible, even likely, that they
were martyred before she was; the Emperor Diocletian began
his empire-wide persecution of Christians - the worst the
Church had ever known up to that time - in 303. As residents
of Rome, Agnes and her family would have been at the
epicenter of the persecution, and after executing the
parents, it would have been standard procedure for the
officers of the law to arrest Agnes.
She was about 13 when she was hauled before a magistrate for
the crime of professing Christianity. To charge a young girl
with a capital offense is shocking to us, but 1,700 years
ago, when life was short, individuals we would regard as
children were already being treated as adults. The magistrate
threatened to burn her alive, but Agnes would not deny her
faith. Next he tried to force her to join the virgins who
served the goddess Vesta, but Agnes refused to perform any
function in a pagan temple.
Finally the judge had the poor girl exposed naked in an arena
on the site of what is now Rome's Piazza Navona. There,
before a cheering, jeering crowd, the executioner stabbed
Agnes in the neck. The Christians of Rome recovered her body
and buried Agnes in a Christian cemetery on the Via
Nomentana, outside the city walls.
Days later, Agnes' foster sister, Emerentiana, went to pray
at the martyr's tomb. Pagans who happened to be passing by
were enraged at the sight of a young woman grieving over the
death of someone they regarded as a criminal; they picked up
rocks from the roadside and stoned Emerentiana to death. She
is also revered as a saint, and her feast day is Jan. 23.
Although Agnes was just one among the tens of thousands of
Christians martyred during Emperor Diocletian's persecution
of the Church, devotion to her began almost instantly after
her death. By 350 Constantia, the sister of Constantine, the
first Christian emperor, had built a basilica over St. Agnes'
grave, and a mausoleum nearby for herself so she would lie
near her favorite saint.
From Rome devotion to St. Agnes has spread throughout the
world. She is invoked with other virgin martyrs in the Canon
of the traditional Latin Mass, what has come to be known
recently as the Extraordinary Form, and in the First
Eucharistic Prayer of the Ordinary Form of the Mass. In the
Piazza Navona, the site of her martyrdom, Romans built a
splendid little church dedicated to St. Agnes where, in a
small chapel, her skull is enshrined.
In art Agnes is always portrayed with a lamb. It is a symbol
of her innocence and purity, as well as pun on her name. In
Latin, the word for lamb is "agnus."
Craughwell is the author of Saints Behaving Badly (Doubleday,
2006) and Saints for Every Occasion (Stampley Enterprises,