“All the people,” says Saint Jerome, “united in celebrating the praises of Saint Agnes, who triumphed over the corruptions. of her times, and crowned the glory of chastity by that of martyrdom.”
Rome was the theatre of the combats and of the triumphs of this generous Christian. According to Saint Augustine and Saint Ambrose, she was thirteen or fourteen years of age when she suffered. It was about the beginning of the fourth century, a short time after the commencement of Diocletian’s persecution, that she won the martyr’s palm.
The wealth and beauty of Agnes induced many of the Roman nobility to seek her hand in marriage; but she constantly replied that she had consecrated herself to a celestial spouse invisible to men. Failing in their suit, they denounced her to the governor as a Christian. The latter tried every means to pervert her to paganism, but all in vain, for within her delicate frame she had an intrepid ,soul that longed for martyrdom. To terrify her they lit a great fire in her presence, and collected full in her view all the horrid instruments of torture. They then dragged the intrepid virgin before the idols, “but,” says Saint Ambrose, “far from burning incense she raised her hand only to make the sign of the cross.”
The infuriated, governor then sent her to an obscene place, where her purity was exposed to every sort of insult. “Ah,” said Agnes, “Jesus Christ is too jealous of the chastity of his spouses to suffer them to be de1prived of it; He Himself is the guardian of it. You may shed my blood, but this body consecrated to Jesus, you cannot profane it.” This prediction was realized. Heaven visibly protected this blessed maiden. Thus did it often please God to manifest his esteem for the virtue of purity, up to that period unknown to the world. “Exposing the Christian virgins thus,” writes Tertu11ian to the pagans, “you clearly see that every sort of death is more tolerable to a Christian than the loss of her purity; but what has been the result? you only .multiply the converts to the faith.”
Agnes was afterwards condemned to die by the headman’s axe. Having proclaimed that she would never abjure the faith of her Lord, she bowed her head and consummated her glorious sacrifice. Those who witnessed the bloody spectacle were astounded and filled with admiration for a religion whose dearest hopes lie far beyond the grave. Her body was interred near the walls of Rome, and Constantine the Great erected a church over her tomb. Her name is found in the Canon of the Mass. Saint Ambrose and Saint Augustine have composed panegyrics of our Saint. Saint Martin of Tours cherished a particular devotion for her. Thomas a Kempis honored her as his principal patroness, and in some of his works speaks of the many miracles wrought through her intercession.