St Agnes, Virgin and Martyr
St Agnes's Life and Martyrdom
St Agnes suffered martydom ca AD 304, towards the end of the great persecution of Christians under the Emperor Diocletian. She was a young girl of only twelve or thirteen, and her martydom made such an impression that she became one of the most famous Roman martyrs. Having vowed to live a life of chastity, as a bride of Christ, she refused the advances of a Roman youth who wished to marry her. Angered by her refusal he denounced her as a Christian to the authorities, as a result of which she was arrested, stripped naked and imprisoned in a brothel. We are told that as she prayed the prison was filled with light and she was visited by an angel, who brought her a robe, white as snow, to cover her nakedness. She was condemned to be burnt as a witch, but she was again saved by heavenly intervention, and the executioner had eventually to despatch her with the sword.
Thus St Agnes is venerated as a patroness of purity. Her story shows us that God comes to us in our need, most especially when we need him most. Fear is something we all have to face at some time or another in our lives, but we must take care never to let it overwhelm us; rather we must remember those words from Scripture: "Do not be afraid." The only remedy for fear is the gift of faith, which brings us hope, a hope which is never deceptive. The life and death of our patron, St Agnes, is no romantic sentimental story, but an example of true Christian hope.
In his "Treatise on Virgins" St Ambrose speaks eloquently of St Agnes:
" 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 St 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 she is ready to face it. Dragged against her will to the altars, she stretches out her hands to the Lord in the 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 double martydom, to modesty and to religion; St Agnes preserved her virginity and gained a martyr's crown."
St Ambrose adds, "It seems to me that this child, holy beyond her years and courageous beyond human nature, received the name of Agnes (which is a Greek word meaning "pure") not as an earthly designation but as a revelation from God of what she was to be." In sacred iconography St Agnes's symbol is a lamb, because of the similarity between her name and the Latin word for lamb, AGNUS.
The Blessing of Lambs on St Agnes's Day
St Agnes is usually depicted with or carrying a lamb, and it is on her feast day each year that the Pope blesses two lambs at a special ceremony in the Vatican. The lambs are subsequently sheared and the wool from the fleeces is then used to make the pallia, which are kept near the tomb of St Peter in the Basilica of St Peter, Rome. A pallium is presented by the Pope to each newly appointed Metropolitan Archbishop, as a sign of the Archbishop's pastoral role and his communion with the Holy See. The Archbishop of canterbury has the pallium in his coat of arms, but the last Archbishop to receive the real thing was Cardinal Reginald Pole in the reign of Queen Mary I.
A priest blessing lambs on St Agnes's Day
The Burial of St Agnes and her Relics
The saint was buried by her parents in praediolo suo, on their property along the Via Nomentana, where there was already a cemetery. This cemetery expanded rapidly after that, because many wanted to be buried near the tomb of the famous martyr. Constantina, the daughter of the Emperor Constantine, constructed a basilica over her tomb over the period od several years from AD 337. This basilica of St Agnes was reconstructed towards the end of the 5th century by Pope Symmachus (died 514), and Pope Honorius I (died 638) rebuilt it as a basilica with three naves, adding a wonderful fresco of St Agnes. This is essentially the church you see today when you visit the Basilica of St Agnes outside the Walls, which has been called one of the best kept secrets of Rome. The remains of St Agnes, minus the head, are still there, kept in a beautiful silver sarcophagus provided by Pope Pius V. Also venerated there are the relics of St Emerentina, the "milk-sister" of St Agnes, or in other manuscripts described as her maid, who was stoned to death when she was discovered praying at the tomb of St Agnes. St Agnes's skull is now at the supposed site of her martyrdom, in the Church of Sant' Agnese in Agone, in the Piazza Navona. There in the heart of modern Rome is a fitting place to venerate a saint so much in the hearts of the people of Rome today. She is also one of the saints specially mentioned in the Roman canon at Mass.
The parish's Relic of St Agnes
The Parish Church of St Agnes and St Pancras possesses Relics of St Agnes, which are taken in procession round the church before the Solemn Patronal Mass celebrated on her feast day, 21st January.
Interior of the Basilica of St Agnes Without the Walls in Rome. Her relics are enshrined beneath the altar.
Beneath the High Altar of St Agnes's Without the Walls, within the area of the Catacombs, lie the remains of St Agnes together with those of her foster-sister, St Emerentiana, who was stoned to death by pagans when shortly after St Agnes's martyrdom she came to pray at her tomb. Their relics are contained in the silver sarcophagus behind the grille of the shrine.
St Emerentiana being stoned to death while praying at the tomb of St Agnes
Fresco depicting the burial of St Emerentiana by the parents of St Agnes
The Head of St Agnes in a precious Reliquary, in a side chapel of the Church of Sant' Agnese in Agone, Piazza Navona, the site of her martyrdom.
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St Pancras the Martyr
Tradition tells us that St Pancras was brought up in Phrygia, but that when he was orphaned he came to live in Rome with his uncle, who was a Christian. Like St Agnes, St Pancras was caught up in the great persecution of Christians initiated by Emperor Diocletian. He was a boy of only fourteen years of age when he suffered martydom by the sword in the year AD 304, possibly at the same time as Saints Nereus and Achilleus, with whom St Pancras shares his feast day, 12th May. Again, as with St Agnes, he has been an inspiration to youthful followers of Christ throughout the centuries.
He was buried in the cemetery on the Aurelian Way, and a magnificent Basilica now stands over his tomb. Here in this parish of which he is the secondary patron we honour him with a High Mass on the Saturday following his feast day, 12th May,and before Mass we have Devotions at his Shrine and a Procession of the Relic of St Pancras which we possess.
The Lord Bishop of Wiawso censing the Statue of St Pancras on St Pancras's Day 2010.
Beneath the High Altar of the Basilica of St Pancras in Rome, contained in an impressive porphyry sarcophagus, are the Relics of St Pancras.
The High Altar of the Basilica of St Pancras, Rome.
The Head Reliquary of St Pancras in the South wall of his Basilica.
The Baptism of St Pancras
St Pancras before his judges
The Martyrdom of St Pancras, from a fresco in the Basilica of St Pancras, Rome.
The burial of St Pancras after his Martyrdom.
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