Agnes, a popular Roman woman martyr of the 3rd century, ranks high among the seven women mentioned in the First Eucharistic Prayer. “Agnes, Cecilia, Anastasia…” Details of her story, from 5th century sources, may be questioned, but the essential facts about her are true.
A young Roman girl of 13 or so, she was a martyr put to death for her faith, because she rejected the offer of a highly placed Roman man to become his bride. Incensed, he tried to force Agnes to change her mind; eventually she met death for continuing to refuse him.
The Golden Legend, a favorite saint book from the Middle Ages, says that Agnes was true to her name. She was a lamb (Agnus) who followed the Good Shepherd. Though young, she followed the way to truth, never turning away from it. God gave her strength beyond what we expect for her years.
Women were expected to marry young in those days, to marry men chosen for them, and to have two or three children. They were to produce children for Rome, especially soldiers needed for the empire’s many wars.
Agnes’ refusal to marry one of Rome’s elite was a dangerous decision for that time and place. With no support from family or friends, alone in a society of men, at a time suspicious of Christians and their beliefs, the little girl sought strength in Jesus Christ.
The 5th century legends say they put her among prostitutes to break and punish her, but God warded off those who tried to rape her. Besides the church where she is buried, a church in her honor stands today in the busy Piazza Navona in Rome. where abused women often pray and draw courage from the young girl who had a similar experience.
They finally killed her with a knife to her throat. Still, the legends say that heavenly signs constantly surrounded Agnes assuring her that her faith was not in vain. The One she loved was with her as she struggled.
Agnes, the prayer for her feast says, is an example of how God chooses “what is weak in this world to confound the strong.” A young girl was stronger than the strong. “May we follow her constancy in the faith, through our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.”