Agnes, a young Christian convert, is honored as one of the four great virgin martyrs of the Christian Church. She died for her faith in the early fourth century during the reign of Diocletian (284-305), the Roman emperor who ordered the last great persecution of Christians, starting in early 303. St. Agnes, not only had no desire to marry, but was prepared to die for the sake of her faith and her virginity as "the bride of Christ", rather than become the wife of the son of a Roman prefect. She was martyred when she was only 12.Her death made a profound impression and she became one of the most widely honored of Roman martyrs and one of the most popular of Christian saints. Agnes is regarded as the patron saint of young women and the special protectress of bodily purity. After her death, the young saint was buried in her parents' household cemetery which was located a short distance from the city limits of Rome. At first a modest chapel was placed over the saint's grave. After Christianity became one of the lawful religions of the Roman Empire, Agnes's shrine was enlarged and transformed. According to legend, Constantina, Constantine's eldest daughter by his first wife, Fausta, was afflicted with leprosy. She was reputedly cured of the disease after she had prayed as a pilgrim at Agnes's tomb. The shrine, now known as the Basilica of St. Agnes Outside the Walls, is famous for its mosaics and galleried nave and for housing the relics of St. Agnes, in an ornate silver sarcophagus solidly encased beneath the altar.
Agnes' symbol is a lamb, because her name means "pure" in Greek and is similar to the Latin word Agnus, which means lamb. When popes confer a portion of their power on bishops, they send them a woolen cloth called a pallium. These are woven from the wool of lambs consecrated on St. Agnes' day.
Fr. Thomas Rosica, C.S.B.
Former National Director and C.E.O., World Youth Day 2002
C.E.O., Salt and Light Catholic Television Network, Canada