A.D. 304 or 305
ST. JEROME says that the tongues and pens of all nations are employed in the praises
of this saint, who overcame both the cruelty of the tyrant and the tenderness of her
age and crowned the glory of chastity with that of martyrdom. St. Austin observes that
her name signifies chaste in Greek and lamb in Latin. She has been always looked
upon in the church as a special patroness of purity, with the immaculate Mother of God
and St. Thecla. Rome was the theater of the triumph of St. Agnes, and Prudentius
says that her tomb was shown within sight of that city. She suffered not long after the
beginning of the persecution of Dioclesian, whose bloody edicts appeared in March in
the year of our Lord, 303. We learn from St. Ambrose and St. Austin that she was only
thirteen years of age at the time of her glorious death. Her riches and beauty excited
the young noblemen of the first families of Rome to vie with one another in their
addresses who should gain her in marriage. Agnes answered them all that she had
consecrated her virginity to a heavenly Spouse, who could not be beheld by mortal
eyes. Her suitors finding her resolution impregnable to all their arts and importunities,
accused her to the governor as a Christian, not doubting but threats and torments
would overcome her tender mind, on which allurements could make no impression. The
judge at first employed the mildest expressions and most inviting promises; to which
Agnes paid no regard, repeating always that she could have no other spouse than
Jesus Christ. He then made use of threats but found her soul endowed with a
masculine courage and even desirous of racks and death. At last, terrible fires were
made and iron hooks, racks, and other instruments of torture displayed before her,
with threats of immediate execution. The young virgin surveyed them all with an
undaunted eye and with a cheerful countenance beheld the fierce and cruel
executioners surrounding her and ready to dispatch her at the word of command. She
was so far from betraying the least symptom of fear, that she even expressed her joy
at the sight and offered herself to the rack. She was then dragged before the idols and
commanded to offer incense "but could by no means be compelled to move her hand,
except to make the sign of the cross," says St. Ambrose.

The governor seeing his measures ineffectual, said he would send her to a house of
prostitution, where what she prized so highly should be exposed to the insults of the
debauchees. Agnes answered that Jesus Christ was too jealous of the purity of His
spouses to suffer it to be violated in such a manner; for He was their defender and
protector. "You may," said she, "stain your sword with my blood, but you will never be
able to profane my body, consecrated to Christ." The governor was so incensed at this
that he ordered her to be immediately led to the public brothel, with liberty to all
persons to abuse her person at pleasure. Many young profligates ran there, full of the
wicked desire of gratifying their lust, but were seized with such awe at the signs of
the saint that they durst not approach her; one only excepted, who, attempting to be
rude to her, was that very instant, by a flash, as it were, of lightning from heaven,
struck blind, and fell trembling to the ground. His companions, terrified, took him up
and carried him to Agnes, who was at a distance, singing hymns of praise to Christ,
her protector. The virgin by prayer restored him to his sight and health. *

The chief prosecutor of the saint, who at first sought to gratify his lust and avarice,
now labored to satiate his revenge by incensing the judge against her; his passionate
fondness being changed into anger and rage. The governor wanted not others to spur
him on, for he was highly exasperated to see himself baffled and set at defiance by
one of her tender age and sex. Therefore, resolved upon her death, he condemned her
to be beheaded. Agnes, transported with joy on hearing this sentence, and still more
at the sight of the executioner, "went to the place of execution more cheerfully," says
St. Ambrose, "than others go to their wedding." The executioner had secret
instructions to use all means to induce her to a compliance, but Agnes always
answered she could never offer so great an injury to her heavenly Spouse and, having
made a short prayer, bowed down her neck to adore God and receive the stroke of
death. The spectators wept to see so beautiful and tender a virgin loaded with fetters
and to behold her fearless under the very sword of the executioner, who with a
trembling hand cut off her head at one stroke. Her body was buried at a small distance
from Rome, near the Nomentan road. A church was built on the spot in the time of
Constantine the Great and was repaired by pope Honorius in the seventh century. It is
now in the hands of Canon-Regulars, standing without the walls of Rome, and is
honored with her relics in a very rich silver shrine, the gift of pope Paul V, in whose
time they were found in this church, together with those of St. Emerentiana. * The
other beautiful rich church of St. Agnes within the city, built by pope Innocent X, the
right of patronage being vested in the family of Pamphili, stands on the place where
her chastity was exposed. The feast of St. Agnes is mentioned in all Martyrologies,
both of the East and West, though on different days. It was formerly a holyday for the
women in England, as appears from the council of Worcester, held in the year 1240.
St. Ambrose, St. Austin, and other fathers have written her panegyric. St. Martin of
Tours was singularly devout to her. Thomas à Kempis honored her as his speciel
patroness, as his works declare in many places. He relates many miracles wrought,
and graces received through her intercession.

Marriage is a holy state, instituted by God and in the order of providence and nature
the general or most ordinary state of those who live in the world. Those, therefore,
who upon motives of virtue and in a Christian and holy manner engage in this state,
do well. Those, nevertheless, who for the sake of practicing more perfect virtue, by a
divine call, prefer a state of perpetual virginity, embrace that which is more perfect
and more excellent. Dr. Wells, a learned Protestant, confesses that Christ declares
voluntary chastity, for the kingdom of heaven's sake, to be an excellency and an
excellent state of life. This is also the manifest inspired doctrine of St. Paul, and in
the revelations of St. John, spotless virgins are called, in a particular manner, the
companions of the Lamb, and are said to enjoy the singular privilege of following Him
wherever he goes. The tradition of the church has always been unanimous in this
point; and among the Romans, Greeks, Syrians, and Barbarians, many holy virgins
joyfully preferred torments and death to the violation of their integrity, which they
bound themselves by vow to preserve without defilement, in mind or body. The
fathers, from the very disciples of the apostles, are all profuse in extolling the
excellency of holy virginity, as a special fruit of the incarnation of Christ, his divine
institution, and a virtue which has particular charms in the eyes of God, who delights
in chaste minds and chooses to dwell singularly in them. They often repeat that purity
raises men, even in this mortal life, to the dignity of angels, purifies the soul, fits it
for a more perfect love of God and a closer application to heavenly things, and
disengages the mind and heart from worldly thoughts and affections. It produces in
the soul the nearest resemblance to God. Chastity is threefold: that of virgins, that of
widows, and that of married persons; in each state it will receive its crown, as St.
Ambrose observes, but in the first it is most perfect, so that St. Austin calls its fruit a
hundredfold and that of marriage sixty fold; but the more excellent this virtue is, and
the higher its glory and reward, the more heroic and the more difficult is its victory;
nor is it perfect unless it be embellished with all other virtues to a heroic degree,
especially divine charity and the most profound humility.
St Agnes Virgin and Martyr
Butler's lives of the Saints
Lives of the Saints