Today the Church remembers the witness of the martyr Agnes, a Roman girl who at the age of twelve was faced with a decision none one should have to make, let alone so young: denying her faith in the Lord Jesus or surrendering her life to torture and death.
She heroically chose torture and death, being killed on this day in the year 309 AD. How could she deny her faith in Christ who had given up his life as a sacrifice for her?
The memory of Agnes’ witness endured and decades after her death a memorial was built to commemorate her witness to the faith. Over the centuries this memorial was enlarged and embellished to become one of the grandest churches in the city of Rome—the Church of Saint Agnes “outside the walls”—called such because it was built outside the ancient walls of the city of Rome.
It is within this church on January 21, the day of Agnes’ execution, that two lambs are presented to the Pope, who blesses the lambs. The lambs suggest the name of Saint Agnes, a play on the word “agnus,” which in Latin means lamb. But more than this, the lambs represent the sacrifice of Saint Agnes, who offered her life as a sacrifice to Christ the Lord.
The wool from these lambs is shorn on Holy Thursday and used to weave the palliums that the Pope bestows on archbishops. The pallium is a circlet of woolen cloth decorated with crosses that is worn by an archbishop as a sign of the dignity of his office, an office he exercises in communion with the Pope.
But more than this, the pallium reminds the bishop who wears it that the apostolic faith owes its life not to its institutions or any of the trappings of worldly power, but to the witness of the martyrs, who in the words of the Apostle Paul “were willing to die for what they believed.”
We must all be willing to give up our lives in service to Christ the Lord. We may not be asked to accept as our mission torture and death, but we will be asked to make a sacrifice.
What that specific sacrifice will be will be specific to our vocation and differs from person to person, but whatever our sacrifice will be, it will be an act of love, a manifestation of fidelity to Christ, and a witness of our hope that Christ the Lord offers us more than anything that the world can give.
The age of the martyrs is not an age of days gone by. We might be afforded the opportunity to practice and profess our faith in Christ without fear of persecution, but for millions and millions of the Christian faithful, this is not the case.
The ancient apostolic Churches of the ancient near east have been nearly persecuted out of existence. This has not happened centuries ago, but in the past decade. Christians in China cannot openly practice their faith without fear of reprisals. This is not a holdover from another time, but is happening right now. Christians in Nigeria are harassed, tormented, and killed. This is not a matter of history, but of the current moment.
The list goes on and on.
Do we care? Direct aid to our suffering brothers and sisters might be beyond what many of us can offer, but we should, out of respect for what so many Christians suffer, live with a greater sense of appreciation and reverence for our Catholic faith. Our faith is not a toy or a hobby, but a way of life. Our faith is not a private opinion, but a public act of witness. Our faith is not merely an institution, but the very Body of Christ.
Our faith is not a clubhouse for cocktails and special events—it is a matter of life and death.
On this the feast of Saint Agnes, let us remember her witness, the witness of all the Church’s martyrs, and repent of the ways we so often trivialize the faith for which so many have been willing to give up their very lives.