21 January: Saint Agnes

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Pope Benedict XVI wearing a pallium, and a mitre  with the Good Shepherd and his sheep.

Catholics will be familiar with Agnes’ name since she is mentioned in the First Eucharistic Prayer as one of the great early martyrs. She suffered death in her early teens. It seems unlikely that we would respect a modern teenager the way the Church has celebrated Agnes for 1700 years; perhaps we have something to learn from our ancestors!

 Agnes was from a noble family who were too prominent to avoid attention in the early fourth century persecutions. When she was arrested, she was steadfast in saying that she was a Christian. It is said that she was desired as a wife or mistress by one of the magistrates. No doubt this would have enabled her to escape execution, but she did not yield.

She was to be burned alive but the wood would not light; instead, Saint Ambrose tells us, she was decapitated with a sword.

There is a special tradition linked to Saint Agnes. On her feast day two lambs are brought from the Abbey of Tre Fontane to be blessed by the pope. When they are shorn later in Spring, the wool is woven by the Benedictine nuns of Saint Caecilia’s Abbey to make Palliums. These special collars are given to new Archbishops by the pope on the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul. Carrying lambs’ wool on the shoulder reminds the Archbishop that he is to be a good shepherd to his flock.

MMB

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