On the Lam from an Ancient Custom

What happened to the St. Agnes Feast Day tradition?

Domenichino (1581–1641), “Saint Agnes”
Domenichino (1581–1641), “Saint Agnes” (photo: Public Domain)

Agnes sweet, and Agnes fair,
Hither, hither, now repair:
Bonny Agnes, let me see,
The lad who is to marry me.

Young Scottish lads and lasses meet on St. Agnes’s Eve reciting this prayer. It is believed that the shadow of the destined bride or bridegroom is seen in a mirror. John Keats (1795–1821) dedicated The Eve of Saint Agnes to the young virgin-martyr and saint. It is a romantic poem about St. Agnes’s Eve, which was a night of great importance to young maidens desiring to know who their future husbands would be. It was required that they go to bed supperless (St. Agnes’s Fast) and “will look to Heaven in prayer for all thy desire” (Keats’s poem). Then they would dream of their future husband. Where is the connection with the saint? St. Agnes is also the patron saint of young unmarried girls.

In art, St. Agnes is represented with a lamb on her left shoulder. Her name is suggestive, resembling agnus – lamb and in Greek agnon – meaning “the pure one.” A virgin and martyr, St. Agnes, as St. Ambrose wrote in De Virginibus, “joyfully went to the place of punishment with hurrying step, her head not adorned with plaited hair, but with Christ.” Beside St. Agnes’s Eve and St. Agnes’s Fast, the most theologically and pastorally important feast of St. Agnes is the yearly blessing of St. Agnes’s Lambs.

On January 21 each year, for the Feast of St. Agnes, in the Pope Urban VIII (Barberini) Chapel in the Apostolic Apartment of the pontiffs, two white lamps are presented to the pope to be blessed. The wool from these lambs will be used to make the pallia of the new metropolitan archbishops/primates. The pallium is an ecclesiastical vestment, a sign of honor and jurisdiction that is worn by the pope and the metropolitan archbishops in their churches. The pallia consist of a narrow, circular white band which is worn around the shoulders with a short lappet hanging from front and back. There are six black silk crosses woven on the pallium - one on the front and back, one on each shoulder, and one on each pendant – symbolizing the wounds of Christ. It resembles the shape of letter “Y.”

The Trappist Monks of the Abbazia delle Tre Fontane (Abbey of the Three Fountains) in Rome breed the lambs — symbol of St. Agnes, and the pallia are woven by the Benedictine Sisters of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere who have been weaving the pallia for almost half a century. The lambs are brought to the pontiff in Pope Urban VII chapel, who gives a special blessing to the lambs and expresses his special gratitude to the sisters and the Abbess of Santa Cecilia for their handwork. On June 24, Feast of St. John the Baptist, the pallia are brought to St. Peter’s Basilica and placed in a shrine near the tomb of St. Peter and ready for June 29, the Solemnity of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, Patron Saints of Rome, when the pallia are solemnly presented to the newly appointed metropolitan archbishops. The pope wears the pallium always when he celebrates Mass; the metropolitan archbishops can wear the pallium only when they celebrate Mass in their dioceses or in neighboring dioceses (suffragan) belonging to the ecclesiastical province of the metropolitan area under their jurisdiction. The fact that the pallium is buried with the archbishop-metropolitan is telling of “the marriage” bond of the bishop to his diocese – till death us do part.

Pope Benedict XVI was very particular about the pallium; actually his first pallium as pope resembled those worn by the bishops in early Christianity. On April 24, 2005, Pope Benedict XVI made specific reference to the theological and pastoral significance of the pallium in his homily for the Holy Mass inaugurating his Petrine ministry: “The symbolism of the pallium is even more concrete: the lamb's wool is meant to represent the lost, sick or weak sheep which the shepherd places on his shoulders and carries to the waters of life.”

The pallium thus is symbol of the bond of unity of the bishops with the pope, and with the Church of Rome as the Mother Church of the Latin Church. The pallium also means jurisdiction given and conferred to bishops by the pontiff. Canon 437 requires of metropolitan archbishops that: “Within three months from the reception of episcopal consecration or if he has already been consecrated, from the canonical provision, a metropolitan is obliged to request the pallium from the Roman pontiff either personally or through a proxy. The pallium signifies the power which the metropolitan, in communion with the Roman Church, has by law in his own province.” Moreover, the pallium represents the faithful (sheep) who follow the shepherd and recognize his voice (John 10:4).

On Jan. 21, 2019, Pope Francis did not bless the lambs, and by not blessing the lambs he did not follow a centuries-old tradition the Church has celebrated on the Feast of St. Agnes. It seems that this important and significant ceremony is abolished by the current pontiff with no explanations provided. No blessing of the lambs for the pallia appeared on the Calendar for Liturgical Celebrations for Jan. 21, 2019. This makes two years in a row now that the blessing of the lambs has not happened, although last year— on Jan. 21, 2018—the pontiff was on an Apostolic Journey to Chile and Peru. In 2017, 2016, and 2015 the pontiff blessed the lambs on the Feast of St. Agnes, although not in 2014. In 2015 Francis introduced the change that the new metropolitan archbishops will officially be given the pallium in their own dioceses and not in Rome, not from the hands of the pontiff but by the papal nuncio.

Is there any reason for abolishing this liturgical celebration on Jan. 21? Is this the synodal and de-centralized Church of Francis, a Church with a decreased focus on the curia and loose bonds with the center? I suspect the latest non-blessing of the lambs on the Feast of Saint Agnes is part of pattern which is dismantling ancient customs.