St. Agnes, Virgin and Martyr, Pray For Us!

May we all look to this holy young woman and see the source of her joy and her courage in the face of a dying and rotten civilization.

Francisco Pacheco, “Christ Gives a Ring to St. Agnes” ca. 1628
Francisco Pacheco, “Christ Gives a Ring to St. Agnes” ca. 1628 (photo: Public Domain)

Today we honor St. Agnes, a young woman brutally murdered by the bloody machine of the Roman Empire in 304 and invoked in the litany of holy martyrs during the Eucharistic prayers.

The exact details of her death are disputed. We do not know for certain which official ordered her execution or indeed the precise manner in which she was killed. Like so many of the Church’s early saints, legends sprang up almost immediately after her death, obscuring in large part the bare facts of her final moments.

We do know she was a beautiful young woman, with a myriad of handsome, high-ranking and wealthy men seeking her hand. Raised in a Christian family, Agnes took a vow of virginity as a young woman, consecrating herself to Christ. To every frustrated suitor, she gave the same response — that Jesus was her only spouse, and that she would give herself to no man. Eventually, driven to fury by her repeated rebuffs, these young men betrayed her as a Christian to the Roman authorities, and after a period of torture — replete with promises of wealth and safety if only she would recant her faith — she was executed.

Her death seemed pointless to the Romans who witnessed her martyrdom. The empire that killed Agnes was consumed by materialism and hedonism. For a young girl not only to deny herself wealth and status, but indeed to embrace death with joy and certitude rather than betray her God, was unfathomable to the Romans watching her die.

In our modern age, suffering as it is from the cultural rot of the sexual revolution, Agnes’ death, suffered for the sake of her faith and her chastity, necessarily elicits a similar reaction. Since the mid-20th century, the Western world has been overrun by the erroneous notion that there are no rules to govern sexuality, aside from the lowest possible standard of “consent.”

Couples who do not cohabitate before marriage are viewed as wildly countercultural, to say nothing of those men and women who choose to actually abstain from sex until walking down the aisle. The availability of contraception, and the legalization of abortion quickly untethered sex from children, leading to a sexual free-for-all devoid of responsibility. Forget rejecting proposals, now men and women are expected to forego all sexual reticence oftentimes before even beginning a relationship.

And of course none of this even touches upon the advent of the same-sex rights movement and gender identity crises that have rocked the Western world in the past decades, turning millennia of cultural understandings of sex on its head and attacking the very heart of Christian anthropology. Now, not only is sexual promiscuity considered the norm, and indeed encouraged, but sexual preference itself has become a core identifier.

All of this was of course supposed to unshackle previously oppressed generations from the manacles of tradition and “social constructs,” but somehow this utter sexual freedom has not led to any kind of real happiness. Indeed, our society is getting less happy and young adults are increasingly falling prey to substance abuse, anxiety, depression and risk of suicide.

In 2019 (notably before the COVID-19 pandemic), the General Social Survey found that Americans were increasingly miserable, and in 2020 the Pew Research Center found that 50% liberal white women, the cohort who most embraced the ideology of the sexual revolution, suffer from some form of mental health issue. 

Of course there are many reasons for these growing mental health crises, including a loss of community, isolation in a digital age, and the existential angst of a generation that does not know religion. Recent reports show that the number of “nones,” those adults without a religious affiliation, comprise 30% of the adult population in the United States. This number shows no sign of abating, and indeed is growing. But it is also very clear that the stronger the movements to liberate culture from the past sexual mores, the more broken and unhappy we have become.

It is precisely because of this mess in which we now find ourselves that we most need a saint like Agnes. A young woman who was so certain in who she was, who knew the core of her identity was defined not by her sexual proclivities or exploits but as a beloved daughter of God, that she could look unflinchingly into her executioner’s eyes. Her conviction and her commitment to her own virtue took everything from her in the eyes of the world, even unto her life, yet she remained exultant.

Today, foregoing utter sexual liberation will likely not lead to martyrdom, at least not bloody martyrdom of Agnes, but it will leave adherents exposed to mockery, ridicule, and even harassment as in the case of professionals who reject the current cultural narrative regarding gender identity and sexual orientation. 

The brave witness of St. Agnes serves as a guide in this faithless age, unmoored as it is from the virtues which guided Western civilization for centuries. May we all look to the example of this holy young woman and see not just the brutal details of her death, but the source of her joy and her courage in the face of a dying and rotten civilization.