Although a lot about the life of St. Agnes is unknown, she has been remembered as a martyr since the fourth century. On her feast day, the pope traditionally blesses the lambs (Agnes means “lamb” in Latin) whose wool is used to make the white pallium that archbishops wear.
Agnes was born into a wealthy family at the end of the third century. During that time, Christians in Rome were under attack from the Emperor Diocletian, who had resolved to wipe out the Church in his empire.
When Agnes came of age, Diocletian and his co-ruler Galerius were calling for all churches to be destroyed, and all religious texts to be burned. They also ordered that all clergy and lay Christians be imprisoned and tortured until they renounced their faith and worshipped the emperor.
As a young woman, Agnes attracted many suitors with her beauty and her charm, but she had already decided to consecrate her life to Christ and live celibately. She told all her suitors that she had already promised herself to a heavenly spouse. Those who understood and were jealous reported her to the state as a Christian. A judge tried to persuade Agnes, and then threaten her, into giving up her religion.
The judge showed Agnes all the instruments of torture he had ready for her, including fire, iron hooks, and a stretching rack, but Agnes was willing to suffer them. She was instead brought to a pagan altar, where she was ordered to make an act of worship in keeping with the Roman state’s religion.
After she refused, the judge sent Agnes to a house of prostitution, so that her virginity would be violated. Agnes told him God would not allow this, and the first man to approach her there was struck blind, scaring others from going near her.
One of the suitors Agnes had rejected lobbied the judge to have her executed. He sentenced her to death by beheading, and offered her one last chance to renounce her faith. Agnes refused, said a short prayer, and submitted to her death.