St. Agnes was faithful during troubling times

Bishop Anthony B. Taylor

Bishop Anthony B. Taylor delivered this homily Jan. 22 for the feast of St. Agnes in Mena.

Today we celebrate the feast of your patron, St. Agnes, one of the only seven women whose name appears in the first eucharistic prayer we will use in Mass today. She is also the patron saint of chastity.

All we actually know about her is that she was a young girl from a wealthy Roman family who was martyred for the faith when she was only 12 or 13 years old. It seems that she felt called to dedicate her whole life to Christ, whom she considered to be her true spouse.

So she refused marriage to the son of a powerful pagan — they married young in those days! This set in motion a whole series of events leading to her martyrdom on 304 AD, a time of severe persecution of the Church under the Emperor Diocletian. Many lurid legends developed later regarding the details of the tortures and temptations to which she was subjected — you can check these out on the internet if you want to, they are not suitable for proclamation during Mass.

She is usually depicted in art accompanied by a lamb, since her name Agnes sounds like the Latin word for lamb, “Agnus” as in “Agnus Dei” — Lamb of God. But actually it comes from the Greek word “Hagne” meaning “chaste, pure, sacred” — virtues to which we are all called, especially you who have her as your patron. She was faithful in a time of trouble — indeed, persecution — because the only thing that mattered to her was pleasing the Lord.

You and I have troubles in our lives too. Perhaps not persecution, but we do have things we wish were different, things about which we need to keep our hearts pure. Otherwise resentments will grow and poison our relationship with God and each other.

St. Paul was very aware of this in the communities he founded, most of which were quite small at first, smaller than your parish. Small enough to meet in private homes, indeed, they were called “house churches.” After all, there were no church buildings yet and wouldn’t be in most places for a couple of hundred years. St. Agnes herself would probably have worshipped in one of these house churches.

But even though small, problems emerged even then, which is why St. Paul wrote in today’s second reading: “I urge you brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree in what you say, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.”

In other words, that you be pure of heart, patient and understanding. This will make all the difference in the world when dealing with difficulties in your family, at work, in your parish and in the larger community.

In today’s Gospel Jesus left behind his previous life in Nazareth, which up to then had been comfortable and non-controversial. He had been a simple carpenter who up to then had probably just minded his own business and ruffled no feathers.

But with the arrest of John the Baptist, all of that changed. John was silenced, so now it was time for Jesus to step forward. He left his mother and a stable job and moved to Capernaum, where he “began to preach and say, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’”

And indeed, it still is for all of us who — like St. Agnes — seek to follow Jesus in purity of heart. For after all, as we prayed in today’s responsorial psalm: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom should I fear? The Lord is my life’s refuge; of whom should I be afraid?”

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