A message from Father Nick 44

St Agnes and the Pallium

            Thursday 21st January is the feast of St Agnes, one of our most beloved martyr saints. We believe that she was only twelve or thirteen when she died at the beginning of the fourth century, but Agnes casts a special light on both the hierarchy of the Roman Church and the faith of its early members. It is likely that she was killed by a sword-thrust to her throat, a common enough method of execution at that time. Her burial place is on the Via Nomentana, in the north east of Rome, where it is possible to visit her church and gain access to a set of ancient catacombs.

The fact that she was martyred is moving in itself, and it is all we can safely say about her (though a number of early Fathers of the Church added their own pious imaginings). We do know, however, that Agnes was killed in the last and most severe Roman persecution, launched by Emperor Diocletian in 303 AD. Within a few years, Constantine would take away the threat of martyrdom for Christians. Under him, they would be able to honour their martyr forebears from a position of social advantage.

Meanwhile, Agnes’ name continued to be linked with innocence and purity. And its closeness to the Latin word for lamb (“Agnus”) seems to have suggested an association with the “Pallium” worn by metropolitan archbishops throughout the world. As the Catholic Encyclopedia explains:

“The pallium is a narrow circular band made of white wool with two pendants about twelve inches long which hang down in front and back. It is ornamented with six small black crosses, one on each pendant and four on the quadrants of the circular portion. The pallium is worn around the neck and shoulders and over the chasuble by the pope and archbishops. Each metropolitan, within three months after his consecration or ordination, must petition the pope for the pallium. He wears it in solemn Pontifical Mass, on certain days, and only within his province, and it is buried with him. Its use by archbishops dates back to the eighth century.”

But what does that have to do with Agnes who died centuries earlier? Inspired by her name and her innocence, the practice began of bringing two lambs to her basilica each 21st January. From here they would be taken to the pope to be blessed. These lambs would then provide wool for the next set of pallia, to be woven by the nuns of St Agnes’ convent. On 24th June the newly woven pallia would be placed on St Peter’s tomb and would remain there until the feast of Sts Peter and Paul on 29th June. To this day that is when they are given to new metropolitan archbishops.

Each pallium reminds us of the Church’s high pastoral office. It is a powerful symbol, but we must remember too that behind all such public symbols lie many unknown stories of humble faith – including that of a young girl who gave her life because, in defiance of all this world’s encouragements and threats, she refused to renounce her Lord.