When I was about 12 years old in Religious Ed class I asked the priest teaching us “when we go to heaven, what age will we be?” He thought for a minute and said, “We do not really know; but one possibility is that you will meet Jesus looking the way you would look when in this life you were most holy and most close to him.” He did not tell me when that would be for me!
But we can say with confidence that our Saint, St. Agnes, would have entered the Kingdom of God at that age of 12 when she was put to death because as a Catholic girl she pledged her life and her love to Jesus. But who was she? Here is what we know. Her family was well known in Rome, probably wealthy, of Greek background, living near Campo Massino. In those days marriage was arranged between families and a girl of ten to 12 would be engaged to someone, often older then she, whom she would marry when she would be older. Many young men wanted to marry her. But she said no. She wanted to live her life as a pure and holy woman with one love in her life: Jesus. Her name in fact means “the pure one”.
When she refused one man after another, someone, out of spite, reported her to the Governor of Rome, Sempronius, because she was a faithful Catholic . Arrested, this 12 year old with great courage told the Governor that she would not be forced against her will to marry anyone because she loved Jesus above all. St. Ambrose says “All were astounded that she would come forward as a witness to God when she was too young to be her own mistress.” The pagans dragged her to a house of ill repute but she escaped. They tried to burn her at the stake in what is today Piazza Navona but the wood would not burn. Finally they beheaded her as she forgave her captors. These are the facts. But St. Paul tells it better with holy truth. God chose the weak to shame the strong. God chose the despised of the world to reduce to nothing those who are something so no human being night boast before God! God gave us this young girl with no status, no worldly power. But she had the strength that comes from God, the faith that withstands the worldly, the powerful, those who exploit and try to enslave the children of God. What a lesson she is for all you young people, especially you girls. She held to her faith. She maintained her purity and her integrity. And she trusted in God who gave her a reward greater than anything the world could give!
What age will we be when God calls us to enter His kingdom? We do not know now. But we do know that Agnes shows us the way. Holding to our faith, defending our integrity and purity and preferring Jesus to any of the false things that corrupt us! This is how we can become like Agnes, strong men and women of faith, constant in our hope and loving toward all because God has first loved us. Jesus in the Gospel tells us that once we have discovered and embraced Jesus we have found the Kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is like a pearl of great price. When we find such a pearl we sell all that we have because we gain the greatest gift of all: life in Christ! Here together, we learn to belong more deeply to Christ, to His Church and to one another. Here the example of Agnes lives on and guides us to have that same courage, that same love of chastity and purity of heart that so marked Agnes and that mark all of us as disciples of Christ.
Lat me ask you this. Knowing something about St. Agnes do you think the first reading opens up something of her inner self before the pagan Romans? My soul was at the point of death; they encompassed me on every side; I looked for someone to sustain me, but could find no one. But then I remembered the mercies of the Lord, his kindness through ages past. For He saves those who take refuge in him, and rescues them from every evil.
My friends, how true that is of our saint and our protector, St. Agnes. What a witness she is for us all in every age. She inspires us by her life and witness so that we can learn from her life and be witnesses ourselves.
Now we know something about St. Agnes whom the whole Church has venerated for more than 1700 years. We know something about how she showed the people of her time that you do not have to be powerful or worldly, rich or famous to be a witness, a witness to God’s love for us all, including those who may not like us, a witness that living according to God’s law is better than any human laws, that loving Christ helps us to love another.
In all this she is the one who can help us along the way. When we became this Diocese in 1957, Pope Pius XII gave her to us as our patroness and our protector. She guides us as we grow to be good, faithful Catholics. By praying to her we gain her help and her intercession before God. God is as close to us today as he was to Agnes in 304 AD. And she continues to watch over us no matter how young or how old we may be. A religious sister who is my age and lives in Sag Harbor called me this morning to wish me a Happy St Agnes Day. She is a witness with the help of St. Agnes. You, young people here in the Cathedral today, with your parents and teachers and Dr. Walsh: you are witnesses of Christ’s love for you with the help of St. Agnes. Our whole Diocese and all of us who make up this local Church are protected by St. Agnes so that we can be witnesses in our time as she has been since her time in the fourth century. We honor her on this her Feast:
St. Agnes, teach us to love him as you loved Him; to witness to him as you did, with courage; to put love for him before our own lives; to renounce the idols presented to us by society; to risk everything in response to His fidelity.
BELOVED SAINT AGNES, PRAY FOR US NOW AND ALWAYS AMEN.