Faith and the Witness of Saint Agnes

Jacopo Tintoretto - The Miracle of St Agnes - WGA22466
Jacopo Tintoretto. The Miracle of St Agnes. 1577. Madonna dell’Orto, Venice

In the weeks before Septuagesima, I would like to consider the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity. They are called “theological” because they relate directly to God. As a small boy, I learnt the lucid definition of the catechism:

“Faith is a supernatural gift of God by which we believe without doubting whatever God has revealed.” (Penny Catechism)

The virtue of faith is more than simply believing something to be true, it is an act of loving trust and obedience by which we draw closer to the living God who wills our good and has prepared heaven for us. Hence it is a virtue, not simply a rational response.

Contrary to a poplar prejudice, faith does not contradict our reason but enlightens it. It is not a “leap in the dark” but rather a journey in the light. For example, we can know from the natural light of human reason that there must be a God. God reveals Himself to us as not simply a force or higher power, but as personal, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is not contrary to our reason but goes beyond what we can know without God’s revealing Himself.

We should resist temptations against our faith and avoid those corrosive influences which seek to undermine it through pride of intellect and resistance to grace. Some books or films can undermine our faith or tempt us against it. We would spend our time better by reading or watching things that nourish our faith.

In talking about the theological virtues, I would like to draw inspiration from the the saints whose example inspires us and shows us how the virtues are lived. The saints also pray for us continually in heaven. This week we celebrate the feast of St Agnes, a young virgin martyr who was put to death around 304AD during the reign of the cruel emperor Diocletian. The Christians had grown in numbers. Some modern historians have inerestingly suggested that this was partly because of their care of the sick and the building up of a “herd immunity” to some diseases in contrast to those Romans who fled at the first sign of “the plague.”

After resisting those who wished to compromise her purity, St Agnes was dragged through the streets of Rome to be violated, and finally executed. As with many early martyrs, legends embellished the story of her life. We do not know for certain whether these legends are true – nor do we know for certain that they are false. She was buried in the catacomb on the Via Nomentana, a great devotion sprang up to her, and she was praised by St Ambrose, a Father of the Church.

The pain and desolation that St Agnes suffered did not cause her to “question her faith” as is assumed necessary today. When a tragedy occurs, Christians can feel pressured into saying that they had to question their faith in God. There is no need for this – our faith is the one thing that can really help at such times.

Instead of doubting, St Agnes made use of her faith and trust in God to triumph in adversity, encourage her fellow Christians and intercede effectively for the Church which was soon to be granted freedom. Let us pray to her for inspiration in our own struggles to remain true to the Catholic faith.