St. Agnes’s Second Feast

If you recited lauds according to the 1960 Breviary the day before yesterday, as we did, then you made a commemoration of St. Agnes “secundo.” You may have found it slightly perplexing, as we did. Yesterday, at New Liturgical Movement, Gregory DiPippo had a (typically) erudite explanation of this “second” feast of St. Agnes. He explains,

In liturgical books, the formal name of the feast is “Sanctae Agnetis secundo”, which literally means “(the feast) of St Agnes for the second time.” This title is found on the calendar of the Tridentine Missal and Breviary, as also seven centuries earlier in the Gregorian Sacramentary. The single Matins lesson in the Breviary of St Pius V tells us that after her death, Agnes appeared first to her parents to console them, and then to the Emperor Constantine’s daughter Constantia, who suffered from an incurable sore, while she was praying at her grave, exhorting Constantia to trust in Christ and receive baptism. Having done this and been healed, Constantia later built a basilica in the Saint’s honor.

The original purpose of the second feast, however, is not at all clear; theories abound, but evidence is lacking. In the Wurzburg lectionary, the oldest of the Roman Rite, January 21 is “natale S. Agnae de passione – the birth (into heaven) of Agnes, of her passion,”, while January 28 is simply “de natali.” One theory is that the actual day of her death was the 28th, and the 21st originally commemorated the beginning of her sufferings, starting with her trial and condemnation. However, we would then expect something similar for other prominent martyrs, particularly St Lawrence, whose passion also extended over a variety of days and events. The next oldest lectionary, Codex Murbach, doesn’t mention the second feast at all, nor does the Lectionary of Alcuin. In the Gregorian Sacramentary, the titles are simply “natale” and “natale…secundo.”

(Emphasis supplied.) He heightens this liturgical mystery by rejecting the idea that St. Agnes Second constitutes a primitive octave, which, to be honest, was our first guess upon seeing it in the book:

The most common theory, the least convincing but probably the most influential, is that the second feast represents a primitive form of octave, a theory which I find problematic on several grounds. St Agnes was the most prominent female martyr of ancient Rome, very much on a par with other great Roman martyrs like Ss Peter and Paul and St Lawrence. Pope Honorius I built her current church in the 7th century to replace an earlier one that had fallen into ruin. (It has subsequently undergone numerous restorations.) The original, however, was one of the basilicas built by the Emperor Constantine in the very early years of the Peace of the Church, along with those of the two Apostles, Lawrence, and the cathedral of Rome at the Lateran. The early manuscripts mentioned above all refer to the “octaves” of Ss Peter and Paul and St Lawrence; it seems very odd that the octave of such a prominent Saint as Agnes, and hers alone, should be called instead a “feast … for the second time.”

(Emphasis supplied.) Read the whole thing there and come to your own conclusions.

For our part, we love feasts like St. Agnes’s two, St. Cecilia’s (unfortunately impeded last year by the 24th and Last Sunday after Pentecost, Fifth Sunday of November), and St. Lawrence’s, and tomorrow’s feast of St. Martina. These saints’ feasts retain special features even into the 1960 Breviary, preserving in some way the early Roman Christians’ admiration for these saints. In other words, the special aspects of these feasts serve as a connection between believers today and their forebears in the early Roman Church. They also serve as a connection to Rome itself; that is, everyone celebrates the feasts of these distinctively Roman saints. (Or they did until fairly recently.) The Church of Rome is just that.


By the way, in case you’re playing along at home, here is the commemoration of St. Agnes’s second feast in the Breviary of 1960.

Et fit commemoratio S. Agnetis Virg. et Mart. secundo:

Ant. Ecce, quod concupivi, iam video: quod speravi, iam teneo: ipsi sum iuncta in cælis, quem in terris posita, tota devotione dilexi.

V. Diffusa est gratia in labiis tuis.
R. Propterea benedixit te Deus in æternum.


Deus, qui nos annua beatæ Agnetis Virginis et Martyris tuæ solemnitate lætificas: da, quæsumus; ut, quam veneramur officio, etiam piæ conversationis sequamur exemplo. Per Dominum Nostrum…