SAINT AGNES OF ASSISI
Saint Agnes of Assisi, sister of saint Clare "by flesh and by purity " (LegCl 24), was the second daughter of Ortolana and Favarone Offreduccio of Assisi. From the 14th century Chronicles of the 24 Ministers General of the Order of Friars Minor. (Quaracchi, 1857, pages 173-182), we know that she died at the age of 56 in 1253, shortly after her sister Clare. From this one can deduce that she was born in 1197. The name of Agnes was given to her by saint Francis when with his own hand her cut her hair after "the innocent Lamb, for Jesus Christ, who sacrificed himself for our sake, gave strong resistance and manly combat" (ibid).
Before this she was in fact called Catherine (cL AFH, Archivium Franciscanum Historicum, 13,1920, pg. 275). We find her as a very young child in Perugia, where the family of Favarone fled for refuge. Here they remained for several years, after open warfare broke out and on-going battles of armed conflict followed one after another among the people revolting against the domination of the Emperor as well as against the feudal lords. Her personality was therefore shaped amidst the family household aspirations to power and prestige which made alliance with the Perugians against the city of her birth, as well as by the example of devotion and virtue which she saw in her mother and her older sister, Clare.
'She had an affinity of spirit with her" even if she was attracted by the world and "the thought of a carnal marriage". However, "a marvellous mutual love had taken hold of both of them" (LegCl 24), which for several reasons made the separation painful for the 15 year old Agnes when Clare left to follow the Franciscan ideal in the life of Most High Poverty.
Clare "among the first prayers she offered to God, with all her heart, ardently begged this grace that, just as she had an affinity of spirit with her sister in the world, she might also have now a unity of will in the service of God. Therefore she prayed continuously to the Father of mercy that the world might become insipid to Agnes, her sister at home, and that God might become pleasing to her... that she might together with her be espoused in eternal virginity to the Spouse of glory. The divine majesty answered without delay the exceptional woman of prayer and quickly gave her that first gift that she so eagerly sought and that was so greatly pleasing for God to present" (ibid). And it is here that a light illumines the heart of Agnes and reveals the reality of a divine love, free and sovereign, that will rule her young life and become everything for her. In fact sixteen days after the conversion of Clare, moved by the Divine Spirit, she hurries to join her sister, and reveals to her sister the intimate secret of her will, she confesses that she wants to give herself totally to the service of God.
The two sisters follow in the footsteps of Christ to the church of Sant'Angelo in Panzo, where the violent attack of their family rises against them. The men attempt to carry away Agnes, while Clare throwing herself on. her knees in prayer with tears, implores that her sister will be given strength of will. Suddenly, even with all their might and strength, the knights can no longer lift the young girl from the ground. Her own Uncle Monaldo, overpowered by rage, intended to strike her a lethal blow, but a terrible pain suddenly struck his raised hand. He was restrained from such a blow and all the men left in bitterness at their failure.
Following this, Francis instructed her in the ways of the Lord, bringing her, together with Clare, to the little monastery of San Damiano, where a little later they will be joined by their other sister Beatrice and by their own mother, Ortolana. Here, at the school of Clare, not fearing to embrace the suffering, the fatigue and the deprivations of poverty, we find Agnes present when the sisters were lacking even oil. Clare with her prayer worked the miracle that found the container full even before the brother called to go and beg to have it filled had come to take it away (ProcCan 1, 1 5).
Following the same path as her sister, Agnes loved to contemplate the poor Christ in the mystery of the Incarnation and of the Passion. Wadding recounts the incident of the vision which Agnes, like Clare, had of the Nativity of the Lord (Wadding, Annales Minorum, 111, Quaracchi, Florence, 1931, pg. 350). In fact, she is often portrayed iconographically with the Infant Jesus. Her other focus is on the Crucified, contemplating "the ineffable charity that led him to suffer on the wood of the Cross" for the redemption of humankind.
From the "life" inserted into the Chronicles of the 24 Generals we know in fact that "one time, while apart from the others, in the silence of the night devotedly kept for prayer, the blessed Clare remained to pray. While not far away she saw her at prayer completely lifted from the ground mid suspended in the air, crowned with three crowns by an Angel after an interval of time. The following day... constrained by obedience to the blessed Clare, she related what follows: first, sincerely considering the goodness and patience of God and how each day he allows himself to be offended by sinners, I meditated, grieving and sorrowful. Secondly, I meditated on the ineffable love that he brings to sinners and how for their salvation he underwent death and his most bitter passion. Thirdly, I pondered on the souls in purgatory and on their sufferings, and how of themselves they are not able in any way to obtain relief.
The love of the Eucharist must have been particularly significant for Agnes, as for Clare and the sisters, evidenced from the moment she established communication with Cardinal Hugolino (Letter from Cardinal Hugolino to saint Clare, 1220, in Wadding, Annales Minorum, ad annum 1221, n. XX).
Truly, as the author of the Legend of saint Clare says, "one cannot make a brief discussion to illustrate the wondrous perfection of her life".
It is not known precisely when Agnes left Assisi to go to the monastery of Santa Maria al Sepolcro of Monticelli, in Florence. Here the community, lead by the Abbess Avvegnente, was already vigorously following the "observantiae regulares" of San Damiano, based on the writings and words of Saint Francis. They felt, however, the necessity of receiving a more direct formation. We know that Agnes was still at San Damiano in 1220 from the above mentioned letter of Cardinal Hugolino. This letter was most probably written after Easter, which that year he had spent in Assisi, and he ends with "Greet the virgin Agnes, my sister, and all the sisters in Christ".
Sister Chiara Lucia Garzonio (cf. Senza voltarsi indietro - Vita di S. Agnese d'Assisi, Libreria Ed. Fiorentina, 1991) is inclined to date her departure about 1221. This conclusion comes from the Chronicles of the monastery of Monticelli itself which were compiled in 1649. These documents, based on earlier documents which were subsequently lost, stated that as for going to Florence "Francis himself promised to send Agnes of Assisi to the Florentine Sisters". The 14th century Chronicles of the 24 Generals cited at the beginning of this article as a reference make reference to the fact that "she was sent by Blessed Francis as the abbess to Florence, where, as with the example of holiness of life, and with words that were sweet and persuasive, filled with love of God, fervent in contempt of the world, she was planted in this monastery, though she yearned for saint Clare, she followed the life of gospel poverty". The surest confirmation of this would then be the documents of the monastery of Sant'Apollinare in Milan founded in 1222, when Monticelli sent Sr. Giacome, who was explicitly named the companion of Agnes who was the sister of Clare.
Different studies, on the other hand, based on the Letters of Agnes (AFH, 1920, 496) which were written to her sister shortly after the time of her arrival at Florence definitely support after 1228 (cf. Lainati, Short Biography of St. Agnes of Assisi, in Saint Clare of Assisi, Ed. Porziuncola 1980, pgs. 117-120; Omaechevarria, Writings of St. Clare,, Madrid 1982, pgs. 361-362; Zoppetti-Bartoli, St. Clare of Assisi Writings and Documents, Ed. Franc. 1994, pg. 403). In her swritings Agnes speaks at length of the suffering of separation. 'This distress has a beginning, but knows no end". At the same time she speaks of the wonderful welcome she received in Florence. "I have found great harmony and no factions here, which is beyond belief. Everyone has received me with great happiness and joy, and has very devoutly promised me obedience and reverence".
This letter concludes with two interesting references. The first probably refers to the privilege of poverty only verbally received by the Pope, and the second refers to the desire to be visited by friar Elias. "Be assured that the Lord Pope has satisfied me, as I have said, and has satisfied you too, in all things and in every way according to your intention and mine regarding... our position on the ownership of property. I beseech you to ask brother Elias to visit me more often to console me in the Lord". We find Agnes again at San Damiano towards the end of the life of saint Clare. In the fourth letter to Agnes of Prague it is. Clare herself who confirms this, mentioning "the most prudent virgin Agnes, our sister". From the Legend of saint Clare we know of the promise that the dying Clare made to her sister who was nearby: "It is pleasing to God that I depart. But stop crying, because you will come to the Lord a short time after me. And the Lord will console you greatly after I have left you" (LegCl 43). "After a few days, Agnes, called to the wedding feast of the Lamb followed her sister Clare to the eternal delights" (LegCl #48). The veneration of Agnes began the day after her death. It was solemnly ratified by Pope Benedict XIV, and her feast is celebrated in the Franciscan Calendar on November 19.
At the end of the 2nd Millennium, in the first year of preparation for the Great jubilee, it is very relevant to ponder saint Agnes of Assisi, who centered her whole life around Jesus Christ, the only Saviour of the world.
-Sr. Chiara Mariana Raiola, osc - 'Mater Ecclesiae, Vatican City