Usually on the morning of January 21, the liturgical memory of St. Agnes, two lambs, blessed earlier in the morning in the Roman basilica named for this saint, are presented to the Pope for a blessing and prayer but I did not see any such story today about the lambs being brought to Pope Francis.

I’ve always loved this story and this feast day and write about it every year on this day. While I have no news concerning baby lambs in the papal household on January 21, 2019, I’ll tell the story anyway!

The lambs are raised by the Trappist Fathers of the Abbey of the Three Fountains. When their wool is shorn, the Sisters of St. Cecelia weave it into the palliums that, on the June 29th feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, Apostles, are given to new metropolitan archbishops as signs of their office.

The pallium is a white woolen circular band embroidered with six black crosses which is worn over the shoulders and has two hanging pieces, one in front and another in back. Worn by the Pope and by metropolitan archbishops, it symbolizes authority and expresses the special bond between the bishops and the Roman Pontiff. In a 1978 document, “Inter Eximina Episcopalis,” Pope Paul VI restricted its use to the Pope and metropolitan archbishops. Six years later, Pope John Paul decreed that it would be conferred on the metropolitans by the Pope on the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul.

Usually in attendance at the January 21 ceremony in the Apostolic Palace are 21 people, including two Trappist fathers, several nuns, two canons of the Chapter of St. John, the dean of the Roman Rota, and two officials from the Office of the Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff, and a number of other invited guests.

The baby lambs, under one year of age, are normally tucked into wicker baskets, and both lambs and baskets are adorned with red and white ribbons and flowers, white to symbolize purity and red to signify the blood of a martyr. In 2004 St. John Paul II blessed the lambs during a general audience in the Paul VI Hall as both the audience and St. Agnes’ feast day occurred on a Wednesday. (Photo CNA 2016)

Agnes died about 305 and is buried in the basilica named for her on Rome’s Via Nomentana. Historical accounts vary about the birth, life and manner of death of Agnes but generally it isrecounted that, in order to preserve her virginity, she was martyred at a very young age, probably 12. She is usually depicted with a lamb because the Latin word so similar to her name, agnus, means “lamb.” The name Agnes is actually derived from the feminine Greek adjective hagné meaning “chaste, pure.”

A couple of years ago I was intrigued by the January 21 press office communiqué about this event. It had been slightly altered since the announcement the previous day that the Pope would bless “two live baby lambs.” Naturally it was the word “live” that intrigued me – as if he might bless lambs that were no longer alive. That word did not appear the day of the blessings!

In 2011, L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican paper, carried an interview with Sr. Hanna Pomniaowska, one of the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth who prepares the lambs every year for their Vatican visit. This order of nuns has been preparing the baby lambs for over 130 years and it was their founder, Blessed Frances Siedliska, who started this custom in 1884. Up to that date another order of nuns had prepared the lambs but it became difficult when the nuns began to age. At that time the Sisters of the Holy Family took over the duties.

Two lambs are brought to the sisters on January 20 by the Trappist Fathers of Tre Fontane (Three Fountains). The nuns then bring the lambs to the top floor of their residence where there is a terrace with a laundry room where the lambs are washed with delicate soap usually used for children until their wool is white as the driven snow and they are dried with a hair dryer that, in recent years, has replaced the towels they once used.

The nuns are careful to completely dry the lambs so that, at their tender age, they do not fall sick. The room is well heated. After the lambs are dried they are placed in a tub that is covered with straw and closed with canvas so they don’t catch cold. A meal of straw is fed to the lambs who then spend the night in the laundry.

The morning of January 21, the nuns place two small capes on the lambs, one is red to indicate St. Agnes’ martyrdom and the other is white to indicate her virginity. There are also three letters on each mantle: S.A.V. (St. Agnes Virgin) and S.A.M. (St. Agnes Martyr). The sisters weave crowns of interlocking red and white flowers, place them on the baby lambs’ heads, and then put the lambs in a decorated basket. The lambs are tied so they don’t escape. In fact, one of them did escape a few years back, jumping up and running from the altar at St. Agnes basilica.

In the morning the lambs are brought to St. Agnes Basilica where they are placed on the altar and blessed. Following this ceremony, two papal sediari or chair bearers bring the lambs in a van to the Vatican where they are presented to the Holy Father. It is usually the sisters who are celebrating a jubilee of religious vows who are present in the papal residence.

(Here’s a link to a Catholic News Agency story on the 2016 blessing by Francis – there’s also a video: https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/pope-francis-celebrates-saint-agnes-with-blessing-of-lambs-40276)



Pope Francis leaves Wednesday for Panama, his 26th trip outside of Italy, to celebrate the January 22-27 World Youth Day 2019 during which, among other events, he will give seven speeches and celebrate Masses and a penitential liturgy.

Francis will dedicate the altar of Panama’s recently restored 400-year-old cathedral, hold a meeting and break bread with bishops from Central America, and also share a meal with some of the youth at WYD – this is now a traditional event at these celebrations with Pope Francis. In yet another tradition, he will visit a prison and also go to an HIV center. The Holy Father will be in Panama until January 27th.

The youth day theme is: “I am the servant of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.”

Reports from Panama City say that a massive power outage hit Panama on Sunday (Jan 20), three days before the arrival of Pope Francis for a World Youth Day festival, authorities said. The electric power company ETESA said service to various parts of the country had been affected by “an event in the integrated national system.”

“Teams are working to re-establish service as soon as possible,” the company said on Twitter.

ETESA, which gave no details on the cause of the outage, said power would be restored gradually.

Despite the outage, the capital city’s Tocumen International Airport and the busy and vital Panama Canal were able to activate backup systems and maintain normal operations, authorities said.

But water supplies were affected in several parts of the country. The water treatment plant serving Panama City was among those knocked out, the country’s Institute of Aqueducts and Sewers said on Twitter.

Linda Bordoni of Vaticannews reports that hundreds of thousands of young people are converging on Panama City to participate in the 34th World Youth Day, an event that was established by Pope St. John Paul II in 1984.

She presents an interview with Panama’s President Juan Carlos Varela Rodriguez who revealed that preparations to host the event kicked off on July 31, 2016 when Pope Francis wrapped up the World Youth Day in Krakow, Poland, with the announcement that Panama City had been chosen as the next venue.

Describing his people as “noble and hard-working” and “full of faith and hope,” he said that since 2009, when the country was preparing to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the establishment of the first Catholic diocese on the American continent, many began to dream of the possibility of a papal visit to Panama. That dream, he said, has finally come true.

The President also noted that to welcome the Pope – not for a pastoral visit to a particular country – but for an event that gathers thousands of young people from all over the world in one place, is perfectly in keeping with Panama’s vocation to be a bridge and a mediator.

Once again, he said, Panama will be the country that “builds bridges between nations and cultures, a meeting point, a starting point for Pope Francis’s message that will be spread from here to all corners of the earth.”

President Varela went on to explain that as well as prepare from a logistic and organizational point of view, so that the pilgrims will be able to experience this gathering with the Pope in the best possible way, authorities have also tried their best to make sure that they will be able to enjoy what their “small, great nation” has to offer.

“Everything is ready,” he said, “mobility, health and emergency plans are already being communicated to the general public.” A new subway line is working, transportation has been increased and new pedestrian routes have been inaugurated.

“As a Panamanian,” he concluded, “I feel honored that our country will be at the heart of the world for a few days, pumping the Pope’s message of hope, unity, solidarity and concern for those in need.” (interview courtesy vaticannews).