JANUARY 21: ST. AGNES, BABY LAMBS AND THE PALLIUM
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 this annual event has again been sidelined because of Covid.
I’ve always loved this story and this feast day and write about it every year on this day. And I can’t wait until it resumes!
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. (CNA file photo)
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 is recounted 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.