St. Agnes Virgin and Martyr
Pope Benedict blesses two lambs on the occasion of the Feast of St. Agnes. In Rome, this is an annual tradition and here's a brief description of what happens.
Feast of St. Agnes in Rome By: S. Sheila Browne, RSM, Coordinator of the Office of Worship, Diocese of Rockville Centre
In January 2006, I had the opportunity to be in Rome and was able to participate in the Eucharist at the church of St. Agnes Outside the Walls on her feast day. What a good experience it was! This is the church where the traditional blessing of two lambs takes place. (Agnes is a derivative of the Latin word “agnus” which means “lamb”).
Before Mass began, people gathered in a beautiful anteroom of the church where two lambs were nestled in baskets. One had a garland of white roses and the letters AV (Agnes, virgin), the other a garland of red roses and the letters AM (Agnes, martyr). As you can see from the pictures below, the lambs were much admired, especially by the children who were present! When Mass began, the lambs were borne in the Entrance Procession, placed upon the altar and blessed by the Cardinal. There was much snapping of pictures, but I wasn’t quick enough to get a good picture of this! After the blessing they were taken out of the church, and mass continued. The congregation was quite culturally diverse, and they sang very well!
These two lambs were brought to the Carmelite monastery in Rome, and at Easter time their wool was shorn. This wool is used to make the pallium, a stole-like vestment which is worn by Archbishops. More images from here.
The Story of St. Agnes
Agnes was born of a noble Roman family--probably the Clodia Crescentiana. About age 10, Agnes consecrated herself to Christ, probably with her parent's permission, otherwise she would have been forced to marry the man of her father's choosing. It is likely that her father was also a Christian. About age 12 or 13, she rejected the advances of the son of a high official (the Prefect Maximum Herculeus?) with the words, "The one to whom I am betrothed is Christ whom the angels serve. He was the first to choose me. I shall be His alone." Thereupon she was denounced as a Christian.
Gill reports another version that says the prefect's son was attracted by her beauty and wealth, sought her hand in marriage, and was rebuffed because she had given her life to Christ 'to whom I keep my troth.' When he pressed her and she still refused his suit, he complained to her father, who, greatly disturbed when he discovered she was a Christian, considered her mad and treated her as such. She was urged by her family to submit, and when she still refused, they planned to make her a vestal virgin in a Roman temple. But young though she was, she showed great maturity and a determined will, "Do you think that I shall dedicate myself to gods of senseless stone!" "You are only a child," they replied. "I may be a child," she answered, "but faith dwells not in years, but in the heart" (Gill). In Gill's version, when it was realized that they could not prevail, they removed her clothes and thrust her into the open street, where, in shame, she loosened her hair to cover her nakedness.
Everyone thought that the sight of the tools of torture would cause Agnes to waver; when these elicited joy rather than terror in her, the governor became enraged and threatened to send her to a house of prostitution. "You may," said Agnes, "stain your sword with my blood; but you will never be able to profane my body, consecrated to Christ."
In all versions she was thrown into a brothel, but untouched because of her meekness and purity. She is said to have had blonde hair that was long enough to cover her nakedness (or spontaneously grew to do so) or that an angel brought her a robe, white as snow, to cover her body. Because of her declaration that God would not allow her body to be profaned, men were afraid to touch her. One man who was rude to her was suddenly blinded, but she restored his sight by prayer. More from here.