Saint Agnes of Montepulciano and the Cross
Saint of Saints
During one of Catherine of Siena's ecstasies, she exclaimed, referring to St. Agnes of Montepulciano: "I give you thanks oh my Lord, for showing me the place that will be mine (in Paradise), next to my sister Agnes."
Who is this Saint (virtually unknown in our country) that a powerful Saint and Doctor of the Church - Catherine of Siena should say this of her?
We're about Holy Clusters again. God is bringing us to Tuscany, once more, ancient Tuscany filled with a history of the greatest Saints and most deplorable sinners. Agnes, one of the great Saints was born in 1268, in a hamlet three miles from Montepulciano, named Gracciano, in the "Villa di Gracciano Vecchio." A Dominican like Catherine, Agnes would die April 20, 1317, thirty years before Catherine of Siena was born. Again, the Church is in crisis; again God sends us powerful men and women Saints!
Agnes was born into the nobility. At age nine, she would ask permission from her parents to enter a monastery of Nuns living a very austere life, in Montepulciano. They were called Le Suore del Sacco, Sacchine or Sisters of the Sackcloth, because of the coarse material of which their habits were made.
Seeing her rapid growth in spirituality, an older Nun, Sister Margaret, steeped in holiness, took over her formation. Agnes was wise beyond her years; so it comes as no surprise that at age fourteen she was asked to be housekeeper. When word came that a Nun was needed to take over a new monastery that was being formed in the town of Proceno, Sister Margaret was chosen. She in turn chose Agnes to be her assistant. The Nuns in Montepulciano were heart-broken, as she had made such a powerful impact on their lives; but they obeyed. Soon Nuns were asking to be sent to the new convent in Proceno, and before long Agnes was asked to become Abbess. Now this needed special permission, as she was so very young. Pope Nicholas IV granted a special dispensation to allow the fifteen year old to be elected Abbess. This is just one example of the many gifts our Saint was given at an early age. She attracted people to her by her spiritual insights and her profound holiness.
The Lord blessed St. Agnes with many miracles during her life. Because of time and space, we will just mention a few, some of the most powerful that occurred in front of the Crucifix.
The Miracle of the Holy Water
Sister. Margaret and Sister Agnes set out with all due haste for Proceno and the new monastery. It was autumn and they were dressed in their coarse habits. They had crossed the Paglia River on the bridge of Centeno, and were climbing up a small hill, densely filled with wild brush. What with the intense noon heat and the difficulty laboring through the thick brush, they began to feel tired. They had an urgency to get to the monastery; they wanted to run, at least keep going. They were so close, they could see through the trees the short distance they had to travel before arriving to their final destination. But the fatigue was greater than their desire. It was above all, Sister Margaret the older Nun, who felt the need to sit down, to regain some new energy. And obedient as always, the younger nun, Sister Agnes, agreed to the older Nun's request.
They were almost there, tired, but happy to be coming to the end of their journey. Feeling a bit parched, they sat down on the trunk of a tree, and Sister Margaret put her hand in the wicker basket and withdrew the straw covered wine bottle. She went to take a sip of water, and to her utter dismay, found it was empty. Agnes noticed this and seeing in the face of the older nun, an expression of disillusionment, without saying a word she took a few steps away from Sister Margaret, knelt down on the dirt, and started to dig with her hands. Scarcely a few seconds had gone by, when a spring of water began to flow. At first it was muddy water then clean and fresh. Agnes took a sip; then invited Sister Margaret, who could not believe her eyes, to come close to the spring to quench her thirst.
The spring no longer exists, nor does the small church built by the people of Proceno over the place where the miracle took place. All that remains, to show the first miracle of St. Agnes, is the name of the place "Acquasanta," (Holy Water in Italian) and a statue of the Saint which guards the entire village.
Prayer and Ecstasy
The life of the Sisters of the Sackcloth of Proceno was serene, lived in prayer and the various daily duties, and work that the Nuns did to try bring in funds to cover the expenses of the monastery. A life of poverty, which was the rule of the Nuns, was a testimony of Sister Agnes, who lived for 15 years with no food other than bread and water, slept on the bare dirt floor, using a stone as a pillow. The Saint ceased this hard regime of penance only when illness debilitated her body so much that the doctors ordered her to cease.
Agnes dedicated herself with passion to prayer, finding through prayer the most appropriate means to feel united to her Divine Spouse, a mystical union which became always more intimate. She was blessed with many extraordinary ecstasies, visions and apparitions. Numerous were Agnes' ecstasies, during which she was taken from this world to enter into a supernatural world. As confessor and spiritual director of the Sisters of the Sackcloth in Montepulciano, Blessed Raymond of Capua speaks of the many ecstasies Agnes had in front of the Crucifix, which is still kept and venerated in her Shrine.
Mother Mary shares the Baby Jesus with Sister Agnes.
On the evening of the Feast of the Assumption, Agnes knelt before the Crucifix and prayed to Our Lady, expressing her desire to be able to see Jesus. Whereupon she had an extraordinary apparition:
"There was a glimmer of light never seen before; rays abounded around the light; and in the middle of the light, there appeared, dressed with the sun and crowned with stars, the Queen of the Universe, with the Son of God, the Baby Jesus in her arms, nestled against Her Holy Breast. Blessed Mother was breast feeding the Baby Jesus. Then Our Lady walked over to Agnes and placed the Baby in her arms. Shaken and a little confused, Agnes took the Baby and embraced Him, drawing Him closer and closer to her. She was overwhelmed with indescribable joy and immersed in a sea of bliss."
(Blessed Raymond of Capua)
At the end of the vision, Our Lady came close to Agnes, to take back the Baby; but Agnes, inebriated with joy from her encounter with the Baby Jesus, wanted that moment to last an eternity. Rather than relinquishing Him to His Mother, she held Him all the more closer, so tightly Our Lady had to almost literally pull the Baby from her hands with force. But as she was resignedly letting go of the Divine Infant, Agnes succeeded in grasping a small Cross which, attached to a thin thread, was hanging from around His Precious Little Neck. The Vision disappeared, but the Cross remained in the hand of the Saint, leaving Agnes in such a state of exhilaration that the sisters, who ran at the sound of her cry, found her prostrated on the ground, unconscious.
Agnes and her Eucharistic Christ
During the life of the Saint, the Church was emphasizing the theology of the Sacraments, thanks to the great masters of theology most in demand during the Saint's lifetime, St. Albert the Great, St. Bonaventure, and Saint Thomas Aquinas. In particular was the Eucharist which was (and is) the center of worship of the faithful, stressing above all, the Real Presence of Our Lord Jesus in the Consecrated Host and Chalice. Only a few years before the Saint was born, the Miracle of the Eucharist of Bolsena (not far from Montepulciano) occurred. It is almost a certainty that the young Agnes knew about this Miracle, which strengthened her faith and devotion to the Eucharist.
Blessed Raymond of Capua writes about one Sunday at dawn. The Saint was in the monastery's garden, kneeling before the Crucifix, away from everyone, immersed in prayer. She went into such a deep state of ecstasy, that way into the night, she was still on her knees in the olive garden. Now the sisters never dared to interrupt her while she was in prayer. They had tried a couple of times, the first year, but Agnes had reproached them, very decisively admonishing them never to disturb her prayer for any reason whatsoever.
The sun was setting when Agnes finally came out of the ecstasy and remembered that it was Sunday. Now her soul was devastated! She was profoundly remorseful for not having participated in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. But as she was weeping, there appeared before her an Angel offering her a Consecrated Host. Jesus, Whom she had kept company all day in prayer did not wish to deprive her of Himself in the Eucharist. This Miracle repeated itself exactly the same for ten consecutive Sundays.
"Agnes, whom God wanted to guide to perfection, deserved to receive the Body of Christ from the hands of an Angel many times." (Blessed Raymond of Capua)
The sisters gave testimony to this miracle, just as it has been related. They also testified they heard Agnes talk about it as if she was talking of the Divine world; and although the Saint spoke about it obscurely, the sisters from her time related the event very clearly.
Miracles of the Cross
Throughout the life of the Saint, Our Lord Jesus would come alive on the Cross during St. Agnes' ecstasies. It was during these times that He would reveal to her matters which were of great importance to her regarding her own spiritual walk in the community life, or in the Church. Very often, she would levitate to the Cross during her ecstasies. And it was to this Crucifix, which in a state of ecstasy the Saint levitated, embraced and placed her lips on Jesus' Side. (from the Chronicles of the Monastery)
A Chapel of the Crucifix was built in 1557 in her church in Montepulciano, and in it was placed the Crucifix that had been in Saint Agnes' chapel during her lifetime. It was this Crucifix that spoke many times to the Saint.
The Foretelling of Illness
Agnes had been in Proceno nearly fifteen years, when she became enraptured in one of her frequent ecstasies, listening to Jesus as He spoke to her from the Miraculous Cross. At this time, He prophesied a long and painful illness, which she would have to endure.
As Sister Agnes continued to kneel before the Crucifix, Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to her seated on a high throne, surrounded by an army of Angels, forming a crown. The angels were singing in a marvelous harmony the Marian sequence "Vernans rosa, spes humilium, propitia..." (Spring rose, hope of the humble, benevolent, compassionate,). While contemplating the Vision, her heart filled with indescribable joy, the Saint's attention was suddenly drawn to the surprising demeanor of some of the Angels! They were fanning Our Lady's face, so as to give her relief from what appeared to be some kind of extreme heat. Agnes struggled to understand the significance of the Angels fanning Our Lady, since the Virgin Mary in the glory of Paradise certainly would not feel suffering or physical discomfort like cold or heat.
Shortly after this mysterious Vision, Agnes began to notice the first symptoms of an illness "which was affecting her limbs, and most especially her head." This illness and pain would be her companion the rest of her life until her death.
The Saint came to understood the full meaning of the Vision, especially the part about the Angels, which had left her perplexed: God, by allowing her to see the fanning of Our Lady's face, seemed to be endeavoring to tell her:
"You will have to sustain the grief of a grave illness, but will have the sweet comfort of My Grace; you will suffer serenely each adversity, without the affliction of impatience." (taken from her biography by Bl. Raymond of Capua)
The sudden appearance of the illness deeply disturbed the doctors, who, immediately attempted to impose on Agnes, an end to the harsh penance to which she had been subjecting herself for some time. Only the orders of the doctors and the insistence of the Nuns convinced her, although unwillingly, to abandon the exhaustive fasting, and instead of resting on the bare dirt to do so on a real bed. Only the understandable consolation of the Nuns, who awaited her quick healing helped her carry out their wishes.
Life of Charity
It was not mandatory for the Sisters of the Sackcloth to be cloistered, so there are various testimonies speaking of Agnes and the Sisters maintaining a good relationship with the people in town. Whenever their presence was needed they would always be there to offer a word of comfort and whatever type of assistance they could offer. The monastery was visited not only by benefactors and relatives, who brought offerings in the form of monetary donations and food; but also by many poor people with whom the Sisters willingly shared the gifts which the Good God in His Providence never allowed them to be without.
The first biography of the Saint recalls that numerous times in the monastery the bread bin was empty, the oil jug dry, and they had no funds. Certainly it had nothing to do with lack of donations that were given to the monastery. In addition, some of the sisters came from rather wealthy families, as well as the nobility. These conditions existed because of the great generosity of the Sisters who never sent anyone away empty-handed nor poor pilgrims without food.
Agnes trusted in the infinite and boundless abundance of Divine Providence, and every time the provisions were about to run out, God's help always came to their aid.
One winter day, some hermits, who lived in a hermitage not far from Proceno, and were known for their holiness, were passing by the town. They wanted to meet the Prioress about whom they had heard so much. They visited the monastery; whereupon Agnes received them and spent a considerable amount of time teaching them about the mysteries of the Faith and how to follow the road to holiness. At the end of their visit, she invited them to eat something and she sat with them at the prepared table. The guests observed with curiosity that while their plates were served full of food, the plate belonging to the Prioress was empty. But they did not dare say anything regarding this. Besides, they did not want to stop the edifying power-charged conversation. Suddenly on Agnes' plate a rose appeared, a full-blown rose of sweet perfume and a rainbow of colors.
The hermits were amazed and shared their awe and wonder. The Saint became aware that the Miracle was being attributed to her merits. She quickly put that to rest. In the midst of painful embarrassment, true humility made her promptly share the following explanation:
"Our omnipotent and merciful Lord, graciously has willed to send, now that is cold and winter, a summer flower, fresh and fragrantly perfumed, because you, with the fire of your charity, have inflamed our hearts with your love of God and because of your adoption of the Saints' examples of holiness, have strengthened and affirmed the teaching of chaste life, which you have kindly dwelled upon. You all have said that is not for you, but it is to you that Our Lord has sent the rose.'
"They all agreed that they had to, with all of the strength of their hearts, give thanks and praise to God, Author of all Miracles."
Agnes was always prompt to assist anyone in need. One time she went to give assistance to a relative, who was possessed by the devil. As soon as the Saint arrived and was in the presence of the possessed, he began to have tremendous convulsions, and the devil using his voice yelled: "I cannot remain here anymore, because the virgin Agnes has entered." Then after a few moments the body of the poor man fell onto the ground and remained motionless, freed from the presence that had overtaken him. After awhile the relative was revived and wanted the Saint to remain so that he could show his gratitude; but after inviting everyone to give thanks to God from Whom all Miracles come, and cautioning them not to attribute the Miracle to her, Agnes returned in a hurry to the monastery.
The people of Montepulciano were anxious for their famous daughter to return to their town. And when she was approached, she gladly consented to have them build a convent for her and some of her Sisters. Though they had been living the Augustinian Rule, she felt, for the permanence of the Community, she and her Sisters should be part of an Order and so she chose the Dominican Order. The convent was finished in Montepulciano and Agnes left Proceno. Upon her arrival at the new convent she was immediately installed as Prioress, a position she occupied until her death. Miracles, prophecies and cures came about through the Saint. Although she was in excruciating pain for most of her later years, it did not interfere with her apostolate and the convent flourished under her direction.
Before her crippling illness, an Angel appeared to her one day, and bringing her over to an olive tree, offered her a drink from a chalice, instructing her: "Drink this chalice spouse of Christ; the Lord Jesus drank it for you."
Agnes submitted to all sorts of cures, in response to her Sisters' pleading; but finally, mercifully, it was time to go Home! She addressed the weeping Nuns around her bed:
"If you loved me, you would be glad because I am about to enter the Glory of my Spouse. Do not grieve over my departure; I shall not lose sight of you. You will find that I have not abandoned you and you will possess me forever."
Saint Agnes was forty-nine years old, when she died.
Countless pilgrims have venerated the Saint's incorrupt body, over the centuries, including such as St. Catherine of Siena and King Charles the 5th.
When Saint Catherine came to venerate Saint Agnes' body, and went to kiss her feet, St. Agnes' left foot rose to meet her lips; and it is still raised for all to see, hundreds of years later. Another time, when St. Catherine came to pray before her body, Saint Agnes showered down white Crosses, not unlike manna from Heaven. Miracles upon miracles abounded through the Saint's intercession, and the Church in Montepulciano is filled with ex-votos thanking the Saint for favors received.
King Charles the 5th came and knelt before the body of Saint Agnes. But as he had not converted, as yet, she told him to visit a priest and convert; then come back
Saint Agnes was canonized in 1726. She was truly a role model, a Saint's Saint. Saints wanted to be near her, to absorb some of the holiness she radiated. Kings wanted to be close to her; rank and file, brothers and sisters like you and me want to be close to her. Why? Because she illuminated the love of, and power of, Our Lord Jesus to all who came to her. She is one of many role models in this book, and among the many other Saints about whom we have written. There is one there for you, and for me. Embrace your role model. Follow him/her to the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus will be waiting to welcome you Home.
About the Authors:
Bob and Penny Lord are renowned Catholic authors of many best selling books about the Catholic Faith. They are hosts on EWTN Global Television and have written over 25 books. They are best known as the authors of “Miracles of the Eucharist books.” They have been dubbed, “Experts on the Saints.”