by Kainoa Fukumoto
On this day every year, I think about my first trip to Rome. Those of you who will be joining EPIC on our Italy Pilgrimage 2020 will be visiting and seeing some of the world's most impressive churches and incredible works of art. Rome is stooped in so much history and culture that it's very easy to get lost in it all.
One evening, a small group of us decided to have a nice dinner at an unassuming little Italian restaurant off the Piazza Navona, blessed with a great view of its 17th-century Fountain of Four Rivers (also one of my favorite fountains in Rome). After placing our orders, I decided to take an evening stroll around the piazza while waiting for our food to arrive.
I didn't walk too far when I heard a very familiar song faintly playing off in the distance. I couldn't quite place it immediately, but I decided to follow it. As I neared the music, I found it led me to a beautiful quaint church that I never noticed in previous visits to the piazza earlier in the week (and by "quaint," I mean in comparison to the other churches in Rome; this church was still probably twice the size of OLS).
Lit votive candles lined the steps up to the church's vestibule. As I ascended the steps, the music became clearer and clearer. Upon entering the church, the first thing I noticed was it was full of young people! I had been traveling on this pilgrimage with people three times my age, so this was a welcome sight. They were all kneeling, and when I looked up at the altar, I realized this was a Eucharistic adoration. Immediately, I found a pew and joined them in adoration.
The music played on and on. It was then I finally realized why the music had sounded so familiar to me. They were singing praise and worship songs, like "Here I Am to Worship", in Italian! The music, Eucharistic adoration, and the candle-lit atmosphere was already enough to lift my spirit to a new high, but something pulled me closer to the altar.
On a little plaque, I found out that the church was dedicated to St. Agnes, who I knew nothing about. Luckily, there was a book in the back of the church that spoke about this 3rd-century saint. St. Agnes was born into a wealthy family and blossomed into a beautiful young girl who caught the eye of many high-ranking suitors. But even at a very young age, she declared that her heart belong to Jesus.
During that time, Christianity was illegal. Many people tried to force her to denounce her faith until finally she was threatened with death. Still, her faith held firm. There are several legends that surround her end circumstances. When some men attempted to rape her, an angel protected her innocence. When they tried to drag her through the streets naked, her hair miraculously grew in order to keep her from being exposed. When they tried to tie her to the stake and burn her alive, one account says the fire couldn't start, while another account says the flames parted and didn't touch her. She was finally beheaded by the sword.
The one detail that stood out to me, however, was she was only 12 or 13 years old! The faith she possessed at such a young age and through a tumultuous time was inspiring. I could see why so many young people were drawn to her church, built on the place where she was said to have been martyred and her remains kept under the high altar. During her martyrdom, witnesses commented on the radiant joy that shone from her face.
I didn't want to leave. I felt that same deep joy for Christ swelling in my heart. I'm sure I could have easily stayed there all night, but I thought my dinner pals would worry about me and I didn't want my dinner getting cold, so I went back to dinner. But after dinner, I returned to St. Agnes. And a couple other times during that trip, I returned again and again, and I was sure to return during my second trip to Rome.
Today is the feast of St. Agnes, patroness of young girls, chastity, and rape survivors. There were many grand and captivating places in Rome, such as St. Peter's Square and Basilica or the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel, but none captured my heart quite like St. Agnes on the Piazza Navona.
This small church is one of my biggest inspirations to looking forward to our pilgrimage in 2020.