Although its origin is shrouded in the mist of antiquity, the sacramental Agnus Dei is first mentioned in historical Church accounts as early as the sixth century, and referred to frequently by the early to middle ninth century. Thus, for over ten centuries the Agnus Dei has been a popular and treasured sacramental to Catholics, especially to those living in Europe where it was most easily obtained. Yet, regrettably, few Catholics living today have ever even heard of the Agnus Dei.
The name "Agnus Dei" was given to special discs of wax impressed with the figure of a lamb, the "Lamb of God" which were blessed by the reigning Pope in a ceremony so solemn that the Pope was said to consecrate the sacramentals. Popes traditionally consecrated Agnus Deis only during the first year of their pontificate and again every seven years.
In earlier times, on Holy Saturday, the Pope, with the assistance of the Archdeacon of Rome, prepared the wax from the previous year's paschal candles, adding both chrism and balsam to the wax. The Agnus Deis were subsequently consecrated on the Wednesday of Easter week and distributed on Saturday of the same week. In more recent times, the wax was prepared by monks and then consecrated by the Pope and distributed. When visiting Cardinals would visit the Holy Father, an Agnus Dei wax disc (or several of the discs) would be placed into his miter. The Cardinals then distributed the Agnus Deis as they saw fit.
In order to provide a comprehensive look into the meaning and importance of the Agnus Dei, we cite the Catholic Encyclopedia (1913 Edition) as it describes the "Symbolism and Use" of the Agnus Dei.
As in the paschal candle, the wax typifies the virgin flesh of Christ, the cross associated with the lamb suggests the idea of a victim offered in sacrifice, and as the blood of the paschal lamb of old protected each household from the destroying angel, so the purpose of these consecrated medallions is to protect those who wear or possess them from all malign influences. In the prayers of blessing, special mention is made of the perils from storm and pestilence, from fire and flood, and also of the dangers to which women are exposed in childbirth. Miraculous effects have been believed to follow the use of these objects of piety. Fires are said to have been extinguished, and floods stayed (Vol. 1, p. 220).
In a wonderful article by Charles Hugo Doyle, entitled "The Forgotten Sacramental," the author provides a summary of the special virtues of the Agnus Dei, as cited by Popes Urban V, Paul II, Julius III, Sixtus V and Benedict XIV, which include the following benefits:
Needless to say, due to the limited quantity of the Agnus Deis which were available, those which could be obtained were cherished by the faithful and gratefully passed down from generation to generation.
The End Of An Ancient Tradition
Elected to the Chair of Peter in the latter half of 1963, Pope Paul VI is said to have consecrated Agnus Deis in the traditional manner during the Easter season of 1964. According to the ancient tradition, Pope Paul VI would have again consecrated the Agnus Deis during the Easter season of 1971 - inexplicably, he did not. Nor did he ever again consecrate the Agnus Deis. Pope John Paul I, of course, was Supreme Pontiff for only 33 days - and did not consecrate any Agnus Deis.
Nor has Pope John Paul II, closing in on his 20th year as Pope, undertaken to reestablish the Agnus Dei tradition. As is the case with so much of traditional Catholicism subsequent to Vatican Council II, the Agnus Dei was abandoned, probably "in the spirit of the Council" -- just when it became apparent that the sacramental was truly needed.
To the best of our knowledge, no official reason has ever been given by Rome as to why the ancient and revered traditional practice was abandoned.
We can now but pray that the newly elected Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, will resume the renew the ancient and wonderful Agnus Dei sacramental.