What the Virgin Martyrs really teach us

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Virgin Martyrs
Sts. Vincentia, Valeria, Crispina, Lucia and Cecilia are depicted with jeweled robes and crowns in the sixth century mosaic, Procession of Virgin Martyrs. Public domain

The lives of Sts. Cecilia, Agatha, Agnes, Anastasia and Lucy have resonated across centuries.

These female virgin martyrs of the early Church are all named in the Roman Canon — Eucharistic Prayer I in the Mass — and have been venerated by the Christian faithful for nearly two millennia.

“The stories of the virgin martyrs all point to — all represent — the story of Jesus. That is what makes them holy,” said Father Michael Fuller, the executive director of the Secretariat of Doctrine and Canonical Affairs of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Many female virgin martyrs have been canonized for dying in defensum castitatis (“defending their chastity”). A notable and well-known example is St. Maria Goretti, who was 11 years old when was she was fatally stabbed 14 times on July 5, 1902, while resisting her would-be rapist. On her deathbed, she forgave her assailant and said she wanted him in heaven with her.

St. Cecilia (2nd-3rd Century A.D.)

St. CeciliaBorn into a rich Roman family, Cecilia was to be given in marriage to a young man named Valerian. But desiring to remain a virgin for Christ, Cecilia wore sackcloth, fasted and invoked the saints, angels and virgin martyrs to protect herself.

According to legend, her example converted Valerian, who respected her desire to remain a virgin. Valerian, his brother and Cecilia were killed by the prefect when they refused to offer a sacrifice to the Roman gods. The executioner is said to have unsuccessfully attempted to behead Cecilia, who died three days later.

An early Roman church dedicated to Cecilia’s memory was built in the fourth century in Rome’s Trastevere section. She is considered the patroness of musicians. Church officials exhumed her body in 1599 and found her to be incorrupt. Her feast day is Nov. 22.

In September, the Church beatified two 20th-century women — Blesseds Veronica Antal of Romania and Anna Kolesarova of Slovakia — who were killed while fighting off men who tried to sexually assault them.

Properly understood and carefully presented, the ancient and more recently canonized virgin martyrs bear great value for evangelization.

“This is because — like all the old legends of the saints — their stories were told in such a way that the hearer would see Christ better,” said Father Fuller, author of the book “The Virgin Martyrs: A Hagiographical and Mystagogical Interpretation.”

Father Fuller told Our Sunday Visitor that the virgin martyrs, with their stories of heroic selflessness, nonviolent resistance to evil and single-minded focus on Jesus, all point to Christ as the center of their lives.

“Martyrs retell of the victory of the cross,” Father Fuller said.

St. Maria Goretti
Worshippers venerate the relics of St. Maria Goretti at St. John Cantius Church in Chicago in 2015. The major relics, which are virtually all of the skeletal remains of the saint, known as the “patroness of purity,” visited nearly 20 states on a U.S. “pilgrimage of mercy” in the fall of 2015. CNS photo by Karen Callaway, Chicago Catholic


Virtue of love

However, the virgin martyrs’ stories sometimes have been told — by well-meaning people — in a manner that would have some believe that those young women were saints mainly because they managed not to be raped. To modern ears, St. Maria Goretti’s martyrdom can send the unintended message that a young girl or woman who survives a sexual assault would have been better off being killed for the sake of purity and the state of her soul.

“It is absolutely true that, up until very recently, it would be easy to get the message from the Church that a girl’s value is in her virginity, and once she lost her virginity, she now has less value,” said Simcha Fisher, a Catholic author and blogger.

In 2015, Fisher wrote a controversial blog, entitled “Maria Goretti Didn’t Die for Her Virginity,” in which she argued that the young Italian girl was more worried about her attacker, Alessandro Serenelli, and his salvation than she was on preserving her virginity, for which the young saint often has been praised for protecting.

St. Agatha (A.D. 231-251)

St. AgathaOne of the Church’s highly venerated virgin martyrs, Agatha is believed to have been born around A.D. 231 in Sicily to a noble family.Devout from a young age, Agatha became a consecrated virgin, but that did not stop men from desiring her and making unwanted advances. One of her would-be suitors, a diplomat named Quintianus, had Agatha arrested for her persistent refusals.

As her judge, Quintianus had Agatha imprisoned in a brothel, but that move failed to break Agatha. She was later tortured, stretched on a rack, burned with torches, whipped, had her breasts cut off, was stripped naked and rolled over hot coals. But those tortures never led Agatha to apostatize. She died in prison around A.D. 251. She is the patroness of nurses and breast cancer patients. Her feast day is Feb. 5.

“In the case of Maria Goretti, and this is something I always try to point out to people, she didn’t say, ‘No, spare my virginity. Don’t do this to me,'” Fisher told OSV. “Maria was basically asking Alessandro to spare himself. She was saying that it was a mortal sin for him to rape her, and that he shouldn’t do this to himself. She was demonstrating the greatest virtue, which is love.”

Some of Fisher’s critiques have been echoed by other Catholic female writers, including Dawn Eden Goldstein, a theologian and author of “The Thrill of the Chaste” and “My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints.”

“With the saints, they’re not just martyred for the witness of one moment. They’re martyred for their witness of an entire life,” Goldstein told OSV. “It has to be proven that they had heroic virtue, and Maria showed heroic virtue, not merely in resisting rape but in her attitude toward life and her attitude toward her union with God.”

Father Carlos Martins, a Companion of the Cross priest who is an expert biographer on St. Maria Goretti, told OSV that it is St. Maria Goretti’s heroic virtue that has inspired the faithful, including victims of sexual assault.

“Many have told me that hearing the story of her witness brought them from a status of being merely someone’s victim, an object that was used and thrown away, to being able to view their attacker with the love of God,” Father Martins said. “‘Father, I am now able to forgive my attacker,’ many have told me or written me. ‘I forgive him, and I pity him.'”

Father Martins, who is the director of the Treasures of the Church ministry, a traveling collection of thousands of sacred relics, also said that St. Maria Goretti, in the forgiveness she extended to Alessandro, “reveals to victims that victimhood need not define them.”

“Forgiveness was the way in which Maria, who for all intents and purposes appeared completely powerless in the face of her attacker, entered into a mystery: a complete and total imitation the one she loved: Christ, who is our Passover Lamb,” Father Martins said. “Yet it was this very act that empowered her, for in becoming configured to the Mystery of Christ, he was able to manifest through her in a dazzling display of redemptive power.”

Historical context

In the Church, especially in its earliest days, Father Fuller said virginity and purity were understood as great spiritual gifts. Both were praised as some of the highest ways a person could imitate Christ and devote themselves to serving him.

Father Fuller added that he wrote his book on the virgin martyrs to better understand why the Church has honored them for almost 2,000 years.

“They were venerated because they were martyrs — saints who imitated Christ even by dying,” Father Fuller said. “In each of their stories, their virginity and promise not to marry was only the beginning of their story.”

St. Lucy (A.D. 283-304)

St. LucyAccording to tradition, Lucy was born to rich and noble parents in Syracuse. At a young age, she consecrated her virginity to God and hoped to distribute her dowry to the poor. Concerned for her, Lucy’s mother arranged for her to be betrothed to a young man from a wealthy pagan family.

Legend has it that St. Agatha, who had been martyred around 50 years earlier, appeared to Lucy in a dream to tell her that her mother would be cured from a bleeding disorder. In thanksgiving, Lucy had her mother distribute a greater portion of her riches among the poor.

The news angered Lucy’s betrothed, who reported her to the governor. Lucy was sentenced to death for refusing to burn a sacrifice to the emperor’s image. She was killed by the sword, and is the patroness of the blind, related to a legend about the governor ordering her eyes to be gouged out. Her feast day is Dec. 13.

To better understand their evangelistic value, some historical context is important. The age of the virgin martyrs lies between the apostolic era and the time of the Church Fathers. Knowing the social and cultural backdrop of the early Roman Empire in which they lived also can help one to appreciate exactly what the Church honors in the virgin martyrs.

“Roman law forbade a woman to remain unmarried. She was property of a male, either of her own father or of her husband,” Father Martins said. “She had to marry. As property, she could also not own her own property. For this reason, a widow was not free to remain unmarried. She had to remarry.

“Put simply, every woman had to belong to a male due to the fact that the law only recognized her as a male’s legal appendage,” Father Martins added.

Into that Roman world, the Church introduced radical ideas about a woman’s dignity. From the beginning, Father Martins said the Church insisted on a woman’s right to remain unmarried, and created some space for women to pursue their own interests, including joining early monasteries where they could live out what they saw as a mystical marriage to Christ.

“The early virgin martyrs were heroes. They were brilliant women and girls who knew that they were daughters and brides of God. They didn’t accept that they were second-class citizens, only fit to be a man’s property,” said Mary Pezzulo, a Catholic author who writes the “Steel Magnificat” blog on Patheos.

The virgin martyrs in the first-century Roman world “had the revolutionary idea that they could belong to Christ as much as a man could, in their own way,” Pezzulo told OSV. “So they stood up to the most powerful empire in the world, and they suffered horribly because of it, and they died. That’s an amazing example for all of us. There’s nothing wishy-washy about it.”

According to ancient sources and Church tradition, rich and powerful Roman noblemen, who were non-Christians, desired the virgin martyrs. They pursued and offered them marriage. When the martyrs refused their overtures, the men handed the Christian women over to the authorities to be imprisoned, tortured and killed.

“Their crime wasn’t that they were virgins, but that they were Christians,” said Father Fuller, who added that St. Maria Goretti was killed because she believed in Christ and his example of love for others.

“I think we need to return to the focus of these saints being martyrs first and virgins second, and those saints who are classified as virgins should also be understood as witnesses to Christ,” Father Fuller said. “None of them should be used as a lesson in proper behavior. The consecrated life of virginity is, like marriage, one of the paths to holiness.”

#MeToo culture context

But since those early days in Church history, the radical commitment to Christ and the courageous devotion the virgin martyrs demonstrated in their lives have, at times, been deemphasized. Instead, they have been frequently held up as examples for young people, girls especially, to hold on to their chastity and sexual purity.

“A hagiographer can take a story and make it boring, or make it nothing but an ‘Improving Moral Story’ to teach young girls why they shouldn’t have sex with their boyfriends,” Pezzulo said. “They can make such beautiful women seem wishy-washy and prudish. That’s a terrible shame, and not at all a Catholic approach.”

And in light of recent news stories about powerful men in the United States abusing their positions to prey on women and related cultural developments such as the #MeToo movement, Pezzulo and others said the Church needs to examine the way that sexual assault is discussed.

“Obviously, if you read the Catechism and you know how the Church understands sin, we know that victims of sexual assault incur no guilt. They couldn’t,” Pezzulo said. “Nobody can sin without choosing to. But in practice, the way we talk about such things, especially to children, often leads them to imply that they are.”

Lillian Vogl, another Catholic blogger on Patheos who has written about the subject, told OSV that the Church needs to “be very clear” when teaching about the virgin martyrs so as to not make sexual assault survivors feel ashamed or think that they somehow sinned because they couldn’t fight off their assailants.

St. Agnes (A.D. 291-304)
St. Agnes
Public domain

Agnes was born near the end of the third century to a wealthy family in Rome. Renowned for her beauty, Agnes’ hand in marriage was highly sought-after, but she had promised her virginity to God and would say, “Jesus Christ is my only spouse.”

According to the legends, those spurned young men reported her to the authorities as a Christian. The governor promised her gifts if she would deny God, and he put her in chains, but Agnes, though barely a teenager, remained firm in her faith.

Some early legends say she was ordered to be dragged through the streets naked, but that her hair grew instantly to cover her body. What is known for sure is that she died by beheading in January A.D. 304. She is a patron saint for those seeking chastity and purity. Her feast day is Jan. 21.

“Choosing a life of virginity is a good thing. Many saints were consecrated religious and others who chose virginity for the kingdom,” Vogl said. “The problem is when you talk about martyrdom for the sake of virginity. It’s just completely wrong theology. There is really no sin committed when you are a victim of sexual assault.”

In researching her book, “My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints,” Goldstein discovered there were early canonized virgin martyrs who were raped before being killed.

“At its center, chastity is spiritual, so if someone is willing union with God but they’re forced to do something that is wrong with their body, they’re not truly sinning, because it’s unwilling, and their heart is still with God,” Goldstein said.

Writing in “The City of God,” St. Augustine of Hippo emphasized this point: “Nothing that another person does with the body, or upon the body, is any fault of the person who suffers it, so long as he cannot escape it without sin.”

Father Fuller said he does not think it has ever been the intention of anyone in the Church to present the virgin martyrs in a way that would suggest that women are better off dead than being raped.

“But I think that was too often the simplistic presentation of the virgin martyrs given to many people,” said Father Fuller, who added that, in modern times, Catholics mostly have rejected the old hagiographic stories of the saints and replaced them with “more reasonable-sounding” interpretations or explanations.

“We have abandoned the miraculous and tried to implement some ‘moral’ to the story,” Father Fuller said. “But these old stories of the saints — the virgin martyrs included — were meant to inspire and uplift us to see Christ and his great sacrifice, his great love for us, his great mercy and forgiveness.”

A martyr’s ‘whole witness’

Pope Pius XII praised St. Maria Goretti’s piety, virtue, courage and holiness during the Mass of her canonization on June 24, 1950, in St. Peter’s Square, which was packed with thousands of the faithful.

“From Maria’s story, carefree children and young people with their zest for life can learn not to be led astray by attractive pleasures, which are not only ephemeral and empty but also sinful. Instead they can fix their sights on achieving Christian moral perfection, however difficult and hazardous that course may prove,” the pope said.

People gather to view and venerate the relics of St. Maria Goretti following a morning Mass at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston in 2015. CNS photo by Gregory L. Tracy

Speaking to an audience that included St. Maria Goretti’s mother and Alessandro Serenelli — who had a conversion, became a Franciscan Capuchin lay brother and accompanied the young saint’s mother — the pontiff also referred to St. Maria as a “sweet little martyr of purity.”

“With splendid courage she surrendered herself to God and his grace and so gave her life to protect her virginity,” he said.

Reading the entirety of the pontiff’s homily, Goldstein said, one finds “some profound things that really refer to Maria’s Eucharistic life.”

“He says the Holy Spirit desired to enrich Maria with special graces and extraordinary privileges, increasing her sanctity every day by means of natural and visible things, how he drew her gently and sweetly to invisible and heavenly joys,” Goldstein said. “Looking past that pietistic language, we see he’s giving a message that Maria took ordinary, everyday things in her life and saw God in them.

“It’s a shame that in the wake of that speech, people forgot about the finding God in all things aspect of Maria that Pius XII wished to emphasize,” Goldstein added.

“They seized upon just the moment of her martyrdom and used it in a way that would make it the Church’s message against unchastity. What this had the effect of doing was telling the public that you could only be a saint if you resisted rape, and if you didn’t resist rape unto death, then you were not a saint. That’s never been the true message of the Church.”

Arleen Spenceley, a Catholic speaker and author of the book, “Chastity is for Lovers: Single, Happy, and (Still) a Virgin,” told OSV that she always has been drawn to St. Maria Goretti’s story for the forgiveness she extended to Alessandro.

“Even as a chastity writer and speaker, I’ve never been drawn to her story because of the chastity or virginity element. I don’t see the virtue of chastity as the most important part of her story,” Spenceley said. “I’m particularly moved by the story of Maria Goretti’s mom and murderer attending the canonization together. That, to me, is the ultimate example of love and forgiveness.”

Modern Virgin Martyr

On Sept. 1, 2018, Anna Kolesarova was beatified as a martyr in Slovakia, 74 years after the 16-year-old peasant girl was shot in front of her family for resisting rape by a drunken Soviet soldier. Born in former Czechoslovakia on July 14, 1928, Anna lived a devout life. Her mother died when she was young, so Anna took over the household chores while often attending daily Mass and Rosary services with her father and older brother.

On Nov. 22, 1944, the Soviet army captured her village. While wearing her mother’s black dress to disguise her age, Anna took refuge in the cellar. When a drunken soldier entered their house and demanded food be brought to him, Anna did so at her father’s request. However, the soldier grabbed her and tried to rape her. When Anna struggled, he put a gun to her head. Records say she called goodbye to her father and invoked the names of Jesus, Mary and Joseph before the soldier shot her twice through the head.

Due to the political climate, she was buried at night in a makeshift coffin before receiving a proper funeral a week later by the parish priest, who added a note to the register of deaths: Hostia santae castitalis (“sacrifice of purity”). After the 1989 collapse of communist rule, Anna’s grave became a site of pilgrimage for many Slovak youth.

During the beatification Mass, Cardinal Giovanni Angelo Becciu, prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, recognized Anna’s ability to choose virtue even in a life-or-death situation: “Anna Kolesarova arrived prepared for martyrdom thanks to her robust spiritual life, nourished by daily prayer and attendance to the sacraments. Her faith made her strong and courageous in accepting martyrdom without hesitation. The Church in Slovakia can be proud of her daughter, who today is proposed as a model of life for believers, especially young people, to rediscover the beauty of authentic love, as well as the value of purity.” She is the first layperson from Slovakia to be beatified.

In testifying at the hearings for St. Maria Goretti’s beatification, Alessandro Serenelli said his victim’s appeals to him during the attack were for the safety of his soul, warning him that he would be sinning. Her example — and a dream six years after her death in which she appeared to Alessandro holding 14 lilies — set Alessandro on a path to conversion.

“There is now a movement to start a cause for his beatification, because he went on to live a transfigured life of holiness,” Father Martins said. “Thus, in the end, who overpowered who: the girl or the would-be rapist?”

Like the other countless virgin martyrs before and since her death, St. Maria Goretti’s story is not one of weakness or not resisting evil.

“It is the story of a young girl who had a Christlike concern for the sinner and a Christlike forgiveness of her murderer,” Father Fuller said. “That is the true story of Maria Goretti. And when it is forgotten or told in such a way that her imitation of Christ by her concern for the sinner is left out, then her whole witness to Christ is lost as well.”

Brian Fraga is contributing editor for Our Sunday Visitor.

Brian Fraga

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.