In Praise of Virgin Martyrs

Friday Homily commemorating St Maria Goretti given at St Dyfrig’s, using I Cor 6: 13-5 & 17-20 and John 12:24-26

“The Catholic Church thinks it is better to be a dead virgin than a rape survivor.”

In these scornful words, a media commentator dismissed the kind of saint which we celebrate today: the virgin martyr.

Saint Maria Goretti represents a special class of martyr: those who have died protecting their virginity. We have many accounts from twenty centuries of Christianity of those who resisted the cultural pressure for a woman to marry and incurred the wrath of kings or violent guardians, not least our own St Winefride in Wales. More recently, the church has canonised or beatified women who were fatally injured while resisting sexual assault – Blessed Laura Vicuña, Blessed Pierina Morosini, and today’s martyr, at the tender age of eleven, Saint Maria Goretti.

In our generation, we are acutely aware of the rights of women. Government campaigns have proclaimed that “No means No” and I remember Edinburgh City Centre being plastered with “Zero Tolerance” (of violence against women) banners in the early 90s. It fits well with the spirit of our age, that each human being has the right to refuse the unwanted advances of others, and that violation of anyone’s body is a serious crime.

This message of personal freedom, though, obscures a deeper Christian message. St Paul wrote in today’s Epistle that our bodies are not our own – they belong to the Lord, and that we, as members of His body, are called to use our sexual freedom in ways which give him the greatest honour. This adds a second motivation for resisting a sexual assault – not only does it protect one’s own dignity, but it also honours God who calls us to keep our bodies to be given to one another only in vowed marriage. The Book of Revelation (14:4 gives us a glimpse of a special category of saint, those who died as virgins for the sake of the Lord.

In Danny Boyle’s film, Millionsthe lead character is an adolescent boy preoccupied with the heroic example of Catholic saints, but incredulous at the idea of “virgin martyrs”. I think the boy had trouble believing that any girl would want to stay a virgin. We, as adults, face a different challenge: to see the special value in God’s eyes of preserving one’s virginity, over and above the message of respect for women which demands “Zero Tolerance”.

When the Church beatifies or canonizes a virgin martyr who has died resisting sexual advances, it always does so because the woman’s motivation is clear: she is a witness of faithfulness to God in the face of extreme provocation. In these rare cases we see a woman so devoted to God that there can be no question of choosing submission to evil as a means of survival; she has internalised the same principle beloved of St Dominic Savio – “Death, but not sin.”

The Catholic Church does believe that if we are confronted with a life-or-death moral choice, it is better to enter heaven as a hero than to be a trauma survivor on earth. “Better” in the sense that we recognise that there is a special reward in heaven for those who were faithful under the greatest trial. In some religions, such extremism might produce martyrs willing to take others with them to the grave; in the Catholic tradition, our extremists merely challenge others to follow them to heaven, and to join them in receiving the crown of glory which awaits those who overcome.

“The Catholic Church thinks it is better to be a dead virgin than a rape survivor?”

I would never choose to use that language, but I readily confess that it is better to die being faithful to one’s God-given principles than to compromise with sin. The virgin martyrs stand as examples to all who are tempted to compromise on  moral duties in the more mundane matters of daily life; they remind us that it is always possible to choose Godly principles over passive compromise, in lesser matters as well as greater ones.

Saint Maria Goretti – pray for us!