Today's feast of St Maria Goretti puts before us a rank of saints that don't get a lot of press these days. Apostles? Can't miss 'em. Popes? Bishops? Priests? Nuns? They're all pretty visible as far as saints go. And while we don't have new apostles (of the Peter, John, Andrew sort), we do continuously get new Popes, bishops, priests and religious men and women, all of whom are expected to at least aim for sanctity. And in recent years, we've been seeing more and more regular moms and dads and doctors, people like St. Gianna Molla or St. Joseph Moscati, "raised to the honors of the altar."
But virgin martyrs seem to be about as contemporary as togas and doric columns. (Didn't they fade away with the Edict of Milan in 313?)
Maria's short life tells another story.
Not that Maria was alone. Her contemporary, Bl. Laura Vicuña, knew what it was like to fight off the unwanted attentions of an older man (in this case, her mother's common law husband). Laura isn't technically a martyr, but her death at age 13 came only 8 days after she (already ill) was beaten by an enraged and drunken "stepfather." Then there was, Bl. Clementine Anwarite, a young religious sister in Zaire during that country's civil war. When a military officer threatened to take each member of her community and either kill them or give them as "wives" to his men, Clementine looked him in the eye and said, "You will kill only me."
And then there are...the new virgin martyrs. The ones who are still alive. Women of any age who refuse to conform to the preposterous images and expectations* of a hyper-sexualized culture. There's a real martyrdom in that kind of strength!
Our greater awareness of the many and subtle ways women have been abused throughout the ages may make us nervous about proclaiming the glory of a virgin martyr--especially one who hadn't even reached her teens. What kind of message, people ask, are we sending girls who may be in situations like (or worse than) Laura Vicuña's? (For one thing, the question itself is a sign that too much emphasis is being given to virginity in the strictest, physical sense.)
But what kind of message are we sending girls if we do not give them the example of bold, self-possessed young women like Maria, Laura and Sister Clementine?
* Watch the video!