Women Saints: Virgins, Martyrs…and Mothers

Virgin and martyr. These titles are those that the Church has chosen to sum up the crowning achievements of Saint Agatha, whose feast day we celebrated this past Friday. For anyone who is unfamiliar with Catholic traditions surrounding the veneration of saints, labeling a person according to her sexual habits (or lack thereof) and cause of death might seem a peculiar way to extol someone’s holiness. Those who are more familiar, however, likely glance over these designations without giving them a second thought. In fact, it seems like whenever a woman saint’s feast day comes around we are celebrating yet another virgin and martyr.

This preponderance of female virgins and martyrs populating the Church’s liturgical calendar might give one the impression that the only way for a woman to achieve sainthood is to swear off men, die for the faith, or (better yet) both. One might wonder, “What’s up with the Church’s fixation on virginity?” Truth be told, this fascination is not limited to the Catholic Church. In our present day and age, when gratuitous sex is the entertainment industry standard, meeting a virgin—at least for adults in some circles—can seem like the equivalent of encountering an endangered species or perhaps a unicorn. (They do exist!)

Take for example “Jane the Virgin”. This title could easily be lifted from a book on the lives of the saints, but in fact it is a relatively new comedy series. (With witty writing, colorful characters, and hilarious pokes at the telenovela genre, the show is very much worth watching.) Motivated by a childhood promise to her beloved abuela and her desire to avoid repeating her mother’s mistakes, the show’s protagonist has maintained her commitment to save herself until marriage well into her 20s. Needless to say, Jane is quite surprised when she discovers that she is pregnant, as it turns out, on account of an emotionally distraught doctor mistaking Jane for another patient who was supposed to be artificially inseminated.

Throughout the series, other characters are typically shocked when they learn that Jane is a virgin. Even her own mother seems to think it would do Jane good to satisfy her natural desires from time to time. Only her devoutly Catholic grandmother, a relic of an era gone by, unfailingly supports Jane in her (relatively) chaste lifestyle. Despite sometimes feeling like a bit of a freak, Jane is determined to achieve her plans for a perfect life, which she believes would be compromised should she lose her virginity and become pregnant. When she does improbably (miraculously?) become pregnant, Jane is initially distraught. It was all for nothing. Her life is ruined despite all her sacrifices. However, as the series progresses, Jane comes to look upon her motherhood as the greatest blessing of her life.

Jane the Virgin is not an inappropriate symbol of how we as a Church community have evolved in our thinking about holy women and the sanctity of motherhood. For much of Christian history, virginity was regarded as the primary sign of a holy person’s (especially a woman’s) perfection. Marriage and marital relations did not necessarily preclude one from sainthood, but they were regarded, in the words of Saint Paul, as a “concession” to our human passions (1 Cor. 7). For a model of holiness, mothers had few options other than Mary the Mother of God, who is undoubtedly a worthy model but, being miraculously conceived without sin and a perpetual virgin, sets a standard of perfection that is unattainable for the rest of us.

In the 1960s, the Second Vatican Council marked a watershed moment by speaking of married love and parenthood not as a second best to abstinence but rather as being “caught up into divine love” and a sign leading children and others to “salvation and holiness” (Gaudium et Spes, no. 48). Since the Council, the Church has put its words into action by welcoming a number of married persons into the ranks of the canonized. As a result, parents can now look not only to historical holy women like Monica and Judith of Prussia but also modern saints like Elizabeth Ann Seton and Gianna Beretta Molla for models of holy motherhood. (Ironically, Saint Gerard Majella, a man, remains the official patron saint of expectant mothers.)

As someone who recently supported his wife through the birth of our first child, the sanctity of motherhood has taken on new concreteness for me. How often do we hear childbirth spoken of as a miracle? And yet for much of history we have treated the women through whom God works this miracle as “impure” on account of childbirth. To be sure, childbirth is not tidy business. But, then again, neither is crucifixion, and it is on account of that event that we revere Christ as the “spotless lamb” who has saved the world. If we can look upon Jesus’ sacrifice of body and soul on the cross as the definitive demonstration of God’s sanctifying love, I do not think it such a stretch to regard motherhood, including childbirth, as a similarly holy act.

In fairness, not every childbirth is an act of love. For that matter, not every virgin remains so out of devotion to God. Nevertheless, I am confident that I stand with many other parents in testifying that I have seldom felt God’s love breaking into the world as powerfully as I did when my wife brought our daughter into the world. With every birth, we experience anew the gift of the Incarnation as a new human being, created in God’s image and likeness, comes to dwell among us. Without denying the holiness of devoting one’s virginity to God, the fact is that we have our mothers, not virgins, to thank for that gift… excepting Jane the Virgin, I suppose.