Tuesday, December 06, 2005

St. Ursula of Montreal

One of the most prominent virgin-martyr cults in mediaeval Europe was that of the St. Ursula and the 11,000 virgins.

According to the legend, Ursula was the daughter of a British Christian king who made a voyage to Rome rather than be married to a pagan prince. On the way back to England in 451 A.D., she and her ten ladies-in-waiting, each accompanied by a thousand maidens, were slaughtered by Huns near present-day Cologne, Germany, rather than sacrifice their virginity and Christian faith.

St. Ursula's cult made Cologne into a great centre of pilgrimage during the Middle Ages as pilgrims, inspired by her story, flocked to the city to venerate relics of her and her companions.

Her example inspired countless vocations to the women's religious life; it inspired St. Angela de Merici to found the first teaching order for women, the Ursulines, that bear her name.

As wonderfully moving as St. Ursula's story is, there's only one problem with it: St. Ursula and her companions never existed. Their legend sprang from actual events, but they concerned maybe a handful of virgin martyrs: time and misinterpretation inflated the number and the legend, and in time, the sheer improbability of the legend led to her cult's eventual suppression from the Roman Calendar of saints.

All of which is a round-about way of drawing an analogy between historical events and the modern age's evolving virgin-martyr cult surrounding the massacre of 14 women engineering students in Montreal, sixteen years ago today.

The real story--that of an Algerian-born loser, raised in an Islamic society to regard women as chattels, taking out his resentment on uppity infidel women who didn't know their place--has been essentially lost to the mists of time.

The Montreal massacre's victims individual identities themselves are unimportant, just as those of St. Ursula's fellow virgin companions were. What mattered in both cases was the example their legends were intended to inspire.

The solemn candlelight vigil processions from the university women's centre to the university massacre memorial, accompanied by the soft strains of guitars and women's voices singing sentimental dirges, recall pilgrimages to the shrines of martyrs. Testimonies of women's inspiration to pursue higher education because of the massacre may be equally as exaggerated or apocryphal as those of women entering the convent to emulate St. Ursula's example of Christian womanhood, but they are no less a part of the cult.

For that is what these women have become: unwilling martyrs to the cause of feminism, sacrificed for women's liberation not at the hands of pagans but of men, an enemy who has not even the hope of conversion.

Our age is not so different from the mediaeval era; merely the objects of veneration have changed.

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