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Why are virgins so popular in the Catholic church (specifically in Mexico or Latin America)? Aside from the obvious, virgin Mary, there are "virgins" of practically every major Catholic church throughout Mexico. The Virgin of Guadalupe is the most famous one, I believe. Where I live, there are two parishes that could not each afford their own virgin (you can buy virgins?), so they pooled their resources, and now share one. Every 6 months, there's a big ceremony in which the virgin is transported with much fanfare from one to the other.

  1. What is the significance of these virgins?
  2. Is this practice specific (or more common) to Mexico and Latin America, or is it common in Catholic churches world-wide?
  3. What exactly are these virgins? Clearly they represent a person who once lived; are the bodies of these people what is being transported and/or stored?
  4. Why aren't virgin males important?
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I can break this into multiple questions if appropriate. As PeterTurner has pointed out on his recent question, we know so little about each others churches, it sometimes hard to know how to properly scope a question. :) –  Flimzy Nov 28 '11 at 20:04
    
There are two form of virginity, i.e. material (or biological virginity) and the religious one. To which one are the below arguments basing their speculation? –  user1846 Jul 12 '12 at 12:51
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@DésiréNiyonkuru: I would guess both, if there is a difference. –  El'endia Starman Jul 12 '12 at 13:09

3 Answers 3

up vote 14 down vote accepted

These virgins need a disambiguation.

Virgin Mary

On the one hand, La Virgen, Is Our Lady, Blessed Mother. She's the only Holy Mother of God the Blessed Virgin Mary. That's her with her place of honor on the side of the altar at most Catholic Churches throughout the world. If you hear of her under the title of La Guadalupana (Our Lady of Guadalupe), Our Lady of Lourdes, Our Lady of the Snows, Our Lady of Fatima, Our Lady of La Salette, Our Lady of Kibeho or any of the titles in the Litany of Loreto then that's still her. It's a worldwide thing, but Latin America is particularly fond of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and with good reason, according to this book her apparition in Mexico is responsible for millions of conversions and the end of human sacrifice!

We don't have her remains since she was assumed into heaven, so the statues are just statues. Every church has an altar with some relic of a saint in it (anything from a bone to something a saint wore or a piece of their casket). Sometimes relics are transported from place to place in a procession (which is a lot of fun). It wouldn't be a relic of Our Lady though. Statues are blessed and are sacramentals, so they do have some significance in the Church, but aren't to be prayed to as idols ever. There probably is a bit of pride in having a beautiful statue of La Virgen, but that's about it.

The titles that Mary goes by more akin to those given to her Queenship, like all the titles you'd see the King of France go by (and go through). They're not different virgins, they're titles she is given (by the grace of God, as even the king of France would have said) when she conquers a nation for her Son (in a real an spiritual sense).

Holy Virgins

On the other hand you have the holy virgins. Unless otherwise noted, those are the female saints who took vows be a spouse of Christ who didn't die a martyrs death.

Male saints who take similar vows are usually referred to as Confessors, not because they heard a lot of confessions, but because they confessed the faith. Male chastity is every bit as reverenced and useful as female in the Church. Can't give you a legit explanation of why men aren't titled under 'virgin', but keep in mind most church words (Ordinary, Common etc...) have completely different connotative meanings than in ordinary and common usage. (that was a Catholic joke, har har).

Regarding the title 'virgin'

Catholic calendars usually say, St. Agnes Virgin, Martyr to signify which prayers are supposed to be read in the Liturgy of the Hours (unless otherwise noted the section you read for a saint like St. Agnes is called the 'Common of Virgins') it also signifies what colors are supposed to be worn by the priest at Mass. Red for martyrs, white for other saints (including virgins).

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"female saints who took vows be a spouse of Christ" - is there any sort of church endorsement of polygamy in this concept? i mean if we are supposed to be like christ and christ has multiple "spouses", well, should i take multiple wives? i know the answer is "no, there isn't" but it is interesting to think about -- why isn't this idea an endorsement of polygamy? i know in protestantism there is the idea that the church as a whole is christ's spouse, but i hadn't heard of it at an individual level... –  zipquincy Nov 29 '11 at 2:09
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@zipquincy, I'm giving you a 1st grade understanding of what it means to be a consecrated religious sister. Not something that ought to be critiqued for what I'm saying. From what I know of the religious life, which is a tiny bit from reading Barefoot Journey and an acquaintanceship with a postulant who left her convent. But yes, that's the idea, they're giving up their earthly lives to be spiritual mothers and spouses. It's an endorsement of love, as it should be, a gift freely given. –  Peter Turner Nov 29 '11 at 3:45
    
+1 for "1st grade". My question was maybe a 4th grade question, but anyway... :) –  zipquincy Nov 29 '11 at 14:33
    
@zipquincy They aren't literal spouses -- it's a symbolic title the take on in their vows. The ordinary vocation is that of marriage, it's said that they take Christ as a spouse instead of another man. Similar to someone saying that they're married to their job, or whatever. –  Aaron Traas Dec 2 '11 at 22:25
    
"every bit useful" - could you elaborate on the usefulness of virginity in the church? Perhaps that's a question on its own? –  corsiKa Oct 8 '13 at 14:55

The disambiguations here are helpful but in answer to the first question, the "virgin" -- in the sense of one who has renounced marriage for the sake of the Kingdom -- is admired in Catholic (and Orthodox) tradition because he or she has gone beyond the call of duty in the service of the Lord and is thus a model of radical Christian discipleship.

The Biblical testimony for this seems pretty strong, both from the mouth of Christ in Matthew 19:11-12 and from St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 7, particularly verses 7-8 and 32ff. Here are a few of the latter verses from the RSV:

The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried woman or girl is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord. ... So that he who marries his betrothed does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better.

The long practice of priestly and monastic celibacy is very strong evidence that male virginity is highly valued by Catholics as well.

I suspect (though this is just speculation) that the practice of specifically identifying a celibate female saint as a "virgin", and not using that title for a celibate male saint, is a cultural artifact held over from times and places where a very specific physical sense of "virginity" was more significant than it is now.

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What is the significance of these virgins?

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia:

There are two elements in virginity: the material element, that is to say, the absence, in the past and in the present, of all complete and voluntary delectation, whether from lust or from the lawful use of marriage; and the formal element, that is the firm resolution to abstain forever from sexual pleasure.

(stolen from wikipedia)

Is this practice specific (or more common) to Mexico and Latin America, or is it common in Catholic churches world-wide?

It is common in all catholic countries. It may be more of an iberian thing though but there are definitely virgin statues in both france and italy. In some cases the catholic church just "inherited" a local godess and turned it into a saint so that the festivities that were important to people weren't disturbed despite the new religion. (This applies to Europe when it was christened but I think there are cases where jesuit monks did likewise in the new world.) The black madonna (beware of crazy speculations at the other end of this link) may fascinate you as well.

What exactly are these virgins? Clearly they represent a person who once lived; are the bodies of these people what is being transported and/or stored?

Not likely. They are most often statues made in the image of a long dead saint - mother Mary. Relics of other saints may be brought out for processions.

Why aren't virgin males important?

Oh - this is like opening the box of interesting subjects of patriarchal power structures, feminism and equality in one question. Anyone?

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-1 not for the conspiracy part, which I vehemently disagree with, but the last two answers are wrong. Male virgins are important in the Church and occasionally these are bodies (or at least parts of bodies) being transported. The statues are not some long dead saint, all your virgins are the same virgin. I don't know of any Catholic community that venerates a statue of any saint, male or female in a procession besides Our Lady. Even processions with relics of other saints might still have an image of the Blessed Virgin Mary. –  Peter Turner Nov 28 '11 at 22:00
    
wow - this is so much fun! What part was a conspiracy? ok about the transports although "not likely" is not that strong.... but there surely are saints that are not mary that also are virgins and may be moved in procession no? –  froderik Nov 28 '11 at 22:12
    
Aww well, I've gotta read better, there's no reason for a -1, if you expand the 'not likey' part to say something about the statues being the same long dead saint, not some long dead saint, I'll undo it. –  Peter Turner Nov 28 '11 at 22:23
    
aha - I didn't know about that connection. I wouldn't call it a conspiracy though. A genius move to integrate christianity into whatever the religion they encountered. But the black madonnas of europe are typically much older than christianity so that is a different story. –  froderik Nov 28 '11 at 22:25
    
Well if it's not true, then it's a conspiracy and if a conspiracy were uncovered and admitted to, it certainly would be a cause to weaken the faith of the millions who believe ardently. –  Peter Turner Nov 28 '11 at 22:30

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