Virgin Mary Magdalene

July 7, 2021 / Jacqueline Magno

The last thing a 16-year-old girl wants to hear is that she’d be a great nun.

The dizzy excitement that occupied my chest as I stood between the aisles of St. Anthony’s Catholic Church was the closest thing to holiness I’d ever felt.

It was the morning of the Santo Niño Festival at my local parish, where I was to lead the congregation in a lively prayer dance honoring Baby Jesus and the Philippines’ acceptance of Christianity. Dressed in a gown that crushed my ribs and a headdress adorned with pearls, I looked like I belonged on my devout grandmother’s coffee table. I was shiny. Put together. A prime example of a pious Catholic girl.

I understood why my Tita Lisa chose me as the Sinulog Queen that year. I sang in the choir every Sunday, and I volunteered at parish events. I attended women’s retreats because I wanted to and walked a little too prudently past the contraceptive aisle of Target. To adults, I was immaculate. But in my mind, I was nothing short of pitiful.

Catholicism has always been an integral part of my identity, but with it came this virtuous Virgin Mary persona I felt obligated to fulfill all throughout high school. I was the friend whose ears were covered whenever anyone joked about sex, the GPA-obsessed student devoid of any and all romantic experience. When a parish nun told me I’d be a great fit for the Catholic sisterhood, I nearly choked.

“I don’t want to wear a habit and wake up at five o’clock every morning to pray!” I wanted to tell her. I wanted an invitation to a house party, where I could show some skin and get respectably tipsy. I wanted to date without my virginal subconscious reminding me of Mary Magdalene and her rumored promiscuity — a Catholic misconception that I believed for a majority of my life.

Once I entered college, I became desperate to shake my goody-two-shoes personality and be socially acceptable for a change. I sat in the back of the University Catholic Center on Sundays but made no effort to pay attention. I dove headfirst into a relationship, navigating the gray area between being a virgin but not a total prude. By the end of my freshman year, I was the textbook definition of a Catholic with a few footnotes. Catholic, who hasn’t prayed in months. Virgin, who has questionable boundaries. Churchgoer, who seriously needs to go to confession.

I returned to the Sinulog Festival the following year, convinced that I didn’t deserve to be there. And when I experienced my first breakup several months later, I went to mass the next day and burst into tears. I’d escaped my Virgin Mary persona, all right. And I was emptier because of it.

I realized then the kind of person I was — or at least, the kind of person I wanted to be. I wanted to be the Sinulog Queen who dances proudly with her Church. The hopeless romantic who saves herself for marriage because she wants to. The radical Catholic who uses her faith to empower others. I didn’t feel confident living any other way.

Secularism sometimes portrays women who choose to live a religious lifestyle as outdated and intolerant. Submissive, even. It took me 19 years and several missteps to realize that many Catholic women view their lives as none of those things.

I understand that not everyone has the same beliefs as I do, nor do I think that everyone should. I understand that someone may read this and envision me typing away at my laptop, Bible in hand, and a dumpster fire of miniskirts and birth control ablaze in the background behind me. But I believe that my Catholic faith teaches me to find beauty in how others choose to live their lives, just as I find beauty in how I live mine.

For instance, it took me a long time to accept the fact that I feel most confident in modest clothing. I loved uniform shopping with my mother when I was little, prancing around in knee-high socks, criss-cross ties, and pleated navy skirts. I loved strutting into high school speech competitions in a pinstripe suit, ready to obliterate my opponents. Now I love long-sleeved blouses, classic turtlenecks, collared shirts, and church dresses. They make me feel like I can take on the world.

Contrary to popular belief, I don’t wear modest clothing because the nun at church told me to or because I feel the need to hide parts of my body. I wear it because it makes me feel confident in both myself and my faith.

Another value I’ve come to appreciate is my decision to save sex for marriage. I’m not going to lie, I spent a majority of high school feeling like I’d been cheated out of some quintessential, life-altering experience (I was seriously convinced that the steamy scenes in my romance novels wouldn’t become a reality for me until I was, like, 35.) But after experiencing heartbreak for the first time, I realized that certain physical boundaries are a priority for me in relationships.

Before taking that step with somebody I love, I want to ensure that our relationship is built upon shared interests and values. Abstaining from sex reassures me that my relationship does not require physical intimacy to be strong. Sure, this leads to some awkward conversations, and I wholeheartedly respect those who navigate their romantic lives differently. But I would much rather stay true to myself than undermine what’s important to me.

Modesty, celibacy, and several other Catholic lifestyle choices are considered passé and oppressive. Misogyny in sheep’s clothing. I thought this way, too. I now know that women who practice these parts of their faith do so not because they're subservient, but because they're self-assured. After all, confidence looks different on everyone. Whether you show more skin, dress more conservatively, save sex for marriage, or have a healthy sex life — your lifestyle should reflect what makes you feel most like yourself.

I’ve since made an active effort to reprioritize my Catholic faith. I sit a little closer to the front of the Catholic Center, listening to mass with an open mind and eager heart. I recognize my academic and creative work as an opportunity to live out God’s plan for me. Best of all, I remain inspired by two of the most influential women in scripture: Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene.

At face value, these two women have very different legacies. Virgin Mary is the mother of Jesus Christ, believed to have been conceived by the Holy Spirit of her own accord. An unexpected heroine who braved teenage pregnancy outside of marriage, it is somewhat ironic that she symbolizes purity within the Catholic Church.

Meanwhile, Saint Mary Magdalene was the first person to see Jesus after His crucifixion and spread the good news of His resurrection. Early Western Church leaders tried to discredit her importance by portraying her as a prostitute, but modern Church leaders recognize her for her progressive advocacy for Christ in a time when women were discouraged from using their voices.

Both women had something vital in common: their radical confidence to live out their faith. They were protofeminist icons who defied societal norms, inspiring young women to be unafraid to go against the grain. Abstinent by choice, vocal about my beliefs, and radically faithful, I strive to be a combination of these two women. A Virgin Mary Magdalene, if you will. And all the better for it. ■

Written by: Jacqueline Magno

Layout by:
Caroline Blanton

Erin Dorney

Ulises Martinez

Noelle Campos

Gracie Gilchriest

Kristen Guillen

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