He was one of those superstars that everyone admired and looked up to, and so many of his fans and supporters were young people, both male and female. There were the young athletes who admired his dedication and what we thought were natural abilities and talents. He was greatly respected as someone who beat the odds — not only in his success as a cyclist but also in his victory over cancer. So many teens and young adults struggling with cancer and other life-threatening illnesses were encouraged by his recovery and stamina.
There were rumors along the way, but for a while, Lance Armstrong, a media darling and a hero to so many, was able to leave those rumors in the dust in the same way he whizzed by his competitors during the Tour de France races.
Even after he was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles and banned from the sport for life last year when the allegations about systematic doping resurfaced, he still denied using performance-enhancing drugs. The denials turned to apologies when Armstrong opened up to Oprah Winfrey and admitted that he had, indeed, used performance-enhancing drugs. And another role model, another superstar, another idol for young people, bit the dust.
The news of yet one more falling star quickly brought me back to one of my favorite places in the world: Rome. What does Lance Armstrong have to do with Rome? Well, it has to do with offering today’s youth real role models.
I recently co-hosted a pilgrimage to the Eternal City, where we emphasized feminine beauty and introduced our pilgrims, mostly women and girls, to some of the superstar female saints. Our wonderful guide, art historian, author and professor Liz Lev, took us on an amazing journey not only through the stunning basilicas named after these saints, but also through the ups and downs, twists, turns and challenges of some of the most courageous people you would ever want to meet. Their lives make just about any athletic feat — including the Tour de France — look like a walk in the park.
One great example is St. Agnes of Rome. She was a 13-year-old girl who suffered martyrdom for her faith. Agnes made a commitment to Christ vowing to never lose her purity and turned away suitors because she considered Jesus to be her only spouse. She refused to give in to the pressure to marry, even when she was approached by Procop, the governor’s son. In the end she was beheaded for her Christian faith. She kept her promises to Christ and the only “denial” made by Agnes was the denial of prominence and wealth.
Based on the reaction of our younger pilgrims to the real-life stories of great women heroes of the faith such as St. Agnes, I don’t believe it’s too much of a stretch on my part to think that these saints could someday re-emerge as very real role models, at least for today’s Catholic youths. Some of the travelers on our visit were as young as 6 years old, and yet they never lost interest. As a matter of fact, many of the girls, after hearing about the courage and sacrifice made by Agnes and others, got down on their knees in the holy sites and closed their eyes in prayer.
The relics of these and other saints may be buried in far away churches and their sacrifices may never make headlines or be told by the likes of Oprah Winfrey or any other famous talk show host. But maybe in our own efforts to promote the New Evangelization, we can do our part to keep these real heroes front and center. In the meantime, we will pray for Lance Armstrong and ask St. Agnes to pray for all of us.
Teresa Tomeo is the host of “Catholic Connection,” produced by Ave Maria Radio and heard daily on EWTN Global Catholic Radio and Sirius Channel 160.