The Role of Women in the Church is a publicly debated topic. The Catholic Church confirms that women cannot be Priests. What then is the role of women in the Church? Fr. Joseph Aytona writes about Spiritual Motherhood. In this blog I summarize and try to understand what spiritual motherhood consists of and what is the role of women in the Church and in the world.
Fr. Joseph Aytona, a young Priest from the Congregation of the Fathers of Mercy, is the founder of the Spiritual Motherhood Sodality. The mission of the sodality is to educate women regarding the importance of spiritual maternity. The particular goal of the sodality is to obtain spiritual aid for Catholic Priests.
This is a review or personal summary of Fr. Aytona’s booklet “Spiritual Motherhood: Sharing in Mary’s Spiritual Maternity.” Fr. Aytona references papal writings, St. Thomas Aquinas and Edith Stein. In my summary of Fr. Aytona’s work, I include other references to guide my reflections. My goal is to understand what spiritual motherhood consists of.
Spiritual Motherhood is a type of maternity that nurtures divine life in others. It is a type of maternity experienced by grace and by doing God’s will. What lies at the heart of spiritual motherhood is faithfulness to the Gospel and conformity to God’s will. It requires living in a state of grace. “For whoever does the will of God is my brother, sister, and mother.” Matthew 12:50 Our Blessed Lord continues to cry out today, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” Luke 12:28 Obedience to God is more important that biological ties; a life of divine grace creates deep supernatural family ties that overcome and extend strongly beyond blood ties. Catholics are those who have received the power to be made sons of God not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. John 1:12-13 Thomas Dubay in Happy are You Poor: The Simple Life and Spiritual Freedom wrote that the New Testament supposes that all men and women are my brothers and sisters. Jesus and Paul and the others all supposed that our graced brotherly-sisterly relationships in him were far more important than blood relationships. We are expected to act toward all our new associates as we ideally would act toward our immediate blood-related family members. Peter 1:22-23 The Saints warn us to love all men equally, that Christ is in the poor and needy, and to be aware that family relations are natural and deeply rooted and can be detrimental or an obstacle to our obeying God’s commandments.
In his book Christ in the Church, Msgr. Benson wrote that the work of redemption and revelation was accomplished through human nature assumed into union with the Divine. With a human voice Jesus spoke, human hands were raised in blessing, a human heart loved and agonized, and then was pierced and silenced. Later in the last emphatic act of life of His humiliation, He took bread, and cried, “This is my Body which is given for you.” That Body was the instrument of Redemption. And this act was a continuation of the first act known as the Incarnation. In both cases God used a material substance for His Divine purposes. Catholics go a step further and say that God takes into union with Himself the human nature of His disciples and through the Body thus formed, acts, lives and speaks. Jesus Christ lived His natural life on earth two thousand years ago in a Body drawn from Mary, so now He lives His Mystical Life in a Body drawn from the human race in general called the Catholic Church. The Church is not merely His representative on earth, not merely His Bride: in a real sense she is Himself. “As my Father sent Me, even so send I you.” Souls living in union with Christ through a life of grace are named His Body and members; they are said to possess the “mind of Christ.” And they are “filling up what is wanting in the sufferings of Christ.” In a similar way that the cells of our body are individual organisms that live and die, yet they derive their life from the whole and in no way interrupt the one continuous life of the body as a whole. This is an analogy for the Life of the Church the Mystical Body of Christ. (Robert Hugh Benson, “Christ in His Church,” 1983 Scepter Publishers)
The late Msgr. Benson wrote that the Church speaks with authority through her Bishops and clergy. We know too that it is through Priests that souls are returned to life and born again in the Baptismal waters or womb of the Church. Through Priestly hands the faithful are nourished with Divine sustenance. What then is the role of women in the Church? Surely it is to imitate the Mother of God and thus fulfill their vocation to divine maternity, regardless if they are married, single, widowed or ill.
The Roman Catholic Church is our mother. Mary the Mother of God is our mother. Women are symbols and instruments of this divine maternity. Women are the Church at work. They are “in persona Mariae” and “in persona Ecclesiae” in a similar way that men or Priests are in persona Christi; men are not only symbols and images of the living God - God acting through them and their masculinity - they are actually in the person of Christ. “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”
We return then to Fr. Aytona’s point that women begin to be spiritual mothers when they obey God and respond with Mary’s Fiat, thy will be done. Fr. Aytona introduces here the term feminine genius, which comes from the writings of St. Pope John Paul II. If men are to act like Christ and women like Mary and the Church, then the primary concern for women are the spiritual and material necessities, the spiritual and physical wellbeing of their Priests, the souls in purgatory, the poor, the widows, the orphans, the infirm. Each woman must fulfill her obligations imposed on her by her state in life, which she chose, and in the midst of these and in every act, she must live her spiritual maternity, nurturing divine life in souls in whatever act she is performing, including prayer. The goal is the salvation of souls. St. Teresa of Avila was willing to die many deaths so that one soul would advance a single step towards God.
I witnessed a future Priest once tell a young lady that if she felt called to the Priesthood she should become a Carmelite. The contemplative Carmelite vocation is that vocation which most closely resembles the life of Mary the Mother of God according to Saints and spiritual writers. The concern of the cloistered Carmelite is union with God, imitating Christ perfectly in poverty, chastity and obedience, praying for Priests. She trusts that her obedience to God’s will, will nurture in a mysterious way, divine life in souls and many people will convert, grow closer to God and obtain Eternal life. This is in fact what happens when religious live their vocation faithfully: Priests remain faithful and effective, many souls get to heaven and many souls in purgatory are cleansed and forgiven. This is a great mystery.
What will increase a woman’s potential for spiritual maternity? Devotion and love for Jesus, especially as He is most present in the soul, in the Blessed Sacrament, and the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Union with Christ makes a soul fruitful. Women can unite themselves with Mary our Mother through the Rosary and prayer. Women can be spiritual mothers by prudently offering up their work and sacrifices, by doing penance and mortifications.
A sign of the spiritual mother is her capacity to suffer with, to not flee pain, and to make the pain of others her own, empathy. “There were also many women there, looking on from afar, who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him....” Matthew 27:55
Because the Eucharist, Christ among us, is the source and summit of the Christian life, spiritual mothers are most fruitful when they are united to the holy Sacrifice of the Altar and it is the center and summit of their own life.
Women must imitate Mary, who conceived, brought forth, and nourished Christ. She was the virgin Mother of the Redeemer and His generous associate and humble handmaid. Those women in history who have most nurtured divine life in souls are remembered and called Mothers to this very day because they were and are spiritual mothers in the order of grace. Take St. Gertrude, for example, who lived in intimate union with God from her infancy: "While, then, she thus flourished in all kinds of virtue , and, like a mystic rose, emitted a sweet odor of sanctity, agreeable alike to God and man...Her power of winning others was so great and so engaging, that even the young children who were placed in the convent conceived so tender and strong an affection for her, that as soon as they were instructed in the things of God, and learned that she was their spiritual mother, they would have considered it a fault and a disrespect to say that they loved either father or mother or any other relative more than the Saint. (The Life and Revelations of St. Gertrude the Great c.1256-1302)
Spiritual Mothers can beget children in the order of grace regardless if they are physical mothers as well. All women are capable of bearing spiritual children because they are all composed of both body and soul. Bearing children in the order of grace is not the same as offering maternal care. St. Catherine called this giving birth to souls and St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross described it as winning human beings for God, to carry Him into souls, and to beget and secure His children.
Women should adopt a Priest in obedience to the request made by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy. Mary was the physical and spiritual mother of Jesus Christ the Eternal High Priest and women can be the spiritual mother of Priests by grace. This is a great mystery that “every priestly vocation comes from the heart of God but passes through the heart of a mother.” Pope St. Pius X. Women then are essential for the life of Christians and Christianity. The laity need Priests, and priests need spiritual mothers.
Women are called to be spiritual mothers and so they must strive to possess by habit and prayer the virtues and obtain the gifts of the Holy Ghost. Fr. Aytona goes through these virtues, I would like to include here his description of Beauty: something is beautiful because it mirrors the beauty and majesty of God; it is beautiful because it is “God like” - its symmetry and proportion is based on the mirroring of God. Spiritual mothers are beautiful because of their avoidance of sin and works of charity, their practice of all the virtues according to their state in life, including the virtue of penance or reparation for their spiritual children.
Physical motherhood also has to be a spiritual motherhood in order to respond to the whole truth about the human being. This can be said as well for the single woman, she also has to live out her spiritual motherhood in a material universe, at some point she will experience pain in her own body and soul, which if accepted and offered to God can be fruitful for souls. Every spiritual mother demonstrates a loving concern for her neighbor and recognizes the weakness of her spiritual children.
Another beautiful point made by Fr. Aytona is that spiritual mothers bear witness to Our Lord’s glorious Resurrection and give it validation by their holy lives, their fidelity and perseverance. Spiritual mothers give witness to the fundamental necessity of Priests, without which we would not receive life giving sacraments. Spiritual mothers gain merit by the love they put into their actions. Spiritual motherhood is first of all a ministry dedicated to being in love with God through prayer, sacrifice and contemplation. The key to success in bearing fruit in the eyes of God is in the quality of prayers and sacrifices performed by doing God’s will in love.
Just as Our Lady was at the foot of the Cross, suffering with her Christ, Priest and victim, so women are called to support the Priests and the children of God in their temptations, doubts, sufferings, and long days. St. Josemaria Escriva in a homily given during Christmas said that parents should find time to spend time with their children, to talk with them. They are the most important thing – more important than business or work or rest. Look at the modest home of Nazareth, Mary the loving Mother sits beside her dear Son, the good wife by her husband, content if her loving attention can ease and comfort them in their weariness. (Marriage: A Christian Vocation, Josemaria Escriva, Scepter Booklets)
Fr. Aytona writes that spiritual mothers look especially to cloistered nuns, active religious and others who are living celibate lives for the sake of the Kingdom. This supernatural life lends itself to be more fruitful based on the total gift of self to God, the Church and the apostolate. The consecrated life has always been a source of strength for the Church in difficult times. Life here on earth is temporary and people should always be in preparation for eternal life with God in Heaven.
It is a joy for women to bear children spiritually. Women reveal a particular aspect of God for “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” Genesis 1:27. The history of every human being passes through the threshold of a woman’s motherhood. The mother is appointed guardian of life, of a life that is distinct and autonomous in its personal identity. The spiritual mother guides her children in their moral and spiritual life. John Paul II is quoted: Motherhood establishes a unique and unrepeatable relationship between two people, between mother and child. And according to papal writings the vocation to be a woman is a vocation to give life to others. The Bridegroom is the one who loves. The Bride is loved: it is she who receives love, in order to love in return. Thus woman’s vocation is to be a giver of love, but not just any love, loved based on the love received from God. In Mother of the Redeemer, Pope St. John Paul II explained that the Church sees in the face of women the reflection of a beauty which mirrors the loftiest sentiments of which the human heart is capable: the self-offering totality of love; the strength that is capable of bearing the greatest sorrows; limitless fidelity and tireless devotion to work; the ability to combine penetrating intuition with words of support and encouragement.
Maternity is vital and necessary to a woman’s vocation because it is part of a solemn covenant with God to be faithful to His commandments. This covenant was revealed when Jesus became Incarnate in a woman. Every time motherhood is repeated it is related to this covenant of nurturing the life of Christ in souls. Opening herself to spiritual motherhood, a woman may feel the divine life of another developing in her bosom. Through her maternal solicitude she fosters in others moral, cultural and spiritual lives.
All women are predisposed to have human beings entrusted to them as “mother.” This is a spiritual entrustment and it is the source of each woman’s strength and dignity. The spiritual mother or woman is aware that God entrusts the human being to her in a special way. A woman is strong because of her awareness of this entrusting, strong because of the fact that God “entrusts the human being to her” always and in every way. This is the dignity they receive from God Himself. “Woman, behold your son!” John 19:26 Authentic love belongs to the woman, and she adds a touch of generosity, tenderness and joy of life wherever she is and in every place.
An important aspect of spiritual motherhood is contemplation. Meditation on the things of God, Eternal life, the mysteries of Jesus’ life, the mysteries of the life of Mary with Jesus. In Scripture we read that Mary kept all these things in her heart. Why is this important? During prayer and meditation, God enhances, changes, and fills the soul with divine life. The soul receives divine love and is made capable of making a complete gift of self to others on behalf of God. Women are also natural witnesses of the lives of others, they meditate upon the sufferings of others, take them to heart, and then act upon their intuitive understanding of the situation. All women are called to live the virtues of Faith: trusting in Divine Providence, contemplating God and the things of God, staying faithful amidst scandal and persecutions; Purity: in speech resisting gossip and foul language, modesty in dress and feelings, chastity loving with an upright heart, intentions always seeking the true end of Heaven, vision by discipline of feelings and imagination refusing all participation in impure thoughts; Humility: obedience to God and his lawful representatives, acceptance of truth, acknowledgment of being completely dependent on God and recognizing that they are only an instrument in God’s saving work.
The woman of God is mature, serene, youthful, gracious, modest, kind, prudent, chaste...
Mary’s motherhood in the order of grace will last until the end of time. Her spiritual motherhood was born from the heart of the Incarnation, the Paschal Mystery at the foot of the Cross, and Pentecost among the Apostles and Disciples of Christ when the Holy Spirit raised up new children of God. Her motherhood is experienced at the altar when the Body she gave birth to becomes really present in the Eucharist. Mary cooperates with maternal love in the birth and development of the sons and daughters of Mother Church. Women, then, are called to imitate the Blessed Virgin Mary as close as possible and be other Marys in the world and throughout redemptive history. This spiritual motherhood participates in Mary’s universal Spiritual Motherhood.