In order to understand the Roman Catholic Church–and especially the role of women–one has to consider the importance of the Virgin Mary and how she fits into the rest of the Faith.
In the last couple of weeks, Pope Francis has been outlining a family structure to illustrate the relationships among different elements in the Roman Catholic Church, with Christ as the Father and Bridegroom, the Church as His dutiful Bride, and Mary as both a mother and, as she is sometimes called, the Queen of Heaven (inspired by the powerful Queen Mothers of Israel’s Davidic kings).
This is only one of several concepts used to describe the Church, but using the family metaphor has allowed the pope to offer lessons in Marian theology, since many outside the Church particularly don’t understand the devotion to the mother of Jesus. To some, it looks like idolatry; to others, sentimentality; to many, it looks like love for the Virgin Mary exceeds that for her Son.
But for Catholics, Mary is not worshiped as a deity but instead venerated as the highest of God’s creatures, owing to her personal holiness, her assent to become Christ’s earthly mother, and her faithfulness up to and beyond the Crucifixion. She is considered the first and model Christian, and since Catholics believe she lives on in Heaven, they turn to her to pray for them and offer support in hard times.
Catholics also believe that Mary, as she interceded for the young couple bereft of wine at the wedding feast at Cana, reaches out to and intercedes for people, to comfort them with motherly love and lead them to Jesus.
Anyone following the pontiff in his seven months in the Chair of Peter knows that he has a strong personal devotion to Mary. That was especially evident during his visit to the Marian shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida in Brazil during World Youth Day Rio in late July.
In his homily, he said, “When the Church looks for Jesus, she always knocks at his Mother’s door and asks, ‘Show us Jesus.’ It is from Mary that the Church learns true discipleship. That is why the Church always goes out on mission in the footsteps of Mary.”
The pope’s love for Mary was also evident on Saturday, Oct. 12 during a prayer vigil for a special Marian Day organized as the Year of Faith comes to a close. As an image of Our Lady of Fatima–based on descriptions from three shepherd children of an apparition they claimed to see on the 13th day of six consecutive months in 1917–approached the outdoor dais in St. Peter’s Square, Francis was visibly emotional and walked out to meet the statue.
During the same ceremony, Pope Francis also formally entrusted the world to Mary’s stewardship. Later, he sent a video message to 10 Marian shrines around the world, saying, “Mary points to Jesus. She asks us to bear witness to Jesus; she constantly guides us to her son Jesus, because in him alone do we find salvation. He alone can change the water of our loneliness, difficulties and sin into the wine of encounter, joy and forgiveness. He alone.”
With the Virgin Mary and a plethora of female saints–hailing from every corner of the Earth and wildly diverse backgrounds–the Catholic Church has long recognized and celebrated the accomplishments of women.
Ironically, for a Church accused of excluding women from positions of influence, many of its best-known and most recognizable figures are female. They include French warrior and mystic Saint Joan of Arc; Saint Hildegard von Bingen, a writer, visionary, prophetess, composer, herbalist, gardener and adviser to popes and bishops; Southern author Flannery O’Connor; writer and social activist Dorothy Day; and Mother Teresa of Calcutta, a tireless caretaker of, and advocate for, the “poorest of the poor.”
In a story seldom, if ever, told at women-in-media conferences, Mother Angelica rose from poverty and a broken home to become a cloistered Poor Clare nun (female Franciscans, named after St. Clare, an acolyte of St. Francis of Assisi, who’s also the patron saint of television). Born Rita Antoinette Rizzo in Canton, Ohio, Mother Angelica went on to found a monastery in Alabama, then to launch the worldwide television and radio network ETWN. She also initiated the creation of a new order of Franciscan friars to help run the operation.
On Oct. 12, Pope Francis addressed participants of a study seminar organized by the Women’s Section of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the release of Mulieris Dignitatem: On the Dignity and Vocation of Women, an Apostolic Letter from Blessed John Paul II, saying, “I would like to underline how the woman has a particular sensitivity for the ‘things of God,’ above all in helping us to understand the mercy, tenderness and love that God has for us.”
“And it pleases me to think that the Church is not ‘il Chiesa’ (‘the Church, masculine); it is ‘la Chiesa’ (feminine),” he wrote. “The Church is a woman! The Church is a mother! And that’s beautiful, eh? We have to think deeply of this.”
A recent example of this feminine presence in the Church can seen in the Oct. 17 Los Angeles Times obituary of Beverly Hills-raised Sister Antonia Brenner, a twice-divorced mother of seven adult children who walked away from her comfortable Southern California life and became a Catholic nun.
Brenner moved into the notorious La Mesa prison in Tijuana, Mexico, and tended to the inmates there for more than three decades. Along the way, she formed her own religious order devoted to serving the poor, the Eudist Servants of the Eleventh Hour, the newest of several orders inspired by 17th-Century French St. John Eudes.
At La Mesa, she became known as “Mama.” Brenner died, a grandmother and great-grandmother of 45, at the age of 86.
The pope began the conversation about the practical role of women in the Church back in April, when his recently created nine-member advisory committee recommended the Church appoint more women to posts within the Vatican.
This also extended to the Vatican’s media outreach. Three women produce the English-language edition of the official Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano; and Marta Lago is editor of the Spanish-language edition. Beginning in late 2007, under a new editor and during the term of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, several female journalists have been added to the staff. Also, in May, the paper published its first insert devoted entirely to women.
Among the other women currently serving in high posts are Dr. Maria Cristina Carlo-Stella, the administrator of St. Peter’s Basilica; and Flaminia Giovanelli, the undersecretary of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.
The pontiff picked up the theme of women in his wide-ranging interview with fellow Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, published in English on Sept. 30 in the Jesuit magazine America.
“The woman is essential for the church,” Francis said. “Mary, a woman, is more important than the bishops…We have to work harder to develop a profound theology of the women. Only by making this step will it be possible to better reflect on their function within the Church. The feminine genius is needed wherever we make important decisions.”
In his address on Oct. 12, Pope Francis also emphasized that women should serve the Church, not be in “servitude” to it. And while the Church urges women, in addition to whatever else they do in life, to marry and raise children, maternity can be expressed in more ways than just giving birth.
Francis expressed concern that if women try to take on more traditionally masculine roles and traits, that which is uniquely and irreplaceably feminine could be diminished.
“The first (danger),” he said, “is to reduce maternity to a social role, to a task, albeit noble, but which in fact sets the woman aside with her potential and does not value her fully in the building of community. This is both in the civil sphere and in the ecclesial sphere.
“And, in reaction to this, there is the other danger in the opposite direction, that of promoting a type of emancipation which, in order to occupy spaces taken away from the masculine, abandons the feminine with the precious traits that characterize it.”