We live in times in which much has been said about woman, her dignity and her role in the family and the world. This week Pope Francis raised eyebrows around the world when he told a group of 800 visiting nuns they must be spiritual mothers and not 'old maids.' The sisters, who came from 76 countries, were in Rome for the plenary assembly of the International Union of Superiors General. He asked them; "What would the church be without you? It would be missing maternity, affection, tenderness and a mother's intuition." In his talk to the women, Pope Francis said their vow of chastity expands their ability to give themselves to God and to others "with the tenderness, mercy and closeness of Christ." However, "please, let it be a fruitful chastity, a chastity that generates sons and daughters in the church. The consecrated woman is a mother, must be a mother and not a spinster," he said. While the sisters were laughing at his use of a very colloquial Italian word for "spinster" or "old maid," he added: "Forgive me for speaking this way, but the motherhood of consecrated life, its fertility, is important."
When I got to this part of the Pope’s talk, I was blown away. I had been waiting a long time to hear this said and was a beautiful confirmation of my vocation. As a disciple of the Divine Master, the vocation of spiritual maternity is very strong in our lives. We are called in a special way to be mothers to priests, walking alongside them as Mary our Mother walked with Jesus. Pope Francis said that just as Mary could not be understood without recognizing her role as being Jesus' mother, the church cannot be understood without recognizing its role as being the mother of all believers. "And you are an icon of Mary and the church," he said. Often people don’t associate sisters or nuns as being mothers, unless they happen to have the title ‘Mother Superior’. In many circles, even this title is dying out as for many it has connotations with subordination and not maternity.
One of the saddest things I sometimes hear a sister say is that they enter religious life because they don’t feel called or have the vocation to be a mother. This just doesn’t make sense. Every religious sister should be able to say: ‘I would have been a good mother or a good spouse’. The same can be said of every priest or brother. First of all, a vocation is a call that the Lord places in the heart of the human person. This vocation, this calling, can and should be answered with the totality of the human heart because our hearts are capable of giving an answer of love, of making an act of self-giving. A vocation will always imply the total surrender of self for the greatest cause of love. The human person, created to love, will find its fulfillment in the generous giving of self. A vocation is a human reality, since only the human person was created for love, and only the human heart can experience a call to love and respond to it with love (MD, 29). Women realize this call to self-donation, which is engraved in their feminine nature, by being spouses and mothers. These are the two interconnected channels by which a woman expresses her call to a generous and sacrificial love, a love that is capable of giving life. The heart and body of a woman, and all of her being, is created to manifest her self-donation in two ways: being a spouse and a mother. Whether a woman embraces the vocation to married life or to consecrated virginity, she lives her spousal and maternal dimensions, but in different forms.
Spousal love always involves a special readiness to be poured out for the sake of those who come within one’s range of activity. In marriage this readiness, even though open to all, consists mainly in the love that parents give to their spouse and to their children. In virginity this readiness is open to all people who are embraced by the love of Christ the Spouse. In this way a consecrated woman finds her Spouse, different and the same in each and every person, according to his very words: ‘As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me’(Mt 25:40).” The call to motherhood is universal among women and consecrated women are no exception. It doesn’t matter if you are married, single, have children or not, consecrated religious, a housewife or professional; we each possess the innate gift to nurture, which is the defining characteristic of being a mother. We have an undeniable softness to our nature; all of which are founded on the inclination to cultivate love in others by showing love ourselves. As women, we shouldn’t have to apologise for this or strive to alter it for fear of being seen as weak or vulnerable because of these characteristics. Taking this gift beyond its basic implication of encouraging growth or development, Catholic women especially have the ability to foster holiness both in themselves and in others, which St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross called “spiritual maternity.” The whole object of spiritual maternity is to grow in holiness by performing our day-to-day actions out of love for God over our own gratification. Of course, how to go about this varies according to the situation in which we find ourselves. It could be just offering a patient ear to those who need a sacred space to be listened to, being present without distraction to loved ones.
John Paul II was convinced of and affirmed that the vocation of woman is one, and it is her greatest calling: to love with the genius of her feminine heart. Woman, in her feminine being (body, soul and psychology), has inscribed in her heart a special calling of self giving, of self-donation. Men also have the vocation to love, proper to the manly characteristics of their hearts. But it is woman who, in a certain sense, has the vocation and mission to teach men to discover, understand and put into practice the vocation to love. Some people may see this as being very sexist but it is the beauty of the complimentarity of relationships of which we have the model going back to the Book of Genesis. In Mulieris Dignitatum we are told, “In God’s eternal plan, woman is the one in whom the order of love in the created world of persons takes first root” (29). The loving plan of God and His communication of love in the heart of woman is able to firmly take first root, thus making her heart a special place where love can grow, be manifested and become fruitful.
The Second Vatican Council declared in its Closing Message, “The hour is coming, in fact has come, when the vocation of woman is being acknowledged in its fullness, the hour in which woman acquire in the world an influence, an effect and a power never hitherto achieved. That is why, at this moment when the human race is under-going so deep a transformation, women imbued with a spirit of the Gospel can do so much to aid humanity in not falling” (cf. Proposition 2, as quoted in MD, 1).
Last Thursday, about 25,000 people came to Ottawa to join the March for Life and give a message to the world that life should be respected from its natural beginning to its natural end. It was a powerful witness to the sacredness of life. Abortion attacks and kills children in the womb but it also attacks motherhood in detaching the woman from her child in the womb by convincing her that it is okay because it is not yet a child. A mother is a mother from the moment of the conception and the father is a father. This year’s theme: “It’s a girl’, should not be a death sentence”, focused on the issue of female gendercide. If we continue to abort female babies simply because they are female, then we are aborting potential mothers, sisters, grandmothers, religious sisters, nieces, aunts etc. We deprive society not just of children but of the natural gift which contributes to the natural harmony of the world and its relational dynamics.
So today we celebrate Mother’s Day and I am celebrating too! We can say that motherhood is essential in building a new civilization where love and life must be the good news presented to contemporary man and religious women should and must be part of this. Life must be welcomed as the greatest gift of God to humanity. There is a strong invitation for women that their hearts be totally disposed to serve the God of love and life. Women must discover first that their wombs are the sanctuaries of love in which every human life must be welcomed, valued and loved. They can build in their hearts a new culture in which unconditional love conquers the temptation of selfishness and in which self-oblation becomes the most powerful tool of self-realization.
To those of you who have managed to make it to the end, apologies for this post being so long but it has been something which has been on my mind and heart for a long time. I have had ample opportunity to reflect upon this over the past few months. Many of the readers of this blog know that since last August I have not been living in one of our religious communities but am here in Ottawa living in the student residence of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. Our community is a predominantly male community, about 6 women and 45 men! It is a huge change not living in a female religious community but it has been a challenge to embrace the journey of discovering the gift that my presence as a woman and a religious can bring to this reality. It is an experience of discovering that mutual complimentarity that I spoke about earlier and for that I feel I am more blessed in my vocation and receive much insight that allows me to be selfless for the Kingdom of God! Happy Mother’s Day to you all!