Does the church have any ‘mothers’?
Writers on the early church speak often of ‘Church Fathers,’ but were there any Church Mothers?
Because of the cultural situation of the time, women wrote little and wielded power even less, so it’s hard to speak of “Church Mothers” in the same way we do the “Fathers.” Nevertheless, many ancient Christian women were known for their heroic faith as martyrs, spiritual guides, teachers, and, of course, mothers. They were often commended for their unique purity of life, their inner strength, and even their “virile” courage.
The few testimonies we have are remarkable. Many women grace the lists of early Christian martyrs. Perhaps most famous is a pair of young North African mothers, Perpetua and Felicity, whom the Romans threw to beasts in the early third century. We have the record of Perpetuas own testimony in the face of death: “I cannot call myself by any other name than what I am, a Christian.”
After the age of persecution, women embodied heroic Christian sacrifice and equaled men in striving for Christian holiness. While a head male monk of the Egyptian desert was called abba (father), a female leader was called amma (mother). Some traces of the teachings of these “desert mothers” survive, including a few sayings of Amma Syncletica. She compared spiritual people to ships on a rough sea. Though often facing contrary winds, she said, if “we hold to the cross as our sail, we can set a safe course.” Another woman, Egeria, literally sailed to Jerusalem and back in order to instruct her fourth-century community with eyewitness accounts of liturgies.
Macrina was the elder sister of Saints Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nyssa. Gregory was a mystic and theologian who spoke of his sister as his teacher, especially crediting her with unveiling the spiritual reality of the Resurrection. He was changed within on hearing her words as she died, “O Lord, you have removed from us the fear of death.”
In the West, the difficult St. Jerome was often stingy with praise, but not toward his friend Paula. “If each of my limbs were to be gifted with a human voice,” he wrote, “I could still do no justice to the virtues of the holy and venerable Paula.”
Among faithful Christian mothers none surpasses Monica, mother of St. Augustine. When he was young and spiritually aimless, she wept and prayed ceaselessly for his return to faith. She was encouraged by a bishop who told her, “It cannot happen that the son of these tears should be lost.” In his writings Augustine lavishly praised her wisdom, perseverance, and holiness.
Though perhaps not as well known, these holy women—in line with Sarah, Deborah, and Ruth in the Old Testament, and Mary, Mary Magdelene, Lydia, Priscilla, and Phoebe in the New—remain models for all Christians today.
This article appeared in the January 2006 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 71, No. 1, page 41).