Year of reconciliation intention for March: The dignity of women

For a man to comment on the dignity of women and their role in the church may appear presumptuous, patriarchal, and paternalistic. That is the reason I did not venture a commentary until after columns on the subject were written by my sister, Mary, and my parishioner-friend from Christ the King Parish in Jacksonville where I served as pastor, Donna Simons, the director of M.O.M.S. (Ministry of Mothers Sharing) in the Diocese of St. Augustine.

This month in our Year of Reconciliation in the Diocese of Charleston, we recognize, acknowledge, and applaud the contributions of our women to the church and call forth an acknowledgment of their great dignity in God’s plan of salvation.

The book of Genesis, in recording the creation event, presents a concise narrative that is the basis of my reflection. This passage from the book of Genesis has been the basis for our Holy Father’s much more profound reflections, given in the early days of his papacy: “Then God said, And now we will make human beings; they will be like us and resemble us. They will have power over the fish, the birds, and all animals, domestic and wild, large and small. So God created human beings, making them to be like himself. He created the male and female, blessed them, and said, Have many children, so that your descendants will live all over the earth and bring it under their control” (Genesis 1:28-29, American Bible Society, Catholic Church Extension Society edition, 1993).

The Book of Genesis teaches that there will be a resemblance of created human beings to their creator and they will be male and female. They will have a dominion over other creatures of God. Our creaturehood, while distinct from the Creator, reflects the divinity in some way. There is a distinction of the two created beings. One is male. One is female. There is no reference to a dominion of male over female or female over male, but both will have a kind of dominion over God’s other creatures. God created men and women as equals.

Our identity comes from God, Genesis is saying, including our sexual identity. We can see here the value of prizing that unique and special identity and diversity, of celebrating it and praising God for that uniqueness. God made us that way for a reason. God made us, not for competition, but for complementarity, collaboration, and completion. Alone we do not resemble the divinity. Alone we bear only a partial glimpse of God’s creation of humanity. Together, male and female, we sum up the entirety of the picture. We can conclude that our sexual identity is so closely tied to our personality that we take that unique identity into eternity with us after death.

Parenthood and progeny are the end result of the companionship, the union of men and women. “Have many children,” the Creator beckons, “so that your descendants will live all over the earth and bring it under their control” (Genesis 1:29).

To be father, to be mother is in some way the universal call by virtue of our created sexual identity. That fatherhood or motherhood is actualized by some in a physical way, but others are called to a spiritual fathering or mothering, especially those who have chosen the celibate state for the sake of the Kingdom. Jesus, in the New Testament, perhaps supports an enduring fatherhood and motherhood and sisterhood and brotherhood for those who have left such behind for his sake. They will receive a hundred times more what was given up for the kingdom (Matthew 19:29).

To be male or female is an invitation to paternity and maternity, if not in a physical kind of way, then in a spiritual way. No one is automatically father or mother in the full sense of the word. One grows into the relationship with the grace of God, the support of prayer, and daily effort.

For many Hispanic people the preferred title for the professed religious sister is “Madre.” For them every religious sister is “mother,” not just the general superior.

How keen the insight of the Spanish!

Mother Teresa of Calcutta was a religious sister, who was also a general superior until shortly before her death, to whom everyone could relate as their mother. Even women who are not professed religious or “mothers” in the physical-relation sense of the word play the role of motherhood.

My brothers, sister, and I had an aunt, now deceased, who didn’t marry until very late in life — Gertrude Schreiner, my dad’s sister, who had an immense influence on all of us. She was a nurse and a hospital administrator at a time when Catholics were not welcomed into positions like that in the small town where the Bakers lived then. (We have preserved two letters written to her by Klan [KKK] members giving reasons why she should not accept the position of hospital administrator. She ignored the letters, took the job, and held the respect of people who worked for her for about 30 years, until her retirement.)

My brothers, sister and I are very fortunate to have a wonderful mother, whom we treasure dearly, who has been a tremendous influence on all of us from day one. We were also blessed by our aunt Gertrude, who took us on as her “adopted children,” the children she never had physically, and maintained a “motherly” role in our upbringing. My brother Jack owes his medical career, in large part, to her influence. We all remember her fondly and are grateful for her bringing her maternal influence into our lives.

I want to acknowledge also the woman we all refer to as our “Blessed Mother.” She is the greatest of mothers. She had no physical relationship with a man. As Theotokos, her spousal relationship was with God. Her offspring was Jesus the Son of God, the Son of Mary. She is our Mother, too, handed on to us by Jesus from his cross.

Mary is the model for all time and for all women of the perfect woman and the perfect mother, whose children are all human beings. Everyone should relate to this woman as their mother, who is nurturing them and nurturing in them a great devotion to her Son.

Which brings me to the principal perspective I wish to share regarding one characteristic I have come to see as a distinctive, unique, and special role all women have. All women, in a sense, are mothers. They generate life, from the point of its conception, but in a distinct way.

In generativity the male is the seed-bearer, the initiator of life. The woman receives, contributes, conceives, embraces, supports, and shelters in the sanctuary of her womb what has become human life.

While both men and women are at the service of life and both are stewards of God’s gift of human life, co-authors of life with God, as it were, men and women are stewards and co-authors in unique ways.

I recall our seminary spiritual director once telling us seminarians in a conference in the seminary chapel that we could not be good priests unless we could be good husbands and fathers. I believe he would have said the same to women aspiring to be religious sisters. They could not be such unless they could be good wives and mothers. For they were indeed called to be brides of Christ and spiritual mothers to those in their charge.

One of the great challenges of church and society today is to help all men become good fathers and all women become good mothers. Parenting is for everyone. Every child needs and deserves a good father and a good mother. Organizations like M.O.M.S., organized by a religious sister, answer a great need in our church today.

How tragic today when we hear of fathers abusing, physically or sexually, children! Such an action not only wreaks havoc on the lives of children for years to come, but tragically undermines the personhood and sense of identity of the man involved.

How tragic today when we hear of mothers aborting their infants in the womb. Such an action not only destroys a precious life. It tragically undermines the personhood and sense of identity of the woman involved. Of course God uses us, his church, to bring healing and reconciliation even in tragic situations such as these.

As I mentioned earlier in this article, Pope John Paul II has spoken and written much more extensively and profoundly on the issue of human sexuality, especially in his Wednesday papal audience reflections at the outset of his papacy. These reflections, which are referred to as his “Theology of the Body,” are among the truly great contributions of his papacy and should be incorporated in some way into every Catholic program of sexual education and formation.

He has broken new ground in our understanding of God’s plan of salvation for women and men. Every Catholic should become acquainted with his teachings in this area, which will be the basis for theological reflections in our church for many more years, perhaps many more centuries. A good summary is found in a series of topics by Christopher West, Family Life director of the Archdiocese of Denver, entitled Naked Without Shame.

Last week’s New Catholic Miscellany carried a picture of a mother in a garden with a child.

The caption under the picture provided a quotation from Pope John Paul II’s 1995 letter to women: “Thank you women who are mothers! You have sheltered human beings within yourselves in a unique experience of joy and turmoil.”

I would in conclusion only add a footnote to the “Thank you” of our Holy Father.

I join him in thanking all women, for they share a role uniquely theirs. That role is motherhood, physical and/or spiritual. As they assume that role proudly, in a close relationship of prayer and collaboration with the men God has created as co-equal partners with them, may they bring happiness and peace to our world and the life and love of the Lord to his people. May they be comfortably at home in their church, faithful to its teachings, united with the Holy Father, heirs of the Kingdom that the Lord brings through his church to this world, and heirs to the Kingdom that will endure in the world to come, a Kingdom that will never end.

Thank you women of the church! You have spiritually sheltered human beings within yourselves in a unique experience of joy and travail. May God reward you for the shelter you have provided in your hearts for all human beings!