The heroic history of nuns, sisters, and consecrated virgins and widows
Mike Aquilina Oct. 30, 2018
Anyone who has grown up in a devout home knows that the work of the Church turns on the prayers, decisions, and actions of Catholic women — ordinary mothers and wives who live in the parish.
And anyone who reads about the past knows that Church history turns on the prayers, decisions, and work of religious women — nuns, sisters, consecrated virgins, and consecrated widows.
It has been this way since the beginning. The company of Jesus’ disciples included a large number of women, at a time when mixing of the sexes was uncommon. Some seem to have dedicated their lives completely to him, leaving behind family life as the apostles did.
St. Paul, in his First Letter to the Corinthians, speaks of women who consecrated themselves to lifelong virginity and celibacy (1 Corinthians: 7).
Such women were numerous by the end of the first century, and their place in the Church was so deeply respected that two of the earliest Church Fathers, St. Clement of Rome and St. Ignatius of Antioch, warned that the greatest temptation faced by religious women was to pride and boasting.
In the Greco-Roman world, this was a radical development. The wider society had no special regard for virgins and widows. They were seen as accursed. They were impoverished because they had no means of income — no men to provide for them.
Roman women derived whatever personal identity they had from the males in their lives: father, husband, or sons. On their own, women lacked status and opportunity. You’ll find very few literary works by pagan women. And only men appear as heroes in the epics of non-Christian antiquity.
The duty of Roman women was to provide male children to carry the family name. From the beginning, however, Christian women distinguished themselves as leaders, writers, and teachers — and even epic heroes. One of the bestselling novels among the early Christians was the so-called Acts of Paul and Thecla.
It showed the great apostle to be dependent on the work of a strong woman who had consecrated her virginity to God.
In the second century, Christians from Athens to Rome — from Justin Martyr to Athenagoras — remarked upon the special place of consecrated women in the Church.
The third-century physician Galen despised Christianity, but he had to grudgingly admire these women, who courageously took up a difficult life and, “in self-discipline and self-control, have reached a level not beneath that of real philosophers.”
In Christianity, for the first time in history, women enjoyed the freedom to pursue their chosen vocation. They were subject to the dictates of their own conscience. In Greek and Roman society, girls were married off at age 11 or 12 to a much older man chosen for them by their father.
In the pagan world the situation drew not admiration, but rather suspicion and fear. To be an independent woman — or a woman living in a community of consecrated women — was seen as a revolutionary act, a threat to the traditional social order.
Consecrated virgins were often specifically targeted in the Roman persecutions. Many of the most renowned early martyrs were persecuted because they refused the marriages arranged for them. Their names are hallowed in the First Eucharistic Prayer.
Christian women used this unprecedented freedom to carry forward the work of the Church. Consecrated virgins and widows served as catechists and assisted in the administration of baptism.
In fourth-century Rome, communities of women distinguished themselves for scholarly research and knowledge of ancient languages. They also eagerly took up works of charity, providing relief for the poor, sick, and abandoned — classes of people who were shunned in the pagan world.
Consecrated women played a decisive role in the creation of the hospital. Before Christianity there had been no hospitals. It appeared as an institution only with the legalization of the Church in A.D. 312. And it was women — Fabiola in Rome, for example, and Olympias in Constantinople — who took the lead in establishing these first places of healing.
Women also played an important part in the development of monastic life. As early as the third century there were women living in community and as solitaries in the Egyptian desert. In Cappadocia in the fourth century, St. Gregory of Nyssa presented his sister, St. Macrina, as a leader in monastic life.
St. Benedict’s sister, St. Scholastica, did for cloistered women what her brother was doing for cloistered men. She set for them a way of life.
What was established in earliest Christianity continued as a pattern through all the centuries that followed. Religious women rose to prominence in the affairs of the Church. They were responsible for major developments in Church order, philanthropic work, scholarship, spirituality, and even the sciences.
At every turn in history, contemplative nuns and active sisters were there to take the lead.
Consider St. Catherine of Siena, whose letters of counsel reformed a wayward papacy. She succeeded where diplomats and strategists had failed.
Consider St. Hildegard of Bingen, who composed music and wrote major works in medicine and theology.
Consider St. Teresa of Ávila, who brought about the reform of religious life in spite of fierce opposition from Church and secular authorities.
Consider St. Thérèse of Lisieux, who is peerless in her influence on modern spirituality.
Consider St. Teresa of Calcutta — Mother Teresa — who won the Nobel Peace Prize and remains, even 21 years after her death, the world’s most recognized icon of charity and philanthropy.
Since the first proclamation of the gospel, the women we address as “Sister” and “Mother” have been movers and shakers in history. Christianity has given women a place that remains unrivaled in the world. And they hold that place today, in our convents and cloisters and diverse religious communities.
It is at least worth noting that other religions, even those that count women among their clergy, have not produced figures as iconic as ours.
As we celebrate vocations, we should turn our attention to these religious women still active (and contemplative) among us — though they never shine the spotlight on themselves.
Mike Aquilina is a contributing editor of Angelus News and the author of many books, including “The Witness of Early Christian Women: Mothers of the Church” and “St. Monica and the Power of Persistent Prayer.”
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