Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Don't We Have Any "Church Mothers"?

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Don't We Have Any "Church Mothers"?

Article excerpt

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 Perpetua's 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. …

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