Reflecting on the mothers of the Church

In the ancient Roman world, Christianity was considered a radical and subversive religion, in part, because Christians refused to worship the emperor as a god. It was also considered radical and subversive, however, because of the dignity it accorded to women, in effect upending the traditional Roman social order. 

In their new book, “The Mothers of the Church” (Our Sunday Visitor, $13.95), Mike Aquilina and Christopher Bailey offer a glimpse into the lives of some of the first women to embrace Christianity, explaining who they were, what they did and how their faith still affects the Church today. 

Recently Our Sunday Visitor spoke to Aquilina about some of the remarkable women depicted in the book and the world in which they lived. 

Our Sunday Visitor: Prior to Christ’s death and resurrection, what was life like for the average woman in the ancient world? 

Mike Aquilina: The Greco-Roman world was dominated by men, while women and girls were viewed with disdain. They did not have opportunities to earn a living or gain prestige for the family. They would, in fact, require a sizable dowry when it came time for them to marry. Thus they were seen as a drag on the family economy.  

Among the Romans, the phrase used to describe female offspring was “odious daughters”; and it was best to arrange a marriage for these girls as soon as possible, usually at age 11 or so and to a guy twice their age or older. One historian describes the typical consummation as “a legal rape.”  

Once the couple had had the desired offspring, the male usually took up adultery and other diversions. Divorce, too, was easily obtained. 

OSV: That sounds perfectly charming. 

Aquilina: Doesn’t it? And that was life for those who lived to see their second day from birth. It’s quite possible, though, that most female babies never lived that long.  

In the Roman Empire, as in some pagan cultures today, infanticide was an accepted practice, and families routinely killed baby girls. In the census rolls of ancient Delphi, only six out of 600 families raised more than one daughter. Where did all those little girls go?  

In Ashkelon, archeologists have unearthed a sewer clogged with the bones of newborn girls. Similar sites have been discovered elsewhere, most recently last year in Scotland. 

OSV: How did Christianity change that? 

Aquilina
Aquilina

Aquilina: Christianity respected the vocational freedom of girls and women. The early Church Fathers spoke out against forcing girls into marriage before puberty. They insisted that women should have freedom to pursue a vocation other than marriage — a radical idea. And they made the conditions possible for a decent life outside marriage. 

When you read about the beneficiaries of the first Christians’ Sunday collections, widows and orphans always rank near the top of the list. 

OSV: How did that go over? 

Aquilina: St. Paul threw a verbal grenade when he wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).  

The explosion rocked the Roman Empire for centuries. Before Christianity, the idea of a female hero in an epic poem would have been a joke, an absurdity. But so many of the early Christian heroes, hallowed in poems and biographies, were women: Perpetua and Felicity, Blandina, Agnes. They were the subjects of best-selling books written by the world’s leading intellectuals.  

No self-respecting pagan gentleman would have wasted his time on such subject matter. 

OSV: What made consecrated virginity such a radical and empowering choice for early Christian women? 

Aquilina: In the pagan world, your worth depended on the males in your life — your father, your husband, your sons. So it was an immense and insurmountable tragedy to be orphaned, unmarried, or childless. You were likely to find yourself impoverished and vulnerable. 

Yet there, among the Christians, was a whole category of women who had chosen to be single and independent — to take up study of Greek and Hebrew in order to read the Scriptures. It was a bold declaration of independence from the world, and dependence only on God. 

OSV: Intellectually, what were some of the most important contributions made by early Christian women? 

Aquilina: Augustine is one of the half-dozen most influential figures in all of history. Yet he said he owed everything to his mother. Gregory of Nyssa spoke similarly of his sister Macrina, who gathered a community of women about her on the family estate in Pontus.  

We can see such influence even earlier in history, in the leadership role Perpetua assumed in prison.  

These women were not hankering after priesthood. They didn’t need vestments in order to gain respect and attention. They were saints, so people gravitated toward them, and people listened to them. I suspect the influence of women in the early Church was vast. 

OSV: How did their male peers view this foray into scholarship? What was unique about that attitude? 

Aquilina: Jerome encouraged it. How wonderful that the most learned Scripture scholar in the world spent his gifts enriching a community of women who pressed him to still greater learning. Gregory of Nyssa, a man of singular intelligence, said he owed everything to his sister, Macrina, whom he called “The Teacher,” conferring on her a title usually given to Jesus Christ.  

Augustine revered his mother’s spiritual counsel as he revered none other on earth. She is the humble star of his Confessions and his dialogues. And she was hardly an anomaly in his life. His letters of spiritual direction to women show that he considered them his equals before God and capable of great holiness.

OSV: What is the lasting legacy of these women? 

Aquilina: I believe they made the home we call the Church. If men taught doctrine from the pulpits, it was doctrine they had learned from their mothers. If men conferred baptism, they conferred it on convert classes — mostly made up of women — who had been prepared by women.  

I believe the contribution of early Christian women is incalculable because it was quiet, yet phenomenally effective.  

It’s like the Big Bang, detectable today in background radiation that shines like a halo everywhere. 

Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.