To hear some people tell it, for the past 2,000 years the Church has been nothing more than an old boys club — an institution founded by men, shaped by men and ruled by men, where women of wit and intelligence have had no influence.
In truth, however, the history of the Catholic Church is a history shot through with tales of brilliant, bold and holy women. This week, Our Sunday Visitor would like to introduce you to just a few of those remarkable women — women who left a profound mark on Christian belief and practice, shaping both Church and culture with their theological insights and spiritual wisdom over the past 2,000 years.
The Martyr: St. Perpetua
In the first centuries of Christianity, few events were as responsible for mass conversions to the fold as were the deaths of holy women such as St. Agnes, St. Cecilia and St. Blandina. Their martyrdom and the acts of barbarism they endured undermined the authority of the Roman Empire and brought countless souls to Christ.
Among these holy women, however, one martyr’s story, most of which was written in her own words during her time in prison, stood out: St. Perpetua.
Born to a noble family in Carthage in the late second century, Perpetua was a recent convert to Christianity, as well as a new mother, when she and her pregnant slave Felicity were arrested with a group of other new converts.
As the story she penned recalls, Perpetua’s pagan father used every argument he could muster to persuade her to renounce her faith, including taking her nursing son away from her. But Perpetua refused to apostatize.
That refusal was bolstered by a series of dreams or visions she experienced while in prison. In those dreams, Perpetua saw herself rescuing her dead brother from “a place of darkness and distress” through the power of her prayers. She also saw herself defeating both an evil serpent and a savage Egyptian, as well as ascending a ladder into heaven where she was welcomed by a white-haired Christ and a host of the blessed.
To Perpetua and the women who read her story later, those dreams were a sign of the power Christianity gave them — not power as the world understood it, but rather power to help save souls and vanquish evil through their relationship with Christ.
In 203, Perpetua was killed in the arena. But her witness to what it meant to be a spiritual mother and beloved daughter of Christ lived on, helping countless women (and men) understand their vocation as Christians.
The Teacher: St. Macrina the Younger
Her grandfather was a martyr, her grandmother a saint and her parents devout Christians. So, it shouldn’t be surprising that Macrina the Younger and three of her little brothers — Gregory of Nyssa, Basil the Great and Peter of Sebaste — all managed to follow in their grandmother’s footsteps and become saints as well.
What is surprising, at least to some, is that her brothers and their best friend, Gregory of Nazianzus, all credited Macrina as their teacher in the Faith and intellectual superior.
Born in 330 in what is now Turkey, Macrina received her first instruction in the Faith from her mother, who schooled her daughter almost exclusively from the Scriptures.
By the time she was a young woman, Macrina could quote passages of the Bible at length and was known for her devotion to prayer.
Although she originally agreed to marry a young man chosen for her by her father, the young man’s subsequent death changed her mind. From that point on, she refused all other offers of marriage and, with her mother, turned their household into an ascetic religious community. She spent the rest of her life living as an equal to her servants and the women who joined them.
When she wasn’t engaging in manual labor, Macrina spent hours each day in prayer, study and contemplation.
The fruits of Macrina’s efforts were theological insights so profound that her brothers and their friends routinely came to her when they encountered seemingly irresolvable difficulties in Scripture or philosophy.
Many of those conversations are recorded in the writings of Gregory of Nyssa, particularly his “Life of St. Macrina.”
Macrina died in 379, and although she left no body of her own work behind, her understanding and wisdom has been handed down to the Church through the teachings of the Cappadocian Fathers — her brothers Basil and Gregory, as well as Gregory of Nazianzus — who are considered among the Church’s most important early theologians for their contributions to the definition of the Trinity and the defeat of Arianism.
The Collaborators: Sts. Marcella, Paula and Eustochium
“Slave driver” was St. Jerome’s quasi-affectionate name for Marcella, a wealthy widow of Rome, but it just as easily could have been applied to Marcella’s students, the widow Paula and her daughter Eustochium.
The three women were among Jerome’s closest friends, famed for being so virtuous that even he tamed his infamously sharp tongue in their presence. They also were among his most valued intellectual sparring partners. Eleven of Jerome’s extant letters are to Marcella, and address a wide range of theological issues. The exchanges between them are probing and sharp, with Jerome admitting occasionally to staying up all night trying to find an answer to whatever query Marcella had raised.
It was also in Marcella’s home (which she turned into an ascetic community for women), that Jerome first met Paula and Eustochium.
Paula and Jerome became fast friends, and it was with Jerome’s encouragement that Paula and Eustochium left Rome for the Holy Land. There, they pursued a rigorous monastic life and, with Jerome, founded both a women’s and a men’s community.
Once settled in Bethlehem, Paula persuaded Jerome to begin his life’s greatest work — translating the Bible into Latin. Throughout the process, she offered him both encouragement and help, using her own fluent knowledge of Hebrew, Latin and Greek to assist him in his work.
After Paula’s death in 404, Eustochium took up where her mother left off, and spent the next 15 years before her own death working with Jerome on many of his most important Scripture commentaries. For her insight and dedication, Jerome dedicated the commentaries on Isaiah and Ezekiel to Eustochium.
The Renaissance Woman: St. Hildegard of Bingen
Born in 1098 as the 10th child of a noble family, Hildegard experienced her first mystical vision at the age of three, then was sent by her parents to live with an enclosed virgin, Uda, when she was only 8. A few years later, the two entered the Benedictine monastery of Disibodenberg together.
Not long after she took charge of Disibodenberg, at the behest of Bernard of Clairvaux, her bishop, and Pope Eugenus, Hildegard began dictating her ongoing mystical visions to her spiritual director. She also dictated her interpretations of them using biblical exegesis. These visions were collected in three separate volumes, her Scivias (“Know the Way”) Liber vitae meritorum (“Book of Life’s Merits”) and Liber divinorum operum (“Book of Divine Works”).
In addition to her mystical writings, Hildegard wrote botanical texts, with a special focus on the healing properties of plants, as well as hundreds of letters, dozens of liturgical songs (each with their own poetic text) and the earliest known morality play still in existence. She even invented her own language, a modified form of Latin used by the nuns in her community.
Perhaps her most notable theological legacy, however, was her critique of Aristotle’s theory of gender polarity (men are superior to women) and defense of gender complementarity (men and women are equal but different in mutually beneficial ways) — her arguments predating Edith Stein’s and Blessed John Paul II’s by more than 800 years.
Near the end of her life, Hildegard was commissioned by the pope to go on four separate preaching tours. Speaking to both clergy and the laity, she denounced clerical corruption and issued calls for repentance and reform.
After her death in 1179, Hildegard was beatified but never canonized. In May, Pope Benedict XVI formalized the Church’s recognition of her as a saint. On Oct. 7, the pontiff will proclaim her a Doctor of the Church, making her the fourth woman doctor.
The Anchoress: Dame Julian of Norwich
Little is known about Dame Julian, save the year of her birth (1342), the approximate year of her death (circa 1416), and that she lived in solitude in a small house attached to the cathedral in Norwich, England.
We also know that at the age of 31, she fell deathly ill. During the course of her illness, she received a series of mystical visions of Christ. Fifteen years later, Christ again appeared to her, this time explaining the meanings hidden within the visions. Finally, in 1393, she recorded what she learned in her mystical masterpiece, “The Revelations of Divine Love.”
Through the centuries, Julian’s revelations have influenced Catholics and Protestants alike.
Although Julian was never officially canonized by the Church, Pope Benedict XVI included her in his 2010 series of Wednesday audiences on women saints. Likewise, her well-known words on how Christians are called to respond to suffering are cited in the Catechism:
“Here I was taught by the grace of God that I should steadfastly keep me in the faith and that at the same time I should take my stand on and earnestly believe in what our Lord shewed in this time — that ‘all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner [of] things shall be well’” (No. 313).
The Doctors: Sts. Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, and Thérèse of Lisieux
At first glance, a 14th century Italian lay woman, a 16th century Spanish reformer, and a 19th century French Carmelite appear to have little in common. But appearances can be deceiving. The lay woman (Catherine), the reformer (Teresa) and the Carmelite (Thérèse), each left behind a theological and spiritual legacy so great that in the 20th century each was declared a Doctor of the Church.
Catherine, born in 1347, was a Dominican tertiary who never entered religious life but rather spent most of her 33 years in her parents’ home. Mystically betrothed to Christ at the age of 18, she dedicated her life to serving the sick and the poor. Eventually, however, Catherine took on a more public role in the Church. It was through Catherine’s efforts that both the Avignon Papacy and the Western Schism of 1378 came to an end. Likewise, her “Dialogues,” remain one of the most important mystical treatises in the Church.
Teresa, born in 1515, was originally sent to a Carmelite convent because her father thought it the best place to tame her wild ways. She made her own decision to remain, but for many years was lukewarm in her devotion. Deeper conversion came when her heart was mystically pierced by a “fiery golden spear.” More mystical experiences followed, giving Teresa the wisdom and courage to lead a reform of the Carmelite order. She died in 1582, but her books — “The Way of Perfection,” “The Interior Castle,” and “The Life of Teresa of Jesus” — are numbered among the greatest works on prayer in history.
Born to a middle-class French family in 1873, Thérèse Martin knew from childhood that she was called to religious life. She entered the Carmelite order as soon as she turned 15. She remained there until her death at 24 from tuberculosis. During that time, at the request of her superior (who was also her sister), she wrote her spiritual autobiography, “The Story of a Soul.” In the book, Thérèse explained her “little way,” a path to holiness consisting not of great deeds and penances, but of small offerings and sacrifices made to God in the midst of ordinary life. That “little way” to holiness has become the way for countless Catholics in the century since her death.
The Philosopher: St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein)
Born in 1891 to a Jewish family in Breslau Germany, Edith Stein admired her mother’s strong faith, but decided as a teenager that she could not share it. She stopped practicing Judaism and embraced atheism instead. Stein continued to reject the idea of a higher power throughout her time at university and while completing her doctoral studies in philosophy under the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl.
Then, in 1921, at the age of 30, Stein picked up the autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila, almost by chance, and began reading it. By the time she was finished, she was no longer an atheist. Baptized a year later, Stein spent the next 10 years teaching in a Dominican run school, writing, lecturing, and working to find a way to bridge the gap between phenomenology and Thomism. In 1932, she accepted a position at the Institute for Pedagogy in Münster, but within a year was forced by the Nazi regime to resign.
Soon after, in 1933, Stein entered the Discalced Carmelite monastery in Cologne. Six years after her arrival, out of fear for her safety, the community moved Stein to another Carmelite monastery in The Netherlands. That proved no safer. In 1942, after the Dutch Catholic bishops issued a statement condemning Nazism, all Catholic converts from Judaism, including Stein, were dispatched to concentration camps. She was executed in the gas chambers of Auschwitz immediately upon her arrival.
In 1998, Stein was canonized as a martyr by Pope John Paul II. Today, she is venerated for her Christian witness and the legacy of scholarship she left behind. That scholarship greatly advanced the Church’s understanding of gender complementarity. It also produced the fullest articulation of the feminine genius, informing Pope John Paul’s own writings on the dignity and vocation of women. That articulation can be found in Volume 2 of Stein’s Collected Works, “Essays on Women.”
Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.