Sr. Maria Theotokos is a Religious Sister of the Congregation of the Servants of the Lord and the Virgin of Matara. She resides with 25 other sisters in the Convent of my parish (See photo at right). This is a wonderful new order (founded 1988) of Religious Sisters who love the Lord, our Lady and the Church. They are blessed by many young vocations and have a very good formation program. I have encouraged Sister to write from time to time so that we might have the perspective of Women Relgious here. In this post Sister writes a book review and also provides a critique of Feminism.
“An Unusual Little Book”
Sister Maria Theotokos Adams, SSVM
Recently a friend of mine lent me an unusual little book with the pointed comment that she thought I really should read it. As a religious sister, I typically focus first on my spiritual reading: scripture, saints, classic authors of the interior life, patristic commentary on the Scriptures. Then, there is always academic reading, new magisterial documents, and news. So where does this new book fall? And to what does it owe this particular treatment?
Suspicious Title! – Priesthood of the Heart: The Unique Vocation of Women(original publication in French 2003, Eng. 2007) by Jo Croissant has a title which threw me off the first time I heard it. As a young woman religious in my early 30’s I love my vocation as a spouse of Christ and a mother of souls—simply put, I know that don’t want to be a priest. Furthermore, like so many young women my age I passed through a period of academic feminism in high school which gave me a heavy enough dose of feminist writings to leave me thoroughly disenchanted. I remember reading in my teens the classic texts which revealed the “true condition” of women’s lot: Kate Chopin, Sylvia Plath, Simone de Beauvoire, Virginia Woolf. A Room of One’s Own attuned my vision to what would lay ahead if I were to pursue academics and writing in particular.
Problems with Radical Feminism – In all these readings, essential roles of identity—daughter, wife, and mother—were all devalued since they depended on others and therefore left woman in an endless cycle of subordination. When in college, I rebelled against this feminist model, and began to investigate Catholic teachings on women, marriage, and love as “gift of self.” We are relational beings by nature. It is a lie to tell women that only by being autonomous from all others are they free. And, so there ended my “orthodox” feminist perspective and began my searching into JP II’s “Theology of the Body” and the figure of the Virgin Mother of God. During my years at college in the late 1990’s, conversations among friends revealed again and again that many in our generation—raised by baby-boomer mothers deeply shaped by the feminist movement—were sad to have missed out on fathers and mothers who worked together as a family. Whether due to conditions of divorce, actively chosen single motherhood, or professionalism that produced total autonomy between husband and wife, our families had all suffered, we had all suffered something intangible and seemingly inevitable. A month after graduation from college I entered religious life, and so my attention has been more and more focused on the particular virtues and gifts proper to the consecrated woman.
A Genuine Catholic Thinker! Recently then, my first glance at Priesthood of the Heart was mixed with disinterest (“more feminism?”) and suspicion (“more Catholic feminism!?!”). Thirteen pages into the book, the reader will find what is so appealing about Croissant’s work: its strikingly contemporary voice. In a flash both my disinterest and suspicion were vanquished by the humor and intensity of this genuine Catholic thinker. Jo Croissant, the wife of Ephraim, founder of the Community of the Beatitudes, is a French woman who has lived through the hopes and disappointments of the women’s movement and now speaks to the conditions of today. To read a Catholic book about the vocation of women in the light of the feminist movement and of the contemporary crisis of family, society, and the world has offered me a renewed interest in these critical issues. It is not enough to proclaim the “inherent dignity of women” and to sigh for a past time which will never come again—and which may have had its own problems anyway. As young Catholic women of today, whether lay women or religious sisters, we are children of our age. We cannot easily embrace the depth of Catholic teaching without acknowledging what injustices women have suffered in the past, what confusion women have suffered as a result of feminism and what active role we are called to in the world today.
The Identity Crisis afflicting many women – In Priesthood of the Heart, Croissant first unveils the identity crisis and complex sorrow afflicting many women. Through short testimonies, she draws on the experiences of women who have tried to live as “liberated” or “autonomous” women, only be crushed over and over by the conflicts of identity in broken relationships. She then rebuilds a vision of woman through a study of the essential feminine vocation to love: as daughter, wife, and mother. Only as a relational being is woman complete. These relations must begin first in the light of God, so that woman as “daughter of the Father” can find her confidence and first identity outside of herself. When a woman tries to deny or manipulate these elements of her person in an attempt to grasp absolute freedom and independence, she looses herself.
God-Given Feminine Characteristics – Croissant points out that the natural desires to soothe, to nurture, to love through self-sacrifice are not “socially reinforced patterns of repression” but God-given feminine characteristics. By developing these virtues in a life of sacramental grace, women can fulfill the depths of spousal love, harmonize family life, and raise happy healthy children. God has assigned women a key role in building up marriage and family which are the foundations of society and of civilization. Never missing a chance to apply these true feminine gifts in all states of life (single, married, religious), Croissant has drawn out foundational Catholic teachings on the vocation of women with a fresh voice.
The Priesthood of the Baptized is distinct from the Ministerial Priesthood but supports it – In her final chapter on the “priesthood of the heart,” Jo Croissant builds on the common priesthood of the baptized. She develops the spirituality of intercession and sacrifice through which women perform a “priestly” role between God and humanity. Far from being any innovation on her part, Croissant is in line with the scriptural and magisterial teaching, expressed in #87-90 of Pius XII Mediator Dei (1947) and Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium (1964), #10-11. Especially helpful during the Year for Priests, the appropriate and complete understanding of women is for us to hear the call: “like living stones [to] be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pt 2:4-5). Women can engage fully in this papal initiative of the Year for Priests by turning our prayers and attention to the unique gift of the ministerial priesthood in the Church, and understanding better the subsequent distinction between their role of Alter Christus (“another Christ”) and ours of the “priesthood of the heart.” The natural outcome will be praying for priests, committing to spiritual maternity, and learning how to offer up to God the needs of our families, communities, and our world.
A Gift to the Present – Now I can understand why this unusual little book struck such a chord with my friend, and why she thought it would with me too. We all must face the reality of being “children of our age” even within the walls of a convent and clothed in long flowing habits. There is no “going back” to some other time, but rather Catholic women in all states of life have a gift to bring once more to the world. We must learn again how to love through sacrifice, fruitfulness, and silent strength. Imitation of the Virgin Mother of God is forever timely and forever fresh. We must help to build up our families, our parishes, our places of work, and the children entrusted to us by living fully as the women God made us to be. The needs of the world are urgent, and authentic change begins with the conversion of one child at a time, one family at a time, one woman at a time. For women in all states of life or discernment there is something of interest for you in this unusual little book.
Priesthood of the Heart: the Unique Vocation of Women (2007) Jo Croissant, Alba House, 152 pages, original French title: La Femme Sacerdotale, Ou Le Sacerdoce Du Coeur (2003).
Essential Reading: -Pope John Paul II, Mulieris Dignitatem (1988)
Further Reading: -St. Edith Stein, Essays on Woman (ICS Publications); -Alice Von Hilderbrand, The Privilege of Being a Woman (Sapientia Press); -Maurc Hawrke, Women in the Priesthood? (Ignatius Press)
Saints to Get to Know: -St. Catherine of Siena: consecrated virgin, international ambassador, Doctor of the Church; -St. Teresa of Avila: consecrated virgin, reformer, author, Doctor of the Church -St. Therese of the Child Jesus: Carmelite at 15 years of age, playwright, author, Doctor of the Church -St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, wife, mother, Episcopalian convert, foundress, religious sister, American saint -St. Edith Stein, philosopher, Jewish convert, Carmelite contemplative, martyr -St. Gianna Beretta Molla, physician, wife, mother, martyr for life -Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, religious sister, foundress, Nobel Prize winner, true friend of Jesus in His distressing disguise of “the poorest of the poor”
The Following Video depicts the History of the Religious Family of the Incarnate Word of which The Servants of the Lord are the women’s branch: