Designated as the month of the Holy Rosary, Catholics everywhere were encouraged to pray with special devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary in October. Catholics believe that she is the most exalted among women, the only creature God created without fault other than her son, Jesus Christ.
The month also began with the feast day of St. Therese of Lisieux, a 19th century saint who died at 24. She is considered to be the patron of missions and was such a beloved figure that the church responded to huge public demand for her canonization and elevated her to sainthood just 28 years after her death. Known by most Catholics as the “Little Flower of Jesus,” the most famous image of her shows a young habited woman with a delicate yet wry smile illuminating her shadowy eyes.
October marked the feasts of other important Catholic women, such as Teresa of Avila, a doctor of the church and a socialite nun born to an elite Spanish family. Hardly docile, Catholics laugh that she once in a moment of frustration told God in prayer, “No wonder you have so few friends!” She was such an intriguing figure that Marcelle Auclair, co-foundress of Marie-Claire, asked permission to enter the Carmelite cloisters in Spain to gather more information about her life. In a rare move, the Holy See granted permission, and Auclair spent two years completely emerged with the nuns of the order Avila founded. Upon re-emerging, the biography she wrote of Avila tells that Auclair admired “in her an essentially modern woman: inventive, practical, gallant and intrepid, with tremendous organizational capacities, whose genius permitted her to break through the restrictions of her time.”
Especially significant, however, was the elevation to sainthood of two American women on Sunday by Pope Benedict: Kateri Tekakwitha and Marianne Pope. In fact, of the seven made saints, only two were Americans, and both were women. American Catholic women were reminded that the first American-born saint ever to be canonized, Elizabeth Ann Seton, was also a woman. Like Avila, she was a spiritual entrepreneur; she was a socialite, highly educated, and the founder of a religious order. American female converts often choose her as a patron saint, as she too was a convert, but also because she was a bold and modern woman in her time.
Tekakwitha is an especially beloved Catholic figure. At the Basilica of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washingon, D.C., this past weekend, her statue was adorned with candles and lilies. Catholics lovingly refer to her as the “Lily of the Mohawks” for her gentle and diplomatic presence amid tumultuous relations between the Native Americans and the Europeans settlers. Of Tekakwitha’s elevation to sainthood on Sunday, Pope Benedict praised the “courage of her vocation” and entrusted her with the “renewal of the faith…in all of North America.”(As an aside, the Basilica is the eighth largest religious structure in the world and devoted entirely to Mary. A plaque in the minaret, donated by the male group, the Knights of Columbus, vows of their eternal devotion to the Virgin.)
Finally, October saw the first feast day of the newly beatified Pope John Paul II. Adored by Catholic women, Pope John Paul the Great was a champion of the rights and dignity of women. In her article “Pope John Paul II, Feminists, Women, and the Church,” theologian Janet Smith writes, “There are many injustices in this world; one of the greater among them is the perception among feminists that the Catholic Church and Pope John Paul II are not friends of women.” Indeed, Pope John Paul II was a champion of the legal, sexual, and social rights of women.
His respect for women can be seen vividly in the conclusion of his apostolic letter, Mulerius Dignitatem, (On the Dignity of Women), where he writes:
The Church gives thanks for all the manifestations of the feminine “genius” which have appeared in the course of history, in the midst of all peoples and nations; she gives thanks for all the charisms which the Holy Spirit distributes to women in the history of the People of God, for all the victories which she owes to their faith, hope and charity: she gives thanks for all the fruits of feminine holiness.
Recently, there has been a proliferation of articles and opinion-editorials devoted to the issue of “female ordination” or women’s rights within the Catholic Church. The suggestion seems to be that we are oppressed and marginalized within our faith. Yet after a month like this, lay Catholic women like myself are left wondering why. In our view, our sex has taken its rightful place within the ranks of theologians, doctors, and saints of the church. Like Blessed Kateri Tekawitha, we are spiritual leaders, respected and revered as much as any man.