Mary and Women - Women Role Models

Most people consciously or not have role models to guide them on life’s path. The reasons why a particular person can be a role model varies; but the admiration they inspire and the ideal they represent, is what makes them attractive. A decisive quality of an effective role model is the ability to convey moral and spiritual values an individual longs to emulate; a role model thus stimulates a person to reach beyond self.

The role models girls and women are exposed to today are related to fashion, dating, marital and any interpersonal relationships, as well as professional careers but do not deal with their future role as mothers. These models appeal to appearance, to fast fading popularity in the world of entertainment and sports. Often they are of questionable integrity, thereby persistently ignoring the Christian and moral implications of womanhood. 

Mary – the timeless role model

From a Christian/Catholic standpoint, the Blessed Virgin Mary remains the model for all woman at all times since the reality which she exemplifies is all-inclusive and transcends time and cultures. Mary is the perfected human being; in her women of all ages can see what it means to be a woman in communion with Christ. From her a woman of any cultural and social setting can learn that the fulfillment of feminine existence is not warranted by aspiring to become a copy of the masculine since such attempts always distort the female image and mission. Rather, Mary is the paradigm of a truly liberated woman, i.e. a woman who freely embraces her own calling and knows herself beloved by God and all generations. She is ”a model of the ‘sequela Christi’, an example of how the Bride must respond with love to the love of the Bridegroom.”

 Women after the image of Mary

 The fulfillment of each feminine existence lies in the unfolding of this God-willed image of woman, Mary.[1]  Women who strive to be an incarnation of Mary are likewise models for all Christian women. Concretely this implies complete surrender in the form of a gift of self to God and others in virginal motherhood or motherly virginity depending on one’s state in life. The bridal and maternal facets of femininity correspond to two specific and complementary feminine roles: the undivided (virginal) receptivity for God and her giving of self (maternal) to others. 

By living up to their calling from God, women will recognize the unique value of femininity and its crucial mission in this world.  This is proven by numerous testimonies. John Paul II summarizes them as follows:

 A constant impulse has come from the icon of Mary, the ‘ideal woman’,... But also [from] the courage of women martyrs who faced the cruelest torments with astounding fortitude, the witness of women exemplary for their radical commitment to the ascetic life, the daily dedication of countless wives and mothers in that ‘domestic Church’ that is the family and the charisms of the many women mystics who have also contributed to the growth of theological understanding, offering the Church invaluable guidance in grasping fully God’s plan for women.[2]

             Married women

 Though much disputed in our time, the deepest and most authentic mission of a married woman is her spouse and family.[3]  In an address to women at the close of Vatican II, Paul VI explained:  

Wives, mothers of families, the first educators of the human race in the intimacy of the family circle, pass on to your sons and your daughters the traditions of your fathers at the same time that you prepare them for an unsearchable future. Always remember that by her children a mother belongs to that future which perhaps she will not see.[4]

 Throughout history there were women models who by their prayers and example have supported their husbands in their mission, for example: Elizabeth of Hungary, Bridget of Sweden, Dorothea of Flue. A more recent example is Franziska, the wife of Franz Jägerstätter, the Austrian farmer, who was executed because he followed his conscience and refused to fight in Hitler’s army. His courageous wife, after a difficult struggle, aligned herself to the sacrifice of his life.

Patience and forgiveness were exemplary of some holy wives who eventually brought about the conversion of their erring spouses, for example: St. Monica, St Rita of Cascia, Perpetua and Felicity. A model wife of the twentieth century, Elizabeth Leseur, a Frenchwoman who died in 1914, should be noted in this context: She kept a hidden diary detailing her spiritual life and the sorrow at her husband’s mockery and skepticism, which makes edifying reading. After her death her husband Dr Felix Leseur discovered her notes. He was consequently converted and became a Dominican priest.

Mothers

The stories of holy Christian mothers are bountiful, for example, Margaret of Scotland,[5] Margherita Bosco,[6] Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton.[7]  The heroic sacrifice of a contemporary mother, Gianna Molla, deserves mentioning here. In September of 1961, at the age of thirty-nine, Gianna was pregnant with her fourth child when physicians diagnosed a large ovarian cyst which required surgery. The surgeon suggested that Gianna undergo an abortion in order to save her own life. Gianna's decision was prompt and decisive: "I shall accept whatever they will do to me provided they save the child." Gianna died seven days after giving birth to her daughter Gianna Emanuela on April 28, 1962.  Gianna was canonized on May 16, 2004 in the presence of her husband and children.

Every Christian mother who is a role model transmits to contemporary mothers the supreme gift of giving life and nurturing it. For in view of eternal life one thing is certain: in contrast to all human accomplishments which will be reduced to nothing, every single child to whom a woman has given birth will live forever; for s/he has been given an immortal soul made in God’s image and likeness.

Women in the professional world

Like Mary, all women are called to cooperate in the redemption of the world. In doing so, women are able to receive, savor and transmit natural and supernatural life. Mary did so in silence, selfless service and availability always receptive to of her calling and mission. Similarly, a woman’s essence is best illustrated when she becomes a gift of love in and through her specific calling. The influence that she can then exert is enormous; it is however not exercised through dominance but rather by example and gently guiding persuasion. This holds true not in the least for women in the professional world. Paul VI acknowledged the contribution women are to make in the world:

And you, women living alone, realize what you can accomplish through your dedicated vocation. Society is appealing to you on all sides. Not even families can live without the help of those who have no families.

 In our days, John Paul II highlighted the struggle of Edith Stein:

 to promote the social status of women; and especially profound are the pages in which she explores the values of womanhood and woman’s mission from the human and religious standpoint.

                   A deplorable consequence of some of contemporary culture is that service is  considered demeaning. Yet, if women generously fulfill their mission in serving God and people, they live up to the call of Jesus Christ: “I have not come to be served but to serve.” It is incomprehensible therefore that women’s service to the church is considered to be degrading. An example that illustrates this, are the Rossi sisters. All three teach theology at the Angelicum in Rome. While they consider their profession a gift of gratitude to the service of the church they do not deny that it also includes sacrifices since none of them is able to support herself from her earnings as theology professor.

In conclusion:

To assume Mary as a role model for women of the third millennium does not imply that her image needs to be redesigned in view of postmodernity. Her being a role model does not depend on a socio–political context. Women saints as role models for Christian women emulate the facets of Mary’s femininity expressed in the married and single state.


[1] For more information please see The Blessed Virgin Mary and Women in this section.
[2] John Paul II. Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem - On the dignity and vocation of women. August 15, 1988, 27.
[3] Arguably, the same can be said about being a married man.
[4] Paul VI to women at the closing of the Second Vatican Council on December 8, 1965.
[5] Born about 1045, died 16 Nov., 1092, was a daughter of Edward "Outremere," or "the Exile", by Agatha, kinswoman of Gisela, the wife of St. Stephen of Hungary.
[6] Mother of Don Bosco.
[7] Convert to Roman Catholicism; foundress of the American Sisters of Charity, which was the first sisterhood native to the United States; a wife, mother, widow, sole parent, foundress, educator, social minister, and spiritual leader, Elizabeth Bayley Seton (1774 – 1821) was the first person born in the United States to become a canonized saint on September 14, 1975.

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