Since today is the Feast of the Queenship of Mary, it seems like a fitting time to follow up on my “Do Women Rule?” blog post. In that post, I explored the Catholic Church’s teaching on women and authority and concluded that, while the ministerial priesthood is reserved for men, the Church encourages women to use their God-given gifts in various leadership roles in the Church and in society at large. I also pointed out that women are called to be authentically feminine in all that they do, so it follows that feminine leadership must have certain characteristics that are distinctive and unique. So, as I promised, I’m going to explore what this feminine leadership looks like through the examples of a few incredible women: St. Catherine of Siena, St. Joan of Arc, and, of course, Mary, Queen of Heaven. Some of the traits I’ll explore are common to both men and women, but take on a distinctively feminine character in the lives of these saints. Others are truly unique to women. Taken together, I hope they will help paint a picture of authentic feminine leadership. It’s by no means the full picture, but hopefully it can serve as a springboard for your own reflections.
Let’s start with Mary, since she is the exemplar on whom these other women patterned their lives. She is also the ultimate example of feminine authority, since Catholics recognize her as Queen of Heaven. This isn’t just a nice-sounding title; it means that God has given her an authority second only to His. Sure, God could just rule over everything without her, but He chose her to crush the head of the serpent. While the major head-crushing took place the moment she gave her “yes” to the Angel Gabriel, it continues in each of our lives, as Mary helps us to battle the devil and brings us closer to her Son. In fact, Pope St. John Paul II credited her with using her queenly authority to save his life from an attempted assassination! Both during her life on earth and now, as Queen of Heaven, Mary shows us how to lead in a truly feminine way. Here are just a few of the lessons she can teach us.
- Feminine leadership is person-centered. Women have a remarkable ability to “acknowledge the person, because they see persons with their hearts.” (Pope St. John Paul II, Letter to Women) This openness to others often manifests itself in a motherly attentiveness. One beautiful example of this is Mary’s role at the Wedding of Cana. While everyone else was caught up in the celebration, she noticed a small detail: the wine was running low. Many people wouldn’t have thought twice about this, but her heart went out to the newly-weds; she saw what an embarrassment it would be if the wine ran out, so she sprang into action and, using her authority as the mother of Jesus, asked Him to do something about it.
- Feminine leadership is inseparable from spiritual motherhood. If Mary, the mother of Jesus and of all Christians, is the exemplar for women, it seems motherhood has something to do with authentic femininity. And it does. You don’t have to physically have children to imitate Mary’s motherhood, though. Pope St. John Paul II taught that all women are called to a spiritual motherhood. So, if you’re in a position of authority, you can bring your feminine gifts to bear on your role by imitating Mary’s motherly heart. On the other hand, being a mother is, by definition, being a leader. So, every time you exercise this spiritual motherhood, even if it’s not in a conventional leadership role, you are leading others to Christ.
St. Catherine of Siena
Catherine was a medieval mystic, reformer, and diplomat. She is perhaps best know for helping to end the Pope’s residence in Avignon and fighting corruption and schism in the Church. She seems an unlikely candidate for such a lofty role; she was not particularly well educated, learning to write late in life, and was sickly in her later years. Plus, women weren’t exactly encouraged to go around ending wars and reprimanding high-ranking Church officials. Catherine was a truly extraordinary leader, attracting many followers with her sanctity and inspiring some of the most powerful men of her day to better themselves. Here are a couple lessons in feminine leadership from St. Catherine:
- The Church needs women. Although the ministerial priesthood is reserved for man, the Church desperately needs women who can inspire and lead in other capacities. Especially today, as we struggle to come to terms with the horrific crimes and failures of many Church authorities, we should be inspired by St. Catherine’s example. While showing great respect for the divinely instituted offices of Church authorities, she fearlessly called upon them to man up and start acting like the shepherds they were meant to be. As women, we are called in a special way to defend the most vulnerable. We cannot afford to be silent.
- Women are the brides of Christ. Catherine’s spirituality was deeply rooted in her experience of Christ as bridegroom. Most of us will never experience a mystical marriage with Christ or receive an invisible wedding band from him (yes, that really happened), but we are all called to a spousal relationship with him. In fact, the Church as a whole is the bride of Christ! It can be hard for guys to understand how they fit into that, for obvious reasons. As women, even if we are not consecrated religious, we are blessed with special insight into what it means to be a bride of Christ. If we stay firmly rooted in this reality, we can lead others toward a more profound understanding of Christ’s love.
Joan of Arc
While St. Catherine didn’t lead an army, she has a lot in common with Joan of Arc, as Pope Benedict XVI points out in the book Holy Women: “She (Joan) is particularly close to St. Catherine of Siena…they were in fact two young women consecrated in virginity, two committed mystics, not in the cloister, but in the midst of the most dramatic reality of the Church and the world of their time. They are perhaps the most representative of those ‘strong women’ who, at the end of the Middle Ages, fearlessly bore the great light of the Gospel in the complex events of history.” While he doesn’t say it explicitly, I imagine the Pope also saw a similarity in Catherine and Joan’s remarkable ability to inspire and lead both men and women, at a time when it was unusual for women to take on such roles. So, it’s no surprise that St. Joan, like St. Catherine, can teach us a few things about feminine leadership.
- Feminine leadership isn’t about sticking to stereotypes. Joan insisted on wearing male clothing, even though it was considered scandalous at the time. Of course, she wasn’t trying to come across as more masculine; she just wanted the extra protection against rape that men’s attire would provide. Fortunately, we can wear pants without being accused of cross-dressing nowadays! Still, Joan teaches us the timeless lesson that being feminine isn’t about being “girly” or dressing a certain way. It’s about who we are and how we act.
- Women can be strong leaders AND still be sensitive and empathetic. One of my favorite stories about Joan is how she wept over a fallen enemy soldier. Too often, women are told that their sensitivity is a weakness. Crying is taboo. If we want to be respected as leaders, we have to act like tough guys. While I don’t recommend bursting into tears in the middle of an important meeting, the point is that women’s sensitivity is inherently GOOD. Imagine what a powerful witness Joan must have been to the soldiers on the field, French and British alike! These men had seen so much bloodshed, they must have become somewhat immune to the sight of death, especially the death of an enemy. Joan reminded them that each life is precious and, when lost, is worth mourning.
Of course, these lessons are just the tip of the iceberg. These three women have much more to teach us, and there are many more women who can serve as wonderful examples of feminine leadership. Feel free to share any examples that come to mind in the comments section! For now, I will end my reflections here and leave you to ponder further as you enjoy a very blessed Feast of Mary, Queen of Heaven.