Joanna Moorhead on the women of vision whose stories are as modern today as in their own time.
At a time when women are redefining their history, and when questions are being rightly asked about the nature of female heroism in the stories children are told, could it be that the historic women of Catholicism can provide some of the most relevant and on-trend role models around?
That’s the thesis at the heart of my new book Rebel Saints, with illustrations by Clare Körmöczy, which takes 40 notable females in the history of the Catholic Church and reinterprets their lives for the world of today.
From Thérèse of Lisieux, who battled with endless doubts, Angela Merici, who pioneered educational opportunities for girls; from single mother Margaret of Cortona, who founded a hospital, to Irma Dulce Pontes who established Brazil’s largest charity; from Cecilia Butsi, martyred during the Second World War, to Pop Art nun Corita Kent, the women of Catholic history have stories to rival the best fictional tales. And what’s especially interesting is that they were far more likely than many fictional women to be the principals of their own stories. You had a much better bet of finding them riding off into battle like Joan of Arc, or founding a series of schools like Madeleine Sophie Bharat, or organising a groundbreaking international conference, like Hilda of Whitby, than hanging around waiting for a handsome prince to carry them off.
The lives of women saints, and of other radical women in the Catholic Church, were often reshaped after their deaths by a male-centric view of the world. The most blatant example is that of Mary Magdalene, so-called because she came from an area called Magadan or Magdala on the Sea of Galilee, a fishing port.
According to Luke’s Gospel, Mary Magdalene was surprisingly independent for a Jewish woman at the time: she stayed near Christ, and supported and encouraged him and his followers. This suggests that Mary was a woman of means, and she was clearly one of those closest to Jesus. She stayed with him until the very end, standing at the foot of the cross with his mother when his male apostles had gone.
Mary is also acknowledged in the gospels as the first person to see the risen Christ, which gives her a central role in any telling of the Christian story. And yet 300 years later she was known as ‘the sinner’, and fast forward another three centuries and Pope Gregory I was denouncing her as ‘a fallen woman’ who carried out ‘forbidden acts’.
It wasn’t until 1969 that Pope Paul VI made clear that there was no evidence that Mary Magdalene was a sinful woman, and that her story had likely been wrongly intertwined with the story of another woman from Bible history. However it happened, it was convenient for those in the early church who would have been uncomfortable with the idea that Jesus treated women as equals, and that a woman was as close an adviser to him as men like John, Peter and Matthew.
Other women in my book, while they followed a path through life that would be considered exemplary today, have still not been rehabilitated by a Church that rejected them in their own time. I’m thinking here of one of my own favourites, the Mexican nun Juana Ines de la Cruz, who championed (as so many women in the book did) girls’ right to education. Juana believed in the power of female role-modelling – she understood how important it was for young women to see older women who had succeeded, and who had power.
But like many great women in the Catholic Church, Juana got on the wrong side of the bishops who were in charge – and eventually she was ostracized, and sold all her books in protest. In the mid-20th century she was rediscovered by Mexican writer Octavio Paz, but she is still waiting to have her story re-told by the institutional Church she served.
Then there are women like Catherine of Siena, who eschewed the traditional pathway of marriage and motherhood and who instead pushed for the right to be an active servant of the poor and the sick in the world.
At a time when being a nun usually meant being enclosed in a convent, Catherine joined the Third Order of St Dominic instead. But as time went on she realized that working for the poor was only part of her vocation: another part was to try to persuade the clerics who ran the Catholic Church of the urgent need for them to reform themselves. She travelled to Avignon in France where the Papacy was based at the time, and helped persuade the pope to return to Rome; later, she became adviser to a new pope.
There’s an honesty, too, about many of the great women of Catholic history: a willingness to be straightforward about how difficult life is, a lack of pretence. I’m thinking of individuals like Thérèse of Liseux, who despite being a Carmelite nun was very clear, in the memoir that when published after her death would make her world-famous, about her long periods with no sense of the presence of God. She also encapsulated another positive trait found in many of the women in the book, which was an ability to find God amongst the very ordinary acts of everyday life. Being a Christian was not, for Therese and many other women profiled, about seeking power or glory or advancement on earth; it was genuinely bound up in a relationship with God, and with fellow human beings.
The Catholic Church’s male-only clerical system has given many women a kind of freedom and scope that might be harder for many men, who may feel their vocation lay in being ordained and who would then be part of the institutional Church. Many of the women in this book have achieved an impressive independence: they have been able to live with their first loyalty to their faith and their conscience, rather than to the organized Church. There are several striking examples of these in the 20th century: in the book I write about women like Flannery O’Connor, for whom a God who worked in mysterious and disruptive ways was at the heart of all her stories, and the socialist and feminist Dorothy Day, who became known as ‘the first hippie’ and who worked tirelessly for the values of Catholic social teaching and spoke out towards the end of her life against the Vietnam war.
O’Connor and Day are amongst the most contemporary women in the book, but the arc of these women and their witness stretches back across the last 2000 years – and what’s striking is how similar the characters of the early Church, and the more recent great women of Church history, were. Even those who are probably to a large extent legendary, such as the 5th century Brigid of Kildare, are remembered for values that are strikingly modern: kindness, and for the support she gave the young people around her.
To underline how of-the-moment the stories of these women are, artist Clare Körmöczy has re-interpreted them for the 21st century, and for today’s girls and women. The idea, from both of us, is to offer them not as figures from history, but as luminaries whose message is as relevant today as in their own time. We hope you enjoy the book – and we hope especially that it inspires our younger readers.