Here’s a wonderful attribute of your feminine genius: All women are called to spiritual motherhood. By virtue of being created feminine, the genius behind God’s design of you, body and soul, inherently equips you for motherhood.
All women have the gift of maternity, and it is lived in two ways: physical motherhood and spiritual motherhood. Physical mothers come to mind most obviously. They birth and raise their own biological children, or raise children as adoptive mothers, stepmothers, or foster mothers.
Spiritual motherhood means nurturing the spiritual, moral, emotional, and cultural life in others. Not all women give birth to children, yet all women are called to exercise a spiritual maternity in the world — giving care and nurture to others through their own maternal gift. (And, of course, spiritual mothering should be part of every physical mother’s care!)
To understand spiritual motherhood or spiritual maternity properly, we need to broaden our understanding of the gift of maternity. Growing up I considered maternity limited to nine months of pregnancy. Later in life, I read St. John Paul II’s 1988 apostolic letter, Mulieris Dignitatem (On the Dignity and Vocation of Women) and gained a new perspective.
The moral and spiritual strength of a woman is joined to her awareness that God entrusts the human being to her in a special way. … This entrusting concerns women in a special way — precisely by reason of their femininity — and this in a particular way determines their vocation. … A woman is strong because of her awareness of this entrusting. (30)
In this section of the document, John Paul describes the universal vocation of all women, not just women who bear children. God entrusts all women, by reason of their femininity — their design — to care for humanity. Maternal care, in a spiritual way, is not limited to childcare, but should be active in all phases of a woman’s life. Spiritual mothering doesn’t smother or infantilize teens or adults but loves and serves them according to the needs of the person one is caring for. It brings a motherly touch to our human relationships, and to our work —especially the spiritual and corporal works of mercy.
St. Teresa of Kolkata, founder of the Missionaries of Charity, is a powerful example. Mother Teresa displayed spiritual mothering in action. Her words, actions, and prayers mothered millions — not biologically, but spiritually.
Spiritual mothers in our midst
You might understand spiritual motherhood by answering the question: Who has spiritually mothered you?
My earliest memory of my godmother, whose name I bear, is when she took me into “the big city,” New York. As a child back then, it was a big deal. Aunt Pat made a fuss over me, giving me undivided attention. And I felt … special, doted upon, loved. Today Aunt Pat still remembers my birthdays and other occasions. Though separated by geographical distance, I immediately recognize the cards she sends by mail. Her handwriting on the envelopes is an unmistakably Catholic-schoolgirl-script from a bygone era, full of feminine flourishes. The messages inside are always warm and full of prayers. Her correspondence grounds me, and it reminds where I come from. She teaches me that love stretches over time and distance.
Paula lived in my church community when I was growing up. A bit older than me, she befriended me in my teens and remained in my life after I married in my 20s. When I became a mother, I went through a time when I felt like I was drowning in the stress of it all. Paula, a prayerful wife and then mother of three, threw me a lifeline by re-introducing me to the Blessed Mother as a friend and guide. I needed to bring Mary out of the church and into my home. Decades later, I still have the prayer book Paula gave me. It helped me ask Mary to intercede for me, through morning sickness, sleepless nights, and a myriad of new mother woes. Paula taught me that prayer is critical to my vocation as a wife and mother.
When our family moved to a new town, I met Eileen, another woman with a devotion to the Blessed Mother. With a quick wit and three boys of her own, Eileen’s door was always open, her coffeepot was always on, and she gave great hugs. I soaked up our many friendly conversations and the rosaries we prayed aloud around her kitchen table. Like the older women described in the New Testament Letter to Titus (see Titus 2:3–4). Her example deepened my devotion to the rosary and the desire to be that kind of friend to someone else. Eileen taught me the power of welcome and cheerful service.
I met Judi in the back of the church in 1996. She stayed after Mass to pray, but accidentally overheard my whispered conversation in a nearby pew. I was newly diagnosed with breast cancer and was expressing shock over it to a friend. Before leaving, Judi introduced herself. She had fought the disease years earlier and simply wanted to show me the face of someone who survived it.
That was a holy moment for me. She was a godsend. Judi became hope incarnate to me. We stayed in touch and Judi helped me negotiate cancer treatment and recovery. She was a one-woman support group and mentor rolled into one. In time we shared our love of writing, books, and the Bible. Her favorite Gospel story was the Transfiguration when Jesus’ friends momentarily saw him glorified — a glimpse of heaven on earth! I think of her when I pray that luminous mystery of the rosary. Judi was my friend for 10 years until her death. She taught me how to suffer well and live joyously at the same time.
I’ve prayed the rosary for over 25 years now in good times and bad. An interesting dynamic occurred over time. As my prayer grew, so did my wellbeing. Gradually, I discovered that I wasn’t only receiving help and consolation for my prayer intentions, but Mary was slowly mothering me, too. I experienced what the Church has long taught: Mary is our mother in the order of grace (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, 967–969.) The rosary has become my go-to prayer, where I talk things over with Mary, Mother-to-mother, Woman-to-woman. She teaches me to trust Jesus and the teachings of the Church more and more.
Each of these women is a spiritual mother to me. They didn’t replace my own mother’s influence in my life. They added to it, enriching my life in ways that made a lasting impact. God used them to fill me with love, hope, faith, and encouragement. Thanks to their holy influence, I am a better woman with stronger maternal sensibilities that I, too, am called to use as a spiritual mother.
Ten ways you can spot a spiritual mother …
- She nurtures others to become who they are meant to be in God’s eyes.
- She recognizes, affirms, and protects human dignity.
- She performs spiritual and corporal works of mercy with maternal care.
- She helps others by her encouraging words and charitable service.
- She prays for and with others as an intercessor for them, especially priests.
- She practices the arts of friendship and hospitality.
- She passes on what she knows as a mentor when asked.
- She is a joy catalyst.
- She keeps Christ close in her heart by imitating Mary.
- She is a woman of holy influence who helps to give birth to saints.
Spiritual motherhood is part of the mission of women
The Catholic role of godmothers has something to say about spiritual mothering, especially when viewed as something more than a title — a real ongoing opportunity to help someone grow in their faith. Yet spiritual motherhood suggests that “godmothering” is not limited to a sacramental role alone.
Almost 50 years ago, Bl. Paul VI closed Vatican II with this message:
The hour is coming, in fact has come, when the vocation of woman is being achieved in its fullness, the hour in which woman acquires in the world an influence, an effect, and a power never hitherto achieved. That is why, at this moment when the human race is undergoing so deep a transformation, women impregnated with the spirit of the Gospel can do so much to aid mankind in not falling. (Address to Women, 1965)
God’s plan of entrusting humanity to our womanly care means that, as women, we must step up and lead others using this wonderful maternal gift via spiritual and/or physical motherhood. We must become, more and more, women who reflect the love and life of the Gospel. We are called to be saints, and spiritual motherhood is part of a woman’s path to holiness.
Spiritual motherhood abounds in all women saints, but here are a few you might look up to:
Spiritual mothers who were married and gave birth to children:
- St. Anne
- St. Monica
- St. Frances of Rome
- St. Elizabeth Ann Seton
- St. Gianna Molla
Spiritual mothers who were religious sisters:
- St. Clare of Assisi
- St. Teresa of Avila
- St. Thérèse of Lisieux
- St. Katharine Drexel
- St. Marianne Cope
Spiritual mothers who were single laywomen:
- St. Mary Magdalene
- St. Agnes
- St. Joan of Arc
- St. Rose of Lima
- St. Kateri Tekakwitha