Mary, Priests and Spiritual Motherhood

Kathleen Beckman, L.H.S.

Women can also participate in the spiritual motherhood of priests in union with Mary, Icon of Spiritual Maternity. St. Edith Stein (also known by her religious name, Teresa Benedicta of the Cross) movingly describes how this is possible:

The intrinsic value of woman consists essentially in exceptional receptivity for God’s work in the soul.1

For an understanding of our unique feminine nature, let us look to the pure love and spiritual maternity of Mary. This spiritual maternity is the core of a woman’s soul. Wherever a woman functions authentically in this spirit of maternal pure love, Mary collaborates with her. This holds true whether the woman is married or single, professional or domestic or both, a Religious in the world or in the convent. Through this love, a woman is God’s special weapon in His fight against evil. Her intrinsic value is that she is able to do so because she has a special susceptibility for the works of God in souls — her own and others. She relates to others in His spirit of love.2

Here St. Edith Stein helps women understand the feminine heart, which is somewhat mysterious even to women. The quotation has striking points worthy of deep reflection. I have always marveled at the capacity of a woman’s heart to be engaged in the art of loving.

In the course of speaking at many Magnificat chapter gatherings over the years, I have heard the powerful testimonies of countless women. Their stories are heartrending dramas of the triumph of maternal love over sometimes terrifying circumstances. There is something great at work in the maternal heart that helps a woman to rise to occasions requiring her steadfast love.

A very feminine image comes to me now: that of a pregnant womb. I think the feminine heart is something like that when it is exercising maternal love — it expands to include everyone who needs her love. As St. Edith Stein teaches, this is because women have a “special susceptibility for the works of God in souls — hers and others.” Women have a God-given spiritual intuition ordered to the work of divine love. God created women to be life-bearers, and this is a distinct dignity. Whether the life we bear is spiritual or physical, or both, we are called to be bearers of the Word of God for others in emulation of Mary.

The Church recognizes the need for spiritual motherhood and acknowledges the unique dignity of the maternal-feminine heart. On December 8, 1965, at the closing of the Second Vatican Council, the Council Fathers said, “At this moment when the human race is undergoing so deep a transformation, women impregnated with the spirit of the Gospel can do much to aid mankind in not falling.” The word impregnated is not accidental. It indicates that women allow the gospel to take hold of their hearts and take root in their minds so as to be able to give the gift they have received to others. This sounds like a tall order! But let us recall St. Edith Stein’s words: “Wherever a woman functions authentically in this spirit of maternal pure love, Mary collaborates with her.” We have God’s Mother to “mother” us in the art of spiritual motherhood.

Mary is always at the service of God and His people, especially His priests. The Congregation for the Clergy’s initiative of spiritual maternity rightly points out that the spiritual motherhood of priests is “a hidden vocation, invisible to the naked eye.”3 They invite women disciples to imitate Mary in her maternal motherhood. I know holy women to whom priests confide their deep need for prayer. Not a word is ever spoken to anyone about this while the spiritual mother prays and suffers for the priest’s intention, winning grace for his priesthood. This is authentic spiritual motherhood of priests. The charism of spiritual maternity of priests can be a vocation within a vocation and can be lived by people of all walks of life.

A woman who is called to spiritual maternity of priests should first be schooled in the virtues of the Mother of the Eternal High Priest. She must be thoroughly Marian in character, thought, word, and deed. She should have spent hours of reflection with Mary to learn from her how to pray for priests — never assuming that she knows how to pray, but always aware that she must be led by the Holy Spirit, who led Mary to pray and serve.

To the priest, she should bring the face and heart of Mary and no other agenda. It was Mary’s self-effacement that made it possible for her to magnify the Lord. To magnify Jesus with Mary is to participate in her spiritual motherhood of priests.

1. St. Edith Stein, Essays on Woman (Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 1996), 259.
2. St. Edith Stein, quoted by Freda Mary Oben in The Life and Thought of St. Edith Stein (New York: Alba House, 2001), 82. 
3. Eucharistic Adoration for the Sanctification of Priests and Spiritual Maternity (Fort Collins, CO: Roman Catholic Books, 2013), 12.

(Excerpted from Praying for Priests: A Mission for the New Evangelization)