Spiritual Maternity of Priests: A Carmelite Perspective

Mother Judith Zuniga, O.C.D

A number of years ago, I had the immense privilege to study and work in Rome. It was during those very blessed years that our Lord granted me the grace-filled opportunity to meet wonderful priests and seminarians whose enduring friendships would serve to deepen my respect and love for the sacred priesthood of Jesus Christ. As I studied and worked alongside these very dear spiritual sons and brothers, their joys, accomplishments, sorrows, and struggles became my very own, and it was through them, by them, in them, and for them that I came to understand and appreciate more profoundly my own role as spiritual mother of priests.

How does one begin to verbalize a matter of the heart such as the spiritual maternity of priests? As a Carmelite Sister, I treasure it from the core of my being as a sacred gift that has been entrusted to me. The realities of spiritual paternity and spiritual maternity are inextricably grounded in the sacrament of Baptism, since, by virtue of our Baptism in Christ, we are made collaborators in His plan of redemption for the salvation of souls.

A baptized Catholic who is genuinely serious about his relationship with Jesus Christ must necessarily cultivate an interior life of prayer in order for this friendship (or bond) to grow and deepen. Charity, good example, and self-sacrifice for the material and spiritual well-being of others are concrete expressions of the fruitfulness of genuine prayer and a loving union with Christ. Thus, a true disciple of Jesus Christ must be attentive to nurturing and strengthening the spiritual life of others. There can be no genuine interior life or sanctity in a soul in which the actualization of spiritual paternity or spiritual maternity is lacking.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Christ tells us that “whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother” (12:50). In explaining this passage, Pope John Paul II noted that our Lord wanted us to understand that motherhood “is always related to the Covenant which God established with the human race through the motherhood of the Mother of God.” Then, with specific reference to motherhood, the Holy Father stated, “The motherhood of every woman, understood in the light of the Gospel, is similarly not only ‘of flesh and blood’: it expresses a profound ‘listening to the word of the living God’ and a readiness to ‘safeguard’ this Word, which is ‘the word of eternal life’ (cf. Jn 6:68).”110 A spiritual mother, like Mary, is always ready at any cost to safeguard the word of God. In this way, she becomes a personification of Mary, the Mother of God. 

A spiritual mother, through her own sacrifices, prayers, and works of charity for the sanctification of others, acts in persona Matris. A spiritual mother must have not only a profound union with Christ, but also a deeply personal relationship with His beloved Mother. Indeed, spiritual motherhood is truly a very lofty vocation offered to all baptized women who wholeheartedly live out their baptismal consecration.

Spiritual maternity toward priests in particular is profoundly Marian. Just as Mary was devoted to Her Son, the Great High Priest, so, too, spiritual mothers after her own heart are particularly solicitous for the spiritual well-being of those souls Christ Himself has chosen to be alteri Christi through the ministerial priesthood.

The unique bond between priest and “spiritual mother” is both tender and intensely powerful. How often I have heard priests speak affectionately of their spiritual mothers, grateful to them for nurturing the priestly vocation that had stirred within them as youngsters and faithfully nurturing that vocation with constant prayer, loving sacrifice, and wise counsel through their seminary days and beyond ordination. I have witnessed elderly priests who still gratefully recall the names of the religious sisters who taught them in elementary school and encouraged them to embrace their priestly vocation.

Several years ago, one of our Sisters celebrated her seventy-fifth anniversary in religious life. One of her former second-grade students, an archbishop, flew down to concelebrate the Mass of Thanksgiving. When he came up to greet Sister, she immediately beamed and with gentle maternal affection said, “Hello, Frankie!” as she had called him in grammar school. At that moment, smiles and tears co-mingled among those present for the ceremony! It was a beautiful and tangible reminder among the faithful of what spiritual maternity of priests looks like!

In the history of the Church, countless saintly women have ministered to priests in imitation of Mary. Out of all the Gospel passages that mention these women, the Gospel reading that the Church places on the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel is that of Mary accompanying Jesus at the foot of the Cross. It is a poignant reminder of our Carmelite charism to support priests by our prayers and sacrifices.

When St. Teresa of Ávila initiated her reform of the Carmelite order, it was for the purpose of praying for the
needs of the Church and for priests. The Church in her time was being torn asunder by the Protestant Reformation, and St. Teresa was determined to do what she could to help the Church and priests. In The Way of Perfection, she counsels her spiritual daughters that they must “help our King” (Christ) by helping those He has chosen, “these servants of God who at the cost of so much toil, have fortified themselves with learning and virtuous living and have labored to help the Lord.”111

She goes on to explain to her Sisters:

Therefore there are two things you must try to obtain from God, and live in such a way as to be
worthy to do this. First, that there will be many of these very learned and religious men who have
the qualifications for their task; and that the Lord will prepare those who are lacking in anything. One
who is perfect will do more than many who are not. Second, that the Lord may have them in His hand
so that they may be delivered from all the dangers that are in the world. . . . Pray especially for kings and prelates of the Church, especially for the bishop; remember that if you have a prelate who is holy,
those who live under him will be holy too. Recommend him continually to the Lord. If your prayers and desires and disciplines and fasts are not performed for the intentions of which I have spoken, you are not carrying out the work or fulfilling the object for which the Lord has brought you here.112

The saints of Carmel have left us many reflections regarding our obligation to be spiritual mothers for priests by our constant prayers for them.

In The Story of a Soul, St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus reiterated this vital mission of Carmel of praying for priests when telling her prioress of the trip to Rome she had made with her father and sisters before entering Carmel:

For a month I lived with many holy priests, and I saw that if their sublime dignity raised them above the angels, they are nonetheless weak and fragile men. . . . If holy priests whom Jesus calls in the Gospel “the salt of the earth” show in their behavior that they have an extreme need of prayers, what can one say about the ones who are lukewarm? Didn’t Jesus add, “But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again?” (Mt. 5:13)? Oh Mother! How beautiful is the vocation that has as its object to preserve the salt that is destined for souls! That vocation is Carmel’s, since the only objective of our prayers and sacrifices is to be the apostle of the apostles, praying for them while they evangelize souls through their words and especially by their examples.113

Carmel’s love of the priesthood was expressed by St. Teresa of the Andes, a young Chilean Carmelite, when she wrote:

The goal the Carmelite proposes to herself is very great: to pray and sanctify herself for sinners and
for priests. To become holy so that the divine sap be communicated, by the union that exists between the faithful and all the members of the Church. She immolates herself on the cross, and her blood falls on sinners, imploring mercy and repentance for them. It falls on priests to sanctify them since on the cross she’s intimately united with Jesus Christ. Her blood then is mixed with the divine.114

The Carmelite is the sister of the priest. Both offer a host of holocaust for the salvation of the world. . . . In a word, she sanctifies herself to sanctify her brothers.115

A young French Carmelite, Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity, understood her apostolic work of prayer and sacrifice to be associated with the work of the priest and said, “The life of a priest — and that of a Carmelite — is an advent which prepares the way for the Incarnation in souls.”116

I can think of no better way to conclude this brief reflection on spiritual maternity for priests than to use a prayer composed by St. Thérèse of Lisieux:

Prayer for Priests

O Jesus, Eternal Priest,
keep Your priests within
the shelter of Your Sacred Heart,
where none may touch them.
Keep unstained their anointed hands,
which daily touch Your Sacred Body.
Keep unsullied their lips, daily purpled
with Your Precious Blood.
Keep pure and unworldly their hearts,
sealed with the sublime mark
of Your priesthood.
Let Your holy love surround
them from the world’s contagion.
Bless their labors with abundant fruit,
and may the souls to whom they minister
be their joy and consolation here
and their everlasting crown hereafter.
Mary, Queen of the Clergy, pray for us;
obtain for us numerous and holy priests.

Mother Judith Zuniga, O.C.D., is the Superior General of the Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles. This testimony originally appeared in Praying for Priests: A Mission for the New Evangelizationby Kathleen Beckman, L.H.S.

110 Pope John Paul II, Mulieris Dignitatem, no. 19.
111 St. Teresa of Ávila, The Way of Perfection (Sydney: E. J. Dwyer, 1988), 10.
112 The Way of Perfection, 12-13.
113 St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Story of A Soul (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2006), 134.
114 St. Teresa of the Andes, quoted in Michael Griffin, O.C.D., Testimonies to Blessed Teresa of the Andes (Washington, D.C.: Teresian Charism Press, 1995), 104-105.
115 Quoted in Griffin, Testimonies to Blessed Teresa of the Andes, 107.
116 Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity, quoted in Conrad de Meester, ed., I Have Found God: Complete Works, vol. 2 (Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 1995), 232-233.
117 Quoted in Norma Cronin Cassidy, ed., Favorite Novenas and Prayers (New York: Paulist Press, 1990), 113-144.