As a young Catholic woman, there has been more than one occasion when someone has started a conversation with me about the patriarchal nature of the Church. Sometimes it involves a conversation about the male-only priesthood and its perceived injustice, but not always. Every time this conversation comes up, though, I typically surprise the friend I am talking to with one simple sentence:
“I praise God for the gift of being a woman in the Church.”
You see, there’s something about femininity that deeply embodies what it means to be a member of this beautiful, messy Church. Whenever the Church is referred to as a whole, despite the fact that so many see it as a patriarchal institution, she is always referred to with feminine pronouns. And there is a direct reason why: Jesus is the spouse of our souls.
In describing heaven, St. John writes, “The wedding day of the lamb has come / his bride has made herself ready” (Rv 19:7). That’s us! We are his bride. Not just as women, but the entire Church.
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We tend to take this language for granted. We don’t think that much about what it really means that the Church is the bride of Christ. This was something that I never really thought about or appreciated until a friend of mine, a religious brother, surprised me with a kind of holy envy. He said, “For guys, it’s so much harder to talk about our relationship with Christ. Women can say, ‘I fell in love with the Lord,’ and it makes so much sense. It’s not as comfortable for men to have that same relationship.”
As women, it is natural for us to understand the Church’s vocation as the spouse of Christ. As brides, we are receptive, ready to receive everything from our God, who desires to give us all. It is something that is written into our very bodies. We experience real vulnerability in the midst of real strength that leaves us knowing that we are not ultimately in control.
We know the need to be saved. This doesn’t mean that we are Disney princesses waiting for our prince to come rescue us because we lack the basic ability to take care of ourselves. No, this is a deep awareness that we are fundamentally vulnerable and that our own personal strength is not enough. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s real.
It’s not something that we talk about often because we shudder at the thought of admitting we need help or that others have a kind of power over us. But we have all put our keys between our fingers as we’ve walked to our car at night. We have all had conversations with people who loved us about how to be safe in social situations that might seem harmless. And we have all been acutely aware at points in our lives that if the person standing next to us had bad intentions, we would probably be unable to stop them.
It’s an incredibly painful reality for living in the world as women. But this kind of vulnerability, this need to be saved, is not something that is unique to women. It is the reality of all humankind.
As humans, we are all vulnerable. We are a fallen people who are subject to sin. But even more than that, we have a sworn enemy who wants to take advantage of our weakness. Satan is constantly working on mankind to separate us from Christ, our spouse. The master of evil continually tries to use our low self-esteem, our desire for an easy life or the pain of our past to bring us to believe that we are totally independent and that we can’t, or shouldn’t, trust God’s love.
But Christ is the spouse of our souls. He will fight for us, he will rescue us, and he will not let us be conquered. His love will fight against the lies that we believe about ourselves, the world around us, and even God himself. For “the Lord will fight for you; you have only to keep still” (Ex 14:14).
As humans, we need to be saved. We need to be rescued. To live as though that is not the case, to live as though any one of us has the strength to make it to our ultimate goal on our own, would be to live a lie. What is seen as a challenge in this life, living in a place of vulnerability, is at the core of what it means to be human. As women, we praise and thank God that we are so naturally open to receiving his grace and recognizing that we cannot live this life alone.
St. Paul writes, “The message of the cross is foolishness for those who are perishing, but for us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor 1:18). The world sees this vulnerability that we experience as women as foolishness, as something that needs to be overcome, as though the only way women can be strong is if we prove ourselves to be like men. As Christian women, though, this vulnerability is what allows us to be totally filled with God’s grace, so that his true power will be revealed in our lives.
Our femininity is a gift. It is a gift not only in an external sense, but in a deep sense that reveals the truth of what it means to be human. Our femininity is a gift not only to the Church and to the world, but a gift from God to each of us, guiding us to our heavenly marriage with him. Thanks be to God for this gift.