All Catholics, particularly Catholic women, are called to emulate Mary. In his “Letter to Women,” Pope St. John Paul II wrote, “The Church sees in Mary the highest expression of the ‘feminine genius’ and she finds in her a source of constant inspiration.” She is the primary example of how women ought to live the Christian life.
I presume, if asked to name Mary’s virtues, most Catholics would give responses such as “gentleness,” “humility” or “patience.” These are not only true but intuitive; virtues such as these are deeply embedded in Marian tradition. In medieval Europe, Dominican friars and sisters chanted the Salve Regina, proclaiming Mary’s mercy, sweetness, graciousness and love. In 1502, St. Joanne de Valois and Blessed Gilbert Nicolas wrote the “Chaplet of the Ten Evangelical Virtues of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary,” which praised Mary for her purity, prudence, humility, faithfulness, devotion, obedience, poorness, patience, mercy and sorrowfulness. Two hundred years later, in his “True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin,” St. Louis Marie de Montfort identified a new set of Mary’s 10 principal virtues, overlapping with some previously given and also including prayerfulness, kindness and wisdom. In his 1954 encyclical, Ad Caeli Reginam, Pope Pius XII described Mary as queen: royal, glorious, just, gentle, pure and excellent.
These virtues are very good. For Catholic women, embracing one’s femininity and emulating Mary through these virtues is very good. Nevertheless, this historical list is incomplete. One of Mary’s greatest virtues is repeatedly omitted.
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The Gospel of Matthew portrays Mary as being in a terrifying position. She was pregnant and unmarried, and Joseph “decided to divorce her quietly” (Mt 1:19). The Bible doesn’t explicitly state whether Mary knew of Joseph’s intentions, but she likely suspected them. Consequences, perhaps stoning or at least ostracization, would have been significant. It would have been understandable for Mary to panic, to break down, to run away, or to shake her fists at God and renounce her fiat. Yet, she stayed the course and trusted in God.
Later in Matthew’s Gospel, Mary and Joseph fled hundreds of miles to Egypt to avoid Herod’s massacre of infants. The journey could have been perilous, and life for them in Egypt was completely unpredictable. Again, Mary had many understandable reasons to break down or turn back during the journey; yet, she persisted.
Christ suffered and died for us in his passion. Mary suffered greatly alongside him. Despite the agony of watching her son in his final hours, she followed him to the foot of the cross. Despite the unbearableness, she never left his side.
When the early Church was in chaos immediately following Christ’s ascension, the apostles and certain women, including Mary, “devoted themselves with one accord to prayer” (Acts 1:14). With the palpable threats from the Roman government and Christ’s lack of physical presence, the apostles and Mary had many excuses to disband and give up on the Church. Again, Mary did not walk away; she chose to play a role in the Church’s continuation.
Mary’s forgotten virtue
Throughout much of Church history, Mary’s repeatedly omitted virtue is resiliency. This is recognized in Redemptoris Mater, when Pope John Paul II wrote, “In the light of Mary, the Church sees in the face of women the reflection of a beauty which mirrors the loftiest sentiments of which the human heart is capable: the self-offering totality of love; the strength that is capable of bearing the greatest sorrows.” Women are created to be resilient and strong.
In a recent “Catholic Stuff You Should Know” podcast, Father Nathan Goebel and Father Michael O’Loughlin commented on this notion through their analysis of certain scenes in “Gates of Fire,” a historical fiction novel that recounts the Battle of Thermopylae, a battle in ancient Greece between the Persian army (with ostensibly millions of troops) and the Greek army (a small force lead by 300 Spartans). Aware that this is a suicide mission, Leonidas, the king of Sparta, is tasked with selecting the 300 Spartans to send to battle. There is a particularly striking scene in the book where Paraleia, a woman whose husband and son were selected, confronts Leonidas about his decision. Leonidas reveals his decision was not based on the attributes of the warriors. Rather, he made his selections based on the strength and courage of the warriors’ wives. When the battle is over, Leonidas explains to Paraleia, “All of Greece [will] look to the Spartans to see how they bear it. But who, lady, will the Spartans look to? To you and to the other wives and mothers, the other sisters and daughters of the fallen. If they behold your hearts broken with grief, they too will break. And Greece will break with them. But if you bear up, dry-eyed … then Sparta will stand and all Greece will stand behind her.” The priests commented on how this story provides foresight into a woman’s courage.
I include this story not to compare or incite a sense of competition between men and women; the two are complementary. God gifted men with natural desires and abilities of provision, protection and strength. Catholic men and women should lean into each other and their gifts, just as Joseph did when he trusted in Mary’s faith and relationship with God enough to take her as his wife, or as Mary did when she trusted in Joseph’s protection as they fled to Egypt. However, for women to neglect their own resiliency and strength in trying times is a mistake; in fact, it’s unnatural. I don’t think women recognize this nearly enough. Like Mary, women are gifted with the ability to withstand tribulations while maintaining a Christian hope and joy. To be resilient is part of the “feminine genius”; to be resilient is to emulate Mary; to be resilient is to live a life oriented toward Christ.
There is beauty in resilience. There is grace in resilience. Catholic women, when presented with life’s inevitable trials, let us keep our shoulders back and heads high as we follow Our Lady, always toward her son.