Mothers of the Church
By Mike Aquilina & Christopher Bailey (OSV, 2012)
In elementary school I always looked forward to women’s history month each March. Unfortunately, by sixth grade the basic lesson—that in the past women were denied things like voting and jobs just because they were women—was growing a little stale. Things weren’t much better at religious education, where the lessons about women all focused on Mary.
Mike Aquilina and Christopher Bailey’s Mothers of the Church: The Witness of Early Christian Women moves swiftly beyond the gospels to uncover the richness women brought to the early church. The authors begin by explaining how extraordinary Paul’s claim in Galatians—“There is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus”—must have sounded to his audience. Forget voting and Title IX, Paul’s world was one where girls were routinely abandoned at birth and women could not testify in court. But if Paul’s words unsettled his listeners, the behavior of the women who took them to heart must have been truly shocking.
Using accounts written either by the women themselves or by their contemporaries, the authors create fascinating sketches of several early Christian figures. Among the most memorable is Thecla, an early disciple of Paul who cuts her hair, dresses like a man, and runs away from a wealthy suitor in order to help spread the Good News. After another nobleman makes an advance on her, Thecla beats him up and is condemned to be torn apart by beasts. Thankfully, her faith allows her to tame the animals, and she escapes unharmed.
Not every life was as dramatic as Thecla’s, but as missionaries, martyrs, writers, and teachers, women participated fully and enthusiastically in the life of the early church. This book guides readers through this important lesson, reminding them that women deserve to be remembered and celebrated every month of the year.
This article appeared in the June 2012 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 77, No. 6, page 43).