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Famous Catholic Females

April 12, 2012

Although one of the individuals with the biggest role in our Church today is Mary, there is not necessarily a large focus on the women of our Church who have promulgated the faith.  They do not hold roles of authority in our Church, nor even the role of deaconess as once they seemed to do. (Romans 16:1)  Do not mistake my intentions.  I am not a feminista.  I do not aggressively pursue a female priesthood or anything like that.  Although, on a personal level, I have nothing against female ministers and think there is much they could offer our laity, I do submit to the leadership of our Church and their ruling that the ministerial role should be filled by men only. That’s a part of being in communion with Rome and I accept that.   However, I am not here to argue the merits of women in such a role.  I want to write about the women who have been leaders in our Church in a much different way.  Just because the title of “priest” cannot be held by a woman does not in any way diminish the magnificent role that so many of them have played in our Church and what so many of them have given us along our 2,000+ year history.  In many ways, and probably because they did not have to manage the role of a priest, some of these women have given us more and exceeded, in some way, what countless priests have given us throughout the ages.  (Of course, I do realize that without priests we wouldn’t have Communion or Sacramental Confession.  I know this and thank God for their invaluable role in this capacity.)  This is in no way an exhaustive list, but these are some of the inspirational stories that have touched me, and some that are known the world over.

Many today know and have a personal love for St. Agatha.  She is a martyr of antiquity.  She died in 251 AD at the hands of a man who wished to marry her despite the fact that she had committed her life to chastity for God.  He knew she was a Christian so he had her arrested, brought before the judge – who was he himself – and tried to force her to submit.  When she would not, he sentenced her to a brothel to be assaulted.  After a month he brought her back and when she still refused he sent her to prison.  He then had her tortured. She was stretched on the rack.  While chained, she was whipped, cut, burnt, and finally her breasts were cut off.  Still not satisfied, they ordered her body rolled over hot coals mixed with pieces of broken pottery.  He refused her any medical care but God gave her all the care she needed in the form of a vision of St. Peter. When she was tortured again, she died after saying a final prayer: “Lord, my Creator, you have always protected me from the cradle; you have taken me from the love of the world and given me patience to suffer. Receive my soul.”  Today, St. Agatha is the patron saint of those with breast cancer.

There are two other female martyrs about whom very little is known.  The one I am most amazed by is St. Cyprilla who died around the 4th century.  During the persecution under the Roman Emperor Dioletian, an attempt was made to force Cyprilla into sacrificing to the pagan gods.  When hot coals and incense were put into her hands in an effort to make her offer them a a pagan sacrifice, she simply held onto them, lest by thrusting them from her hands she might appear to have offered them to the gods.  Thereafter, she was brutally hacked to death.  The other is St. Fortunata who died in 303 AD.  Under the rule of the same emperor, Diocletian, St. Fortunata, with her brothers, were imprisoned by the Roman prefect called Urbanus.  He condemned Fortunata to be exposed to wild beast.  The animals, however, would not attack her.  Fortunata was therefore subjected to prolonged torture and died from her wounds.

Another of my favorite stories is from an early martyr named St. Potamiaena.  The Roman soldier named Basilides, who was guarding her was much moved by her and treated her kindly.  As she was being lead to her execution (supposedly by being boiled in oil – a very slow, tortuous process in which the victim is lowered inch by inch into a bubbling cauldron of scorching oil) he expressed sorrow and sympathy for her which she accepted and she in turn encouraged him, promising to ask her Lord for him after her departure and that, before long, she would repay him for his kindness for all he had done in her behalf. (Eusebius, Church Histories)  After she died she appeared in his dreams for the next three nights telling him that she was praying to the Lord for him and his conversion.  He was in fact converted, and because of that conversion became a martyr himself by being beheaded.

Not all great women were martyrs, but many of them showed extreme perseverance in the extreme circumstances of martyrdom.  Another such martyr is one closer to our own time and one who was very young.  Another of my favorite stories as well.  St. Maria Goretti.  She came from a poor farming family and her father had died of malaria so her mother and siblings had to go work in the fields during the day while she tended the house and the baby.  They shared a house with another family who had a 20-year-old son.  One day, when her family was out working the fields, 20-year-old Alessandro came to Maria and attempted to rape her, threatening her with death if she refused.  She protested that it was a mortal sin and told the young man that he would go to Hell for it.  Alessandro started to choke her and then grabbed a knitting needle and stabbed her eleven times.  The injured girl tried to reach for the door, but Alessandro stopped her by stabbing her three more times and then running away.  When her mother and his father came in from the fields they found the poor girl and ran her to the local hospital.  She underwent surgery there, without anesthesia, but her injuries were too extensive.  The following day the priest performed the Last Rites and asked the dying girl if she forgave Alessandro, she said, “Yes, for the love of Jesus I too pardon him, and I want him to be with me in Heaven.”  After she died Alessandro was arrested and sentenced to 30 years hard labor in prison.  He had a dream in prison of Maria and was eventually converted.  Alessandro reportedly prayed every day to Maria Goretti and referred to her as “my little saint”.  He later became a laybrother of the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin, living in a monastery and working as its receptionist and gardener until dying peacefully in 1970.  When Maria died she was just short of her twelfth birthday.  (A more in depth post can be read here)

St. Therese of Lisieux was only twenty-four when she died and only fifteen when she became a Carmelite nun.  So fervent was her love of God and her conviction that she was to be a Carmelite nun that she petitioned every channel possible, right up to the Pope himself in person to let her join the convent.  At fifteen she did and although her life was cut short by tuberculosis, the contribution she made to the faith of the Church is immeasurable and the discipline of the “Little Way” which she recorded is famous.  In fact, St Therese is one of only three women who have been given the title of Doctor of the Church for her writings.  St Therese’s practice of humility and putting others before herself is remarkable.  She offered her life up to others without complaint or groaning.  She offered it up as a sacrifice for the love of Jesus and bore so patiently all that was asked of her.  In fact, an example of her kindness and patience can be seen in the story of one of her fellow nuns who St. Therese did not care for at all who was always grieving the poor girl.  However, St. Therese always was very patient and very kind to the woman so much so that when St. Therese died the nun is said to have remarked, ‘I have lost my best friend.’  In her autobiography St. Therese speaks of the “Little Way” saying,

I often asked myself why God had preferences, why all souls did not receive an equal measure of grace. I was filled with wonder when I saw extraordinary favours showered on great sinners like St. Paul, St. Augustine, St. Mary Magdalen, and many others, whom He forced, so to speak, to receive His grace. In reading the lives of the Saints I was surprised to see that there were certain privileged souls, whom Our Lord favoured from the cradle to the grave, allowing no obstacle in their path which might keep them from mounting towards Him, permitting no sin to soil the spotless brightness of their baptismal robe. And again it puzzled me why so many poor savages should die without having even heard the name of God.

Our Lord has deigned to explain this mystery to me. He showed me the book of nature, and I understood that every flower created by Him is beautiful, that the brilliance of the rose and the whiteness of the lily do not lessen the perfume of the violet or the sweet simplicity of the daisy. I understood that if all the lowly flowers wished to be roses, nature would lose its springtide beauty, and the fields would no longer be enamelled with lovely hues. And so it is in the world of souls, Our Lord’s living garden. He has been pleased to create great Saints who may be compared to the lily and the rose, but He has also created lesser ones, who must be content to be daisies or simple violets flowering at His Feet, and whose mission it is to gladden His Divine Eyes when He deigns to look down on them. And the more gladly they do His Will the greater is their perfection.

I understood this also, that God’s Love is made manifest as well in a simple soul which does not resist His grace as in one more highly endowed. In fact, the characteristic of love being self-abasement, if all souls resembled the holy Doctors who have illuminated the Church, it seems that God in coming to them would not stoop low enough. But He has created the little child, who knows nothing and can but utter feeble cries, and the poor savage who has only the natural law to guide him, and it is to their hearts that He deigns to stoop. These are the field flowers whose simplicity charms Him; and by His condescension to them Our Saviour shows His infinite greatness. As the sun shines both on the cedar and on the floweret, so the Divine Sun illumines every soul, great and small, and all correspond to His care—just as in nature the seasons are so disposed that on the appointed day the humblest daisy shall unfold its petals.

…The Little Flower, that now tells her tale, rejoiced in having to publish the wholly undeserved favours bestowed upon her by Our Lord.

From her own words she has thus come to be referred to as The Little Flower by the Church.  Often it is said of her as if bestowing a title, The Little Flower of Jesus, St. Therese.  Her purity of heart is a thing of grand beauty and it is a beautiful example to the Church.

Fatima is an example that is known throughout the entire Catholic world. One of its seers, Lucia, was the most famous, probably because she lived a very long time and was able to continuously provide information to the world, whereas the other two children died fairly young.  The story of Fatima is also tied in with the assassination attempt of Pope John Paul II because of the vision revealed to the children, which had to remain the third secret of Fatima,  was confirmed by Lucia as the third revelation given to them.  This also thereby promoted the world’s knowledge of the message of Fatima.  While Lucia is truly remarkable and her cousin, Francisco who was also a seer of Fatima is equally sweet and beautiful, the child that strikes me most is the youngest of the three, Blessed Jacinta who had just turned seven when the first apparition of Our Lady appeared to them.  So devout and fervent was little Jacinta that she constantly prayed for the conversion of sinners and offered every single sacrifice, no matter how great or small, for their conversion.  Her mind never wandered far, it seems, from their conversion and her heart was so wholly committed that I don’t know of any other example of a soul so committed to their salvation can be found… at least not in a soul so young for sure.  Her example of unselfish sacrifice for the salvation of souls would bring anyone to tears and whose biography (along with the story of the entire event) is inspiring and amazing.  One of the moments during the entire event of Fatima that moved me the most is when the communist leadership of Portugal arrested and detained the poor children trying to elicit from them the whole story of the apparitions.  In obedience to the direction of Our Lady to them not to say anything, they didn’t.  They were even threatened with death by firing squad and being boiled in oil, none of them relented.  A seven year old child did this!  While they were detained in jail, being held with adults, men no less, they begin praying the Rosary and so moved were the other inmates by these young children that they all knelt down and prayed the Rosary with them.  Bl. Jacinta was told by Our Lady (who made it known to all three children when they would pass from this earth) that she would not live long and that she would actually die alone.  Bl. Jacinta did, in fact, die alone in a hospital in 1920 of pneumonia and tuberculosis before she was eleven.  In 1935 her coffin was opened up and her body was found to be incorruptible.  Her story, to me, is beautiful, amazing, and inspiring.

The crowds in October who witnessed the Miracle of the Sun

The crowds of today gathered at Fatima

St. Faustina Kowalska is the sister who brought the world the Divine Mercy devotion.  She was young and uneducated but the Lord made several revelations to her and through her the world knows of the Divine Mercy.  She was another victim of tuberculosis who died very young.  Throughout her life, she reported a several visions of Jesus and conversations with Him.  She wrote about all of it in her diary which was later published in book form.  She was a rare soul who was given many extraordinary gifts of the Holy Spirit.  She experienced “revelations, visions, hidden stigmata, participation in the Passion of the Lord, the gift of bilocation, the reading of human souls, the gift of prophecy, or the rare gift of mystical engagement or marriage.  The living relationship with God, the Blessed Mother, the Angels, the Saints, the souls in Purgatory – with the entire supernatural world – was equally real for her as was the world she perceived with her senses.  In spite of being so richly endowed with extraordinary graces, Sr. Mary Faustina knew that they do not, if fact, constitute sanctity.  in her Diary she wrote: ‘Neither graces, nor revelations, nor raptures, nor gifts granted to a soul make it perfect, but rather the intimate union of the soul with God.  These gifts are merely ornaments of the soul, but constitute neither its essence nor its perfection.  My sanctity and perfection consist in the close union of my will with the will of God.'” (from the Vatican)  Writing of St. Faustina in this short space allotted would be like trying to speak about Padre Pio in a paragraph.  As Christ willed both an image of the Divine Mercy to be commissioned and for St. Faustina to proclaim the Divine Mercy to the world, we have the two paintings,  the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, the Novena of Divine Mercy which leads to Divine Mercy Sunday (a week after Easter Sunday).  Here is a short passage written by St. Faustina in her Diary.  In it you can see and understand a small part of what St. Faustina experienced in her life:

Today, the Lord came to me and said, “My daughter, help Me to save souls. You will go to a dying sinner, and you will continue to recite the chaplet, and in this way you will obtain for him trust in My mercy, for he is already in despair.” Suddenly, I found myself in a strange cottage where an elderly man was dying amidst great torments. All about the bed was a multitude of demons and the family, who were crying. When I began to pray, the spirits of darkness fled, with hissing and threats directed at me. The soul became calm and, filled with trust, rested in the Lord. At the same moment, I found myself again in my own room. How this happens… I do not know. (1798)

Another famous saint, and one that some people don’t realize is a famous female saint is Joan of Arc.  She was born to poor farmers and she could neither read nor write but she was an extremely pious child who was very immersed in prayer and practices of devotion.  At the age of thirteen she experienced communication with those she later identified as St. Michael the Archangel (accompanied by other angels), St. Margaret and St. Catherine as well as others she called the “voices” or her “counsel”.  Like most pious individuals who experience miraculous events, Joan was always hesitant to speak about these events.  Even at her trial she refused to describe them or how she identified them.  They did stir in her a patriotic exultation and she was bidden by God through them to go and help the king of France.  She was ignored until the made a prophetic announcement about the fall of French arms in Orleans, which the court found out was true three days later.  She was finally granted an audience with the king and because of the rough conditions at camp she often was dressed in male attire to protect herself.  The king attempted to test her by disguising himself among the court, but Joan – a poor uneducated girl from the farm – approached him and saluted him at once.  She revealed and confirmed a “secret” the king had which had been revealed to her supernaturally and she was guided always by the “voices” in this regard without error.  Under divine guidance Joan lead the king all the way to a coronation at Reims.  Even with all of this she was constantly oppressed by the apathy of the king and his advisers and because of this only a half-hearted effort on their part was made to take Paris.  Shortly afterward she was captured and the King of France wouldn’t even ransom her out of captivity.  In short, they completely abandoned her to her death.  Ultimately she was charged with heresy by an English ecclesiastical court with the voices being determined to be diabolical and for wearing men’s clothing.  She was ultimately burned at the stake.  Eventually, the Pope declared that the trial held by her ecclesiastical court in England had been done so without church legality and a rehabilitation trial announced all the ills that had been committed during the first trial.  Joan was eventually exhonorated of all wrong doing.  In 1920 she was finally canonized by Pope Benedict XV.

St Bernadette is the young visionary who received many visions of Our Lady near a little stream in Lourdes, France in the area of a small grotto.  She only ever described what she saw and never identified the lady as Mary as the lady never identified herself as such until the 17th of the 18 visits.  However, Bernadette’s description of her was consistent with the statue images of the village.   Our Lady bid Bernadette to compel the priests to build a chapel at the location.  Through the direction of the Lady who guided Bernadette a spring was revealed in the area and it was soon reported to have healing properties.  In the 150 years since almost 70 miraculous healing’s have been verified as having come from the spring water there now.  This declaration of the Church in each case was made after rigorous verification’s rule out any other explanation.  It is one of the biggest pilgrimage sites for Catholics in the world which sees about five million people annual.  When Bernadette finally pressed the Lady for her name she replied, “I am the Immaculate Conception”.  Four years earlier the Pope had defined the dogma of the Immaculate Conception which states that, from the moment of her conception Mary was preserved, in a supernatural way, from all stain of Original Sin.  However, Bernadette’s teachers, priests, and parents all swore in later testimony that she had never heard of ‘immaculate conception’ from them.  Unfortunately, she too contracted tuberculosis and died of her infirmities at the age of thirty-five.  Her body has been exhumed three times and has been found to be incorruptible.  Her body is one of the most famous of the incorruptible’s of the Church.

No list would be complete without mentioning one of the most famous Catholic women of our time, Mother Theresa, who took her religious name from St. Therese of Lisieux.  Her story is known worldwide, but what has recently come to light is that Mother Theresa experienced for nearly fifty years! what Catholic’s call the Dark Night of the Soul where one feels as if God has abandoned them completely and she struggled a lot with her faith and belief in God.  However, Mother never faltered in her faith or devotion to God and is often remembered as a very pious lady whose heart for the poor is unrivaled.  Mother was honored all over the world by various organizations and governments.  She also was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  However, accolades and awards were never her goal.  It was always and ever the impoverished of India.  According to Wikipedia, At the time of her death, Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity had over 4,000 sisters, and an associated brotherhood of 300 members, operating 610 missions in 123 countries.  These included hospices and homes for people with HIV/AIDS, leprosy and tuberculosis, soup kitchens, children’s and family counseling programs, personal helpers, orphanages, and schools. The Missionaries of Charity were also aided by Co-Workers, who numbered over 1 million by the 1990s.  She is quoted as saying, ““At the end of life we will not be judged by how many diplomas we have received, how much money we have made, how many great things we have done.  We will be judged by ‘I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat, I was naked and you clothed me. I was homeless, and you took me in.'”  Her mission to see Jesus in the face of everyone inspired secular and religious alike and her contribution to the world in India and in her wisdom is absolutely resolute and renowned.

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