As a Protestant, I thought it was funny and slightly idiotic that unmarried men were supposed to have anything worthwhile to say about motherhood, marriage, and family life. What could a priest possibly say to a struggling married couple? To an exhausted mother? How could he ever relate?
But the vocation of marriage and motherhood—especially for those of us from broken homes—brings out a deep desire for wisdom and encouragement, for others who can relate to the sacrifices demanded of such blessings. As a convert, this need becomes an imperative: there is little support for lifelong marriage and openness to life outside the Faith. And so we turn to the Church for these goods things—and the Church, as it happens, is lead by men.
How is it that a universal religion founded by an unmarried Man and governed by popes and priests who are neither married nor have have any children of their own can speak directly to the heart of a wife and mother? How can a homily from a 69-year-old cardinal resonate so much with a woman in her last trimester? Likewise, there are many female religious whose wisdom applies to mothers—even though they have never experienced the aches of pregnancy, the sleepless nights, the endless bickering.
This is one of those divine paradoxes which point to the truth of the Catholic Faith.
After all, even the Blessed Virgin Mary had only one child (who was perfect), and Jesus Himself was never a husband or father in his earthly life.
Yet these are the sources of our inspiration in the midst of dirty pots and pans. And they do inspire, they do speak to wives and mothers in all circumstances: those desiring children, those who are pregnant, those overwhelmed by the demands of children, etc. Perhaps that is because, despite all our suffering, we share a common bond of fidelity and utter dependence upon God and the teachings of Jesus. All of us both young and old, male and female, priest and religious, clergy and laity, pope and pauper—all of us have crosses, and expect them, in our different vocations. No matter how varied the challenges are, and how different they look from the outside, we share the commonness of the Cross.
That’s how it’s possible for a pregnant mother in the year 2017 to glean parenting tidbits from the Rule of Saint Benedict, written for monks in the sixth century. And why we can relate to saints who lived and died a millennium ago and never experienced the challenges of modern life. It explains how people all over the world, from all walks of life and from every culture, can kneel before a crucifix and know that the Lord intimately understands their struggles.
As for me, this pregnancy has come with a larger than normal dose of pain. On an especially difficult day, a friend lent me a book of letters written by the first married couple ever to be canonized: Louis and Zelie Martin. The latter’s words on motherhood and marriage offered much that I could relate with; and her graceful endurance of pregnancy, loss, and cancer, much to aspire to. But this saintly wife and mother has not resonated with me as much as another saint—a man who was neither husband nor father: Pope Saint John Paul II.
I had not desired conversion until well after he died, so I never grew up with this Pope like so many other people my age. Before I ever considered converting, however, my husband gave me his Letter to Families. At the time it seemed to me the only redeeming thing about the Catholic Church—namely, the unparalleled appreciation and support of family life, which was lacking in the church I grew up in. So it is fitting that I find myself drawn to this saint as I await the birth of my third child.
There are many images of him, but the picture that always comes to mind is of him in his eighties, suffering from advanced Parkinson’s disease, praying before the Blessed Sacrament. Despite the obvious pain, he is on his knees before God. So I find myself, as a stay-at-home married mother now pregnant with her third child, feeling a connection to this Polish man who never had his own children. But when my body doesn’t seem to work, when I am feeling sorry for myself, frustrated, and impatient, when it feels too hard—I think of him on his knees.
To all those outside the one Church of Christ, it may seems odd to seek and find wisdom and encouragement from people who really shouldn’t “get it.” How could they? But this is one of the great surprises and blessings of the Faith: that the goodness and truth professed and witnessed by the Church are powerful enough to bring together the most unlikely sources of comfort, joy, and camaraderie—to unite even the childless Polish saint and the struggling pregnant mother—through the Cross of Christ.