In recent years, there has been greater recognition in the Church of the vocation of spiritual motherhood. It is a vocation formed in love: love of God and love of neighbor. Women of every age and in every state of life—single, married, widowed, or in religious life—can be spiritual mothers. However, it is not something a woman can do on her own, but only in union with God by spending time with Him in prayer.
The primary way of practicing spiritual motherhood is by intercessory prayer, but it can also involve service to others. A woman praying outside an abortion clinic, a woman visiting a person in a nursing home, a woman teaching a catechism class, and a woman serving a meal at a soup kitchen are all examples of spiritual mothers. This vocation is also lived out every day at home, at work, and in all of a woman’s interactions with others by her kindness and concern for people’s spiritual welfare.
An essential aspect of spiritual motherhood is described in these words by Saint John Paul II: “The moral and spiritual strength of a woman is joined to her awareness that God entrusts the human being to her in a special way.” (On the Dignity and Vocation of Women, 30) A woman who understands this will feel a sense of responsibility for others and will be committed to praying for all the people who are particularly entrusted to her, such as her family, godchildren, friends, and co-workers, as well as others in need of prayer. A woman’s awareness that people are entrusted to her leads her to entrust them to God. A spiritual mother is concerned about people’s salvation. She wants them to have a relationship with God, to live virtuously, to experience conversion, and to have the peace that comes from a life of faith. A spiritual mother also cares about people’s physical and emotional needs as well. She wants to bring healing to the sick, consolation to the sad, hope to the discouraged, and above all, to bring God’s love to everyone. A woman can be a spiritual mother to people of any age, including people who are older than she is.
Spiritual motherhood is not about treating people as though they are one’s children, and it is not about telling people what to do. It does not involve an attitude of superiority. A spiritual mother must be humble and aware that some of the people that she is praying for may be much holier than she is. It is possible for a woman to be a spiritual mother to people she has never met by praying for people she learns are in need of prayer, such as persecuted Christians.
There is a special vocation of spiritual motherhood of priests. In 2012, the Congregation for the Clergy wrote a letter asking laity and religious to pray in Eucharistic Adoration for the sanctification of priests and for women to be spiritual mothers to priests by offering their prayers and sacrifices for them. Although the Congregation also invited men to pray for priests, their specific request for women to do so may be related to the Church’s teachings on the complementarity of men and women. This might be seen as a form of spiritual collaboration. Through their prayers, spiritual mothers support priests in their vocation, as priests are engaged in their ministry to the Church. Priests are spiritual fathers and represent Jesus to others. Catholic women are spiritual mothers and represent Mary and the Church.
Mary, who was the first spiritual mother in the Church, and who is our mother, is the greatest example of spiritual motherhood. It is important to ask for Mary’s intercession for our own spiritual maternity and for all the people God has entrusted to us. Saint John Paul II described Mary’s role this way: “Putting herself at God’s service, she also put herself at the service of others: a service of love.” (Letter to Women, 10)
Many women experience sadness because they are unable to have children. However, they are still able to be spiritual mothers and have a service of love, following the example of the Blessed Mother. Women without children can be mothers by their prayers, by looking after someone who is sick, by mentoring a young adult or teenager, by helping the homeless, and in many other ways. As they pray to discern the way God wants them to be a mother to others, they will eventually discover a vocation that will bring them joy. I have discovered this in my own life. Although I do not have biological or adopted children, I am a spiritual mother to many people including my four godchildren and their families, my friends, and all the priests I pray for every day. My writing is also part of my spiritual maternity, as I seek to encourage others in living as faithful Catholics. I am very thankful to God for giving me the vocation of spiritual motherhood.
Saint John Paul II understood that women have a vocation of love: “For in giving themselves to others each day women fulfill their deepest vocation. Perhaps more than men, women acknowledge the person, because they see persons with their hearts. They see them independently of various ideological or political systems. They see others in their greatness and limitations; they try to go out to them and help them.” (Letter to Women, 12)
For more resources on Spiritual Motherhood, see the site for The Foundation of Prayer for Priests as well as the book, Praying for Priests: An Urgent Call for the Salvation of Souls, which is available from Sophia Institute Press.