Pope Francis’s daily homilies offer spiritual nuggets. He offered one sleeper on January 26 when he said that it is women who transmit the faith. The concept has been offered before, but sometimes it has seemed to be a mere platitude to appease women who may feel underappreciated in the church. I think it is more.
In remarks at the Casa Santa Marta, where he lives, the pope said that St. Paul reminds Timothy that “sincere faith” comes from the Holy Spirit through “mother and grandmother.” The pope, as reported by Vatican Radio, said “Mothers and grandmothers are the ones who [in primis] transmit the faith.” He added that it is one thing to pass on the faith, and another to teach the matters of faith.
Faith is a gift that passes from generation to generation, through the “beautiful work of mothers and grandmothers, the fine work of the women who play those roles,” in a family, the pope said, “whether they are maids or aunts,” who transmit the faith.
With the risk of sounding stereotypical, I submit that in general it is women who preside over the domestic church. They teach us simple prayers. They tell us about Jesus, Mary, patron saints and guardian angels who protect us. They are comfortable in the world of the spirit and emotions. They are the primary caregivers to whom we turn almost primitively in our hour of need. A writer friend once pointed out that women are more physically oriented for this, even to the point of having softer laps and more comforting breasts where we feel the care.
Pope Francis suggested that it is mainly women who pass on the faith simply because the one who brought us Jesus is a woman. It is the path chosen by Jesus, he said. He wanted to have a mother: the gift of faith comes to us through women, as Jesus came to us through Mary.
“We need,” said Pope Francis, “in our own day to consider whether women really are aware of the duty they have to transmit the faith.” He threw out a challenge and asked, how do you live your faith?
Clearly how to pass on the faith is as significant as how to explain it. For this reason alone the church needs to look at how it encourages women in this role and how men can develop their nurturing side. The question needs study.
Is the faith passed on primarily in the home? Is it passed on most of all during formative years, when young people have more time with mothers, grandmothers, aunts? As men become more involved in domestic matters, do they need to consider how they can nurture faith? Is there a faith lesson plan with instructions, such as reading stories of the lives of the saints, telling the parables of Jesus, singing hymns that remind us God is there for us, writing letters to Jesus, especially at holiday times such as Christmas?
The church might look at the ministry of presence in troubled times to bring comfort, which Mary exemplifies. The miracle at Cana, turning water into wine, wasn’t needed but made for a better party and saved the newlyweds embarrassment. Why else would Mary prod her son to do something? What was the significance of the women at the foot of the cross?
Where is church presence needed today? At the margins of society, for example, at the borders? When and where is women’s presence needed in the church today? At decision-making tables to bring a new voice for the needed?
Pope Francis' homily nugget bears pondering. This may be one more gift from God to the church.
Mary Ann Walsh, R.S.M., is a member of the Northeast Community of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas and U.S. Church correspondent for America.