My Mother, The Priest

The Apostle Paul had arrived in Thessalonica only months before his first letter to the Church there was written.  Paul, along with Barnabas and Timothy, went to Thessalonica in what scholars sometimes call “the 2nd Missionary journey,” departing from Philippi where they had begun their journey on European soil.  They stayed in this predominantly pagan community for a short period of time until they were persecuted and run out of the city. Prior to being chased out of the city, they had already founded the Church there, remarkable from the point of view of both missionary and converted (1Thess. 1:4-10). Paul, Barnabas and Timothy become rightly worried and concerned, though, when they hear that persecution is threatening to overwhelm their newly formed Church and they write to the small Church in Thessalonica in order to exhort and encourage them in the midst of persecution.  

One of the most powerful images from this letter is that of Paul, Barnabas and Timothy as “mothers” to the Church. Paul writes of their time in Thessalonica, stating in v. 7 that “we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children.”


This image of Paul and his fellow apostles as “nurses” (Greek trophos) must be understood as “wet nurses,” who were employed to care for and nurse others’ children. The wet nurses might be slaves or they might be hired out for the work, but they most often lived in the home of the employer or owner. Yet, here, Paul states that they were not nursing “someone else’s children,” they were nursing their own children. Indeed, the NIV (and NAB) omit the ancient wet nurse imagery and just speak of a “mother caring for her little children.”

The nursing imagery is more profound than the translation of “children” (NRSV, NAB) and even “little children” (NIV) allows. The Greek nêpiosis an infant, so the care the apostles lavish on their Church includes that of breast-feeding their own spiritual children. In a more contentious context, 1 Corinthians 3:2, Paul also speaks of feeding the Corinthian infants milk not solid food. Indeed, the maternal imagery is found throughout Paul’s letters and has been explored in depth by Beverly Gaventa in Our Mother, St. Paul.

Paul, Barnabas and Timothy go on to complete the maternal image by writing in vv.8-9,

So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us. You remember our labor and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God.

Parents in general, but nursing mothers in particular, starved for sleep and routine, will notice themselves in these verses: sharing “our own selves,” literally for mothers, and working “night and day.” Why do they do it? For the same reason Paul and his friends Barnabas and Timothy do, “so deeply do we care for you.” Love in action, baby (nêpios).

It is this powerful evocation of maternal love that I think has gone lacking in recent years in pictures of the priesthood, and here I do not intend to evoke instances of priestly abuse, in which spiritual parenthood is shattered into shards of cruelty and pain, but the actual formation of priests. As someone who works in a seminary, generally focusing on lay students not seminarians, but in constant contact with seminarians, I notice a seriousness in many of them that undercuts the maternal instinct which priests must cultivate and which I believe most of them have. This is not to say the vocation is not weighty, grave and important – so it is, for it mimics that of motherhood – but it must be leavened with great joy, peace and compassion. There is too great a focus, internally and externally today in the Church, on presenting the priesthood as hard men saying hard things to hard people in a hard age. Paul does speak of the paternal role of the apostle in his Church also, but this is not the only or the most significant role of the spiritual father. 

As Nena[1] sings inIrgendwie, Irgendwo, Irgenwann, “die Zeit ist reif für ein bischen Zärtlichkeit, irgendwie, irgendwo, irgendwann.” In my translation: the time is ripe for a little compassion, anyhow, anywhere, anytime.” It is always time to show forth the face of the loving mother in the person of the priest, a compassion which feeds, comforts, soothes and brings peace.

John W. Martens

Follow me on Twitter @johnwmartens

[1] Like so many biblical scholars, who yearn to be out of touch with, incomprehensible to, the reading public, I am perhaps overly reliant on German sources and scholarship. Yet, today, as I examined the readings, I could not help but refer to the German singer Nena, best known for her 99 Luftballoons, rendered in English as “99 Red Balloons.” Already many of you might be saying, “biblical scholar, heal thyself! How many times has Nena been cited in biblical contexts, especially when considering World Priest Day?” I ask you on this day to grant me an indulgence, but you can find an English version of Anyplace, Anywhere, Anytime by clicking on the title.


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david power
8 years 8 months ago
John W Martens,

I am more attracted the glitter over on the "all things" blog than the gold offered here.I know the natural reaction to this would be to say "oh no , they are both good etc"  but my point is that I truly learn from what you write.I prefer a more existential reading of the Bible than what you give but you make me think.We all need somebody to show us the riches of the Bible.
St Paul is a complex figure who has never been explained well.I love Nietzsche but do not agree with his portrayal of St Paul but I have to say that most Christians are not as truthful as Nietzsche when dealing with Paul.  
St Paul  is hard for us to comprehend jumping off the text.What was his life like?Did he know that future generations would read over his letters?Did he seek to impress for the sake of effect those he wrote to?
Thanks for all of your careful writing     
8 years 8 months ago
Thank you for your beautiful reflection on Pauls maternal imagery.  As a twice nursing mother, a long time ago, I can relate to the sleep deprivation , the day and night care, never ceasing.  As you said, it is very powerful how Paul used the image to describe and encourage and teach his disciples.  If I had a son wanting to enter the seminary I would be very very worried about him doing that.  This, I guess, would be my maternal protectiveness in play.  I think that the sex abuse scandal must be an ever present, but unspoken thought of these seminarians.  I'm not familar with seminarians as you most certainly are, but I do know of several recently ordained priests who say they are willing to by martyred for the Faith.  Not physically, but by slander and inuendo their character and reputation may be destroyed.  The American Church is severely divided and this goes down to the parish level.  A priest of only a few years duration who is made a pastor will face, with little experience, a laity of many definite opinions, often at odds with one another.   And they may be serving under a weak or embattled bishop.  John, no wonder these guys look so serious!  Pope Benedict has written and spoken a great deal about the joy in our Faith.  It is sad that these potential priests are not experiencing the joy that should be a part of their vocations.

I agree with David;  your blogs are pure gold.  I read them all and appreciate them even if I don't find time to comment.  Blessings!
Maggie Rose
8 years 8 months ago
*sigh* it's such an either/or world. would that the ambiguity of both-and ''seeing'' thinking and believing step forward! the steps of advancement, personal and universal, might well be smaller than an either/or world but the both-and steps, i suspect, would be surer. of course, that would depend upon trusting the holy spirit, rather than our selves, to know what is best. we would need to listen with great attention. no easy trick for folks who think they know what's what.

paul is as paul was. we read him this way and that down through the centuries. and still the holy spirit guides us ... not in a way that is perfect but in a way that is ever-lasting. ambiguity. can we live with it?
8 years 8 months ago
John,  I am certainly with you in the hope that these seminarians and young priests experience the immense joy and peace in our Faith and embody this in their missions.  Along with this hope is the hope that the laity of their parishes welcome and support them with love and kindness. 

I have a little story to share with you.  Two years ago while on a pilgrimage and visiting Rome, the Catholic group I was with met  up with 3 seminarians from the St. Paul Seminary.  We stayed together for an afternoon.  With my St,. Kate's-St.
Thomas connections we hit it off right away.  One of the young men helped me climb up a very long steep stairway leading to a church.  Wouldn't have made it without him.  The three young men were having a wonderful time on their visit to Rome.  I don't remember their names but do remember their joie de Vivre and kindness.  I'm glad to know from you, John, that the seminary training is thorough and extensive.Blessings to all who have made it so.

Here in the San Diego diocese, the priest who works for the diocese in seminarian and priestly formation is a good friend of mine.  He is a convert and late vocation so he comes to this mission with much worldly experience and maturity.  He is one who enjoys life and one of the lessons he teaches is for priests to build in to their schedules, no matter how busy, time for them to pursue enjoyable activities.  He is also pastor of two parishes, one poor working class and the other affluent.  Every few weeks a group of us, his friends, take him out for sangria and dinner at our favoite Cuban restaurant.  He is a good example of a joyous and happy priest in a position where he can influence his parishes and diocesan mission.


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