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 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
 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.