Spiritual Motherhood and Fatherhood

In Catholic teaching, every person on this earth has a spiritual call or ultimate purpose. The rightness of this “call” for you is basically measured in terms of how it helps you fulfill God’s Divine plan on earth. It’s not about how “happy” it makes you, though it can and will indeed make you happy. It’s not about how successful it makes you, though it can and surely may bring you success.

As a woman, one of the roles I am called to motherhood. It can be tricky to understand what this means as a single woman who still doesn’t know if marriage is in God’s plan for her. How does this motherhood work if I never get to have children of my own?

I only really began to understand my call as “mother” when I lived in Rwanda, Africa, and spent time holding and playing with orphan babies and children. The kids at the particular orphanage I frequented were not being shipped to any mothers or fathers who were going to supposedly “give them a better life.” Nope. They were going to stay right there, in their little poor town and grow up with their community of orphaned brothers and sisters. We, the volunteers, came to them. They welcomed us in to their home, where we would provide them with, what I’ve now come to understand to be, a little bit of spiritual motherhood.

Playing soccer in the yard with the older kids, holding two-week-old Hildebrand while all of the other kids cooed as if he were their own sibling, having three-year-old Claude pee on me anytime he would fall asleep in my lap—these were mommy duties I provided while biological mommies were tending to their biological children.

I thought of my time in Rwanda as I was reading a section of Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse’s Spring 2011 commencement speech to Providence Academy High School in Plymouth, Minn. Here’s the excerpt:

The first thing I know about you is that each of you is called to become a mother or a father.  How can I say that with such assurance?  Each and every one of us is called to give of ourselves and to be a gift to other people. Giving birth and taking lifelong responsibility for the care of children is only the most obvious way in which people make gifts of themselves to others. And some of you no doubt will do exactly this: get married and have children. But even those of you who never give birth to or father a single child, have the opportunity to act as spiritual parents to those around you.

By spiritual parents, I mean people who care for the young, as well as the helpless and the needy of any age or station of life. Your teachers are the most obvious examples of people who have acted as spiritual parents to you. They have done much more than just deliver knowledge to you. They have provided you with guidance, direction, limits and dreams. They have given their hearts to you.

You may have already acted as spiritual parents to your younger siblings, to friends in distress, to teammates trying to master a skill. If so, you know that giving of yourself in this way is one of the most satisfying things you can do. Teaching the lesson to a struggling classmate can be more rewarding than mastering the lesson yourself. If you have had experiences like these, then you have already experienced spiritual parenthood.

Actually, I shouldn’t use the generic, gender-neutral word, “parents.” There is no such thing as a generic parent, any more than there is such a thing as a generic person. There are only men and women, mothers and fathers. You are not a gender-neutral, generic person and you won’t become a gender-neutral, generic parent either. Male and female are two different and complementary ways of being human. And mothers and fathers are two different and complementary ways of caring for the young, and the needy of whatever age.

Now you might think this is a little far-fetched, to think that even single people or infertile people or religious people are called to spiritual motherhood or spiritual fatherhood.  Actually, I got the idea from one of the great celibate men of the twentieth century: Pope John Paul the Second, and his Theology of the Body.  And he certainly wasn’t a generic parent: he acted as father to the whole world.  He told us the truth, called us to be the best we could be, and defended us from error. And we called him Holy Father. How odd it would be to refer to him in some gender-neutral way, like our Holy Progenitor. And think what the world would have missed if an unmarried woman, a nun from Albania had not realized her calling to spiritual motherhood. The poor of Calcutta knew her as Mother Teresa, not Parent Teresa.

Thinking of physical parenthood allows us to see some of the differences between spiritual mothers and spiritual fathers. Our mothers give us life. Our mothers are our first connections to the rest of the human race. They nurture us, feed us, comfort us, and encourage us.  Our mothers let us know that we are loved.  When we women do this for others, no matter who they may be, we are acting as spiritual mothers.

Our fathers protect the life they have planted within our mothers.  At times, it may seem as if they are more distant than our mothers. But they have stepped back, to allow our growth.  They protect us, both physically and spiritually. Our fathers hold us accountable for our behavior and performance. When men do these things for us, no matter how old they are in comparison with us, they are acting as spiritual fathers.

We can think of some of the iconic figures of manliness in our culture: the Marines storming the beach; the sheriffs in the Old West; the firefighters running into the crumbling Twin Towers on Nine Eleven. These men are not just performing random acts of aggression and violence.  They are heroes because they are standing up for what is right, keeping order in the community and defending the weak. I think every young man, in his heart, wants to be a sheriff in this spiritual sense, courageously standing up against evil and protecting the innocent.

So this is one thing I know about each one of you: every one of you are called to spiritual motherhood or spiritual fatherhood.

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