In the work of the Catholic Church, which is the sanctifying of souls and the diffusion of the knowledge of God’s truth, a very important part is taken by women. It is true that they are not eligible to Holy Orders. A woman cannot be a priest. She is not empowered to preach the Word of God officially, nor to share in the government of the Church, nor to administer sacraments —excepting, of course, the giving of Baptism privately in case of necessity. But she is permitted not only to aspire to perfection, but to assist largely in the perfecting of others; and she is provided by the Church with ample means of self-sanctification and with a broad field of effort in the domain of charity.
What would our Church be —what would be its condition throughout the world to-day, were it not for the zealous labors of those saintly women who have given up all things to follow Christ?
Called by God. At an age when the world is most attractive, when its allurements are most potent, when the natural instincts of humanity crave for affection and worldly ties, some women deliberately choose to leave the world, to sacrifice their right to its lawful pleasures, to devote themselves to arduous work, rigorous self-restraint, severe penance, strict obedience and perpetual chastity. For what reason? Because in their souls they hear the call of Jesus Christ, inviting them to become His servants, to do His work in a state of life higher and more perfect than any that the world could offer them. The life of seclusion and prayer and charitable endeavor is attractive to these holy souls. They have the desire of self-sacrifice; they perceive the vanity of earthly things; they long for the service of our Blessed Lord, and are zealous for the promotion of His glory.
Religious Women in Early Times. The religious state for women in the Catholic Church is probably as ancient as that for men. Long before the institution of nunneries, the Church recognized and recommended several classes of pious women. St. Paul speaks of the holy state of widowhood, in which devout elderly women gave themselves to works of charity; and writers of the first centuries mention other varieties of work assigned to the gentler sex. Some were known as deaconesses, who labored among the poor; hospitallers, who cared for the sick; canonesses, one of whose duties was to assist at burials ; and consecrated virgins, who at first lived at home and practiced their devotions in private.
When religious communities of men were stabled in Egypt and elsewhere, those for women began to be recognized as of almost equal value; and before the end of the fourth century they were common in many parts of the world. St. Augustine founded one in northern Africa, and St. Scholastica, who was St. Benedict’s sister, governed a religious house for women under a rule prepared by that great “Father of the Monastic Life.” And as the centuries rolled on, the Church encouraged more and more the establishing of new societies of women, until they have been multiplied almost beyond counting.
The Work of the Sisterhoods. They are engaged in manifold labors. They teach the young the principles of worldly science as well as of spiritual things. They care for the orphan, the aged, the infirm, the wayward. They journey fearlessly into distant lands, to aid in the extension of Christ's Kingdom among pagan tribes. When war fills the hospitals with wounded men —when the breath of pestilence sweeps over the land —when the leper colony needs nurses who are not afraid of disease or death, the Catholic nun takes her place and does her work, without flourish of trumpets or desire of earthly commendation. She does not fear death, for death means the attainment of a long-sought reward; and she would only regret its approach because it would end the labor that she loves.
All this heroic work in the service of her Master is done unassumingly, without ostentation or desire of praise. We are so accustomed to see it that we take it almost as a matter of course, giving little credit oftentimes to those who are doing it. We honor the brave —but generally we give the most honor to the brave who advertise themselves. When a soldier, whose profession is fighting, risks his life in some daring deed of heroism, the whole land rings with praises of his bravery. The Sister who goes to a remote Chinese mission or to a small-pox hospital or a leper settlement, is risking her life just as bravely and much more deliberately — but we seldom hear of her. The Catholic nun has been doing such work for several hundred years; but she wears no medals of honor, and is seldom mentioned in the newspapers.
The Three Vows. The woman who enters a Catholic religious order or sisterhood binds herself by a threefold vow, to which, in some cases, other solemn promises are annexed, varying according to the special work to which the order is devoted.
First of all, the Church recognizes the dangers of self-will and the advantages of perfect and harmonious cooperation; and therefore the Sister takes a vow of perpetual and complete obedience. This is the foundation upon which every religious community is erected and sustained. They pledge themselves to conquer their own inclinations; to obey in all things the wise laws laid down for their guidance and government; to look upon the rule, interpreted by their lawful superior, as the expression of God's will in their regard. And it is owing to the completeness with which this essential vow has been observed that the results of their labors are so wonderful. Each order, each separate convent, becomes a smoothly working machine, doing its appointed work with all its component parts moving in harmony ; and the desire of each member is not the securing of her own comfort or the satisfying of her own ambitions, but the doing of her allotted task so that the whole work may be thereby made more perfect.
The nun also takes a vow of poverty. She says, like St. Paul: “I esteem all things as naught that I may gain Christ.” She is willing that the fruits of her labor shall not be her own. She cares not for worldly luxury. Her habit, her cell, her plain but sufficient food —these are assured her. She is better fitted for her chosen work because she has few anxieties.
The Catholic nun makes also another and a greater sacrifice. She dedicates her virginity to Almighty God, taking a vow of perpetual chastity, that she may “think on the things of the Lord and be holy in body and spirit.” The state of matrimony is holy, and the virtues of Christian wives and mothers are worthy of all praise; but holier still, and more perfect, and more deserving of admiration is the state of those who voluntarily make a sacrifice of all worldly affections that they may be better able to serve God without being restrained by earthly ties. They enter into espousals with Christ, as is so beautifully expressed in the ritual of their profession. They put the crown on their self-sacrifice and consecration to God by a virtue which is well called the queen of all virtues.
A Striking Contrast. In proportion to the strength of the Church and of Catholic spirit in any country is the progress of the institutions which the Church fosters. When error and irreligion seek to undermine and overthrow the influence of Catholicism, they always begin by destroying these centres of Catholic effort. And with what result? When the homes of the sisterhoods have been suppressed and their members dispersed, the growth of the virtues of charity and mercy has been blighted. In Protestant and infidel lands we have schools without religion, hospitals and almshouses without charity. In Catholic countries alone, or in those in which the progress of the Church is not hampered by hostile legislation, we find the perfect manifestation of Christian charity in the grand institutions established by the handmaids of Christ, in which they give themselves body and soul to the service of their Divine Spouse.
There is not an infirmity or affliction to which our fallen nature is heir, that has not found its appropriate remedy in some department of the work of these societies of women. They instruct the ignorant, feed and clothe the poor, visit and care for the sick; they provide for the helpless infant, the orphan child and the aged; they harbor and reform the fallen. They are angels of mercy, messengers of divine charity, who vary the field of their zeal according to the needs of mankind. They are the wise virgins of the parable, bearing lighted lamps and shedding their radiance on the dark places of the world, that the Bridegroom may come and make His abode in the souls which He died to save.