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Constantine and Helena set the stage for Church mothers, too


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Daniel Esparza - published on 02/23/24

As Pope Benedict XVI once said, “without the generous contribution of many women, the history of Christianity would have developed very differently.”

The 4th century was a whirlwind for Christians. Emerging from brutal persecution, they found themselves basking in the favor of Emperor Constantine, his sons, and even (or especially) his mother, a saint, Helena. This newfound acceptance unlocked unprecedented peace, prosperity, and influence for the Church, which was reflected in the lives, teaching, and accomplishments of both men and women. The radical transformation of the political culture posed a unique set of challenges, but also tremendous opportunities.

In her article for Vatican News, Christine Schenk explains that prominent aristocratic Christian female figures showered the Church with their generosity. Needless to say, new questions concerning women’s roles and public involvement (as in the case of St. Helena, no less than the emperor’s mother) were also part of the scene.

As Pope Benedict XVI said at the general audience of February 14, 2007, “Without the generous contribution of many women, the history of Christianity would have developed very differently.” The female presence, the late pope added, was not “in any way secondary.”

It is not surprising then that several remarkable women, known as “mothers of the Church,” played a major part in shaping Christianity, working alongside the “fathers of the Church.”

Schenk mentions, among others, the example of St. Macrina the Younger (the elder sister of Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, Naucratius and Peter of Sebaste), who not only established a thriving monastic community but also paved the way for later monastic rules, leaving an indelible mark on Christian life.

Others, like the innovative writer and poet Proba (Faltonia Betitia Proba), repurposed classic texts to share the Christian story, bridging the gap between pagan learning and burgeoning faith.

These are just glimpses into the lives of women who contributed significantly to the Church’s early development. They helped carve the path of the Church, witnessing to their faith, and shaping the future of Christianity in the process.

Catholic historyPope Benedict XVISaintsWomen
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