“Ask a Priest: Could a Tomboy Have a Place in the Church?”

Q: I am a lifelong pagan, but I have felt drawn to Catholicism pretty heavily for the last few years. I respect the Church’s ability to elaborate on and logically explain its positions. The one place I am really getting stuck at present is the role of women and what constitutes the “feminine genius,” as John Paul II put it. I am not a very traditionally feminine woman. I’m married, but we do not have children and we are not likely to due to my husband’s infertility — and honestly I am immensely relieved. I have never really wanted to be a mother and I am not at all good with children. I don’t dislike them, I’m just terrible at child care. I’ve always been a tomboy. I box. I blacksmith. I’m an academic. On the whole, I have always felt that gender roles were fairly archaic ways of categorizing people, dating from the eras of human history where it was a necessary survival mechanism. I know that Church teaching is that women are called to be mothers, either physical or spiritual mothers, but is that all there is? Mary, whom I have a particular interest in, is often held up as the perfection of womanhood and she’s always spoken of as being perfectly demure and nurturing, sweet and loving and graceful. I have basically none of those qualities. I look at her and the other saintly women, and I can’t help think that I’m forever going to be a square peg miserably failing to pound myself into a round hole if I’m going to try to fit the popular Catholic version of femininity. The question here is: What about women like me? Where and how do we fit? – E.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: It is good to hear that you have felt drawn to the Catholic faith. It has a lot of depth, as you know. All the elements fit together, too, though this doesn’t take away all the mystery of Our Lord and his workings.

Perhaps the best answer to your answer starts with someone you mention in your e-mail: Mary. She is the human person we most venerate (Jesus is a divine Person).

What makes Mary so important for us, apart from her singular graces of the being preserved from original sin and being the Mother of Jesus, is that she did the will of God perfectly.

In other words, we don’t hold Mary up as a model so much because of her sweetness and gentleness — although these are certainly qualities of Our Lady — but rather because she was sinless and embraced God’s will perfectly, no matter how difficult it was. For her this meant going all the way to Calvary and having to watch her Son died on a cross. This was a woman of great faith and strength.

You mention that you are a tomboy, and that you box and engage in blacksmithing. I would venture to say that these are not the most important aspects of who you are.

First and foremost, you are a beloved daughter of God. You have the image of God in you. You were created out of love in his image. You have an intellect and a will with which you can learn about him and love him.

You are also unique, like the rest of us. You are one of a kind. For God reveals a little something of himself in you that he has never revealed in any other human, ever. That’s an amazing fact.

So what does all this mean in practice? It means that perhaps you shouldn’t focus so much on how you compare to other women. You are who you are. God loves you as you are. He might want you to be holier, but then he wants all of us to be holier.

As for the feminine genius so championed by John Paul II, the basic idea is that women in general have a gift for being sensitive to others, for bringing people together. Perhaps you can see those qualities in yourself, embracing as you do a wide range of interests, from blacksmithing to academia.

(In passing, I’d add that parenting in general is something of a skill that is learned by experience. Some folks are naturally more gifted in this area, but we can advance in one field or another with practice.)

So is there a place for you in the Church? Of course! Our Lord wants all of us unified. He wants us to take advantage of the sacraments and to learn about the riches of our faith with the help of the magisterium. The Church is here to help all of us.

For now you might want to continue to focus on the center of the Catholic faith: Jesus. He is the one who suffered and died on a cross for love of you, for your redemption. And he would do it again in a heartbeat if he had to.

This is the Man who loves you more than anyone. This is who the Church is about. You can find him in the Scriptures and in the Eucharist. Even though you couldn’t receive Communion yet, try visiting Jesus in the tabernacle of any Catholic church. He is there, sacramentally present in the Eucharist. Just being in his presence will help.

As for Mary: you seem to be a woman who puts an emphasis on strength. It might help for you to think of Our Lady as a woman of strength, too — strength enough to stand by the cross on Good Friday.

I hope some of this helps. And I wish you well on your spiritual journey.

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