Women throughout ages fought culture of death with feminine genius

Written by Anna Krohn, National Bioethics Convenor

Dr Mary Glowrey (far left) undertaking the obstetrics component of her residency programme in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 1911. Photo part of the Glowrey Papers; printed courtesy of the Catholic Women’s League of Victoria and Wagga Wagga.

Gifts of feminine genius: Protecting nascent faith and nascent life

In the 8 December issue of The Record (“Mary Glowrey and Pope Benedict fought same battle for culture of life”) we began to highlight some of the interesting and timely themes emerging in Pope Benedict’s Advent preaching for the new Church year.  

In particular, we noted the way in which this Pope, with his own distinctive insights and style, is building upon the work of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II.

Just as Pope John Paul II gave impetus to the emerging leadership of women within the evangelisation of the “culture of life”, so Pope Benedict is presently unfolding the rich and relatively undiscovered theology, witness and concrete sanctity of the saintly women of the Church.  

Pope Benedict’s reflections upon the great feminine “geniuses” of the Medieval Church are the focus of his present Wednesday audience series (they can be found on the Vatican Web page: www.vatican.va - look for audiences from September 2010).

These short but moving tributes to women as Catholic queens, abbesses, doctors and less well known mystics seem intended not merely as interesting historical vignettes but as a reminder and prompt to Christian women today of the power of their witness, dignity and “charismatic gifts” for the Church and the world.  

Not only do these women provide a genius to the theological treasury of the Church but they also show what Pope Benedict calls “spiritual authority.”  

This “authentic” authority is marked by its service to protect human life and dignity, its love of the Church and its obedience to the truth.

The Pope evokes, for example, the “moral authority” of St Catherine of Siena calling the Pope out of exile, the “gifts of governance” in the Abbess Marguerite of d’Oingt and the collaborative leadership of St Bridget of Sweden.  

In all these women, he finds gifts which lead others (including us today) to experience, in a more immediate and passionate way, the love of God in Christ.

The Pope begins his series on the feminine geniuses, with his own countrywoman: Saint Hildegard of Bingen, whom he calls “this great woman, this prophetess … Hildegard develops at the very heart of her work the theme of the mysterious marriage between God and humanity that is brought about in the Incarnation.”

For Hildegard and the other saintly geniuses this spousal love is never abstract, detached or self-absorbed.  Theirs is the love which provides not the icy rectitude which is “cold as charity” but the fire and the imaginative colour of authentic Christ-empowered caritas. (Resonant themes indeed in his own encyclical: Deus Caritas Est)   

Benedict highlights St Hildegard’s intense engagement with music, philosophy and medicine, well in advance of any of her time which served the deepening of prayer and health in those around her.  

And it is this genius, especially in the patient and suffering compassion of the dying, the pregnant, the unborn and the disabled which can be found again and again in the subsequent lives of holy women.

In The Record, we witnessed the breaking news of the early exploration of the life of the Australian religious sister and Doctor Mary Glowrey and we noted the echoes in her amazing life and Pope Benedict’s call for “nascent human life” this Advent.

Once again this fascinating missionary doctor strikes expectant chords with this series on feminine “genius.”  

The investigations thus far reveal not only extraordinary human intelligence, but a spiritual “brilliance” in Mary Glowrey which reminds us of the Pope’s interest in St Hildegard.

We know that Mary Glowrey was inspired as was Hildegard to her medicine by the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament.  

It was Mary who chose for her growing women’s organisation (the Catholic Women’s Social Guild- later the Catholic Women’s League) these words from the Book of Proverbs: it is a call for a strong and valiant leadership in women: “She hath opened her hand to the needy, and stretched out her hand to the poor…” (Proverbs 31:10-31).

Hildegard was a woman of profound practical and mystical wisdom yet she sought out and corresponded with the great St Bernard of Clairvaux and hunted down the guidance of her Archbishop and the Pope.  

Mary Glowrey collaborated with her spiritual advisors (the remarkable Fr Lockington SJ) and with her Australian and Indian Bishops.  

Yet neither of these women feared the ruthless and unjust power of men.  

Hildegard, says Pope Benedict, fiercely opposed the “ungodly” tactics and thinking of the superpower of her time: Emporer Frederic Barbarossa. Mary wrote from her poor dispensary against the medical eugenicists at the

Congress of Vienna arguing for the dignity of each human person.

Hildegard, with vigorous intellectual acumen, used her interest in the natural sciences to combine or reject the herbal medicine and techniques of her era.  Mary Glowrey, like Hildegard, thought on her feet and moulded her care from her prayer life.  

She, with pioneering insight, balanced cholera epidemics, the extremely unhygienic folk obstetrics, caste bigotry, vast social inequalities and the helpful insights of traditional Indian medicine  with  her advanced observations about the role of hormones upon pregnancy, ante-natal maternal health, fertility and lactation.  

Well before the United Nations turned its attention to “preventable maternal and infant mortality”, Mary was urging the training of local mid-wives, nurses and “medical women who are pitifully few”.  “Many a patient has lost 10, 12 or more babies” before they reached Dr Mary’s extraordinary hospital.

We need to explore further what really makes up the “genius” of such holy women as Mary, Mother Teresa and Hildegard (among the countless others) and the Pope’s call for this Advent to recall as a society, nation and world - the spiritual virtues of “expectation” along with the authentic support of pregnant women and their unborn children.  

In this we realise that saints are recognised because they are needed for their time.  

With an uneven type-font from a battered typewriter, Mary captures in one of her obstetric papers the confident but humble difference the culture of life makes to the suffering of so many woman and families down into our own times: “Save my baby! Save my baby!, was the oft-repeated cry of women. In the early day’s of (St Joseph’s) hospital … but recently a patient was overheard saying to a new-comer: “If you come to this hospital, your babies will surely live.”

Anna Krohn is bioethics convenor of the Catholic Women’s League and Committee member for the Cause of Sr Dr Mary Glowrey

Published by The Record

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