When a bereaved family is selecting an appropriate Scripture reading for the funeral rite of a beloved wife or mother, the first reading from the Old Testament’s Book of Proverbs read at Mass this coming weekend is often chosen. The passage highlights endearing as well as practical activities in which a good wife or mother might be engaged. Knowing the right merchants, she is wise in her choice of material for the clothing of her household. And handy at the spinning wheel, she is skillful in producing suitable garments. The good wife and mother is also alert to the requirements of the needy in her neighborhood. She values fear of the Lord more than personal charms. As the men of the town gather at the city gate, her name is justly praised.
Such tender words might somewhat console a grieving family. But today at Mass these same words might well perturb some progressive thinkers within our Catholic congregations. A nostalgic glance back at older generations of women sitting by a cozy hearth with open fire weaving homespun cloth for her children’s comfort can be a soothing image at a stressful moment.
Norman Rockwell has his place. But when a new winter jacket can be delivered overnight by Amazon Prime, time spent at a spinning wheel seems like an idle occupation. The contemporary woman’s fingers no longer ply the spindle; they are engaged in brain surgery, in armed combat, in space technology, in financial statistics, in political goals and, quite notably, in legal expertise. The stay-at-home wife and mother recalled from “It’s a Wonderful Life,” for example, has been traded for the boardroom executive found in “Madame Secretary.”
Feminism — or Women’s Lib, as it has been called — convinced many in the generation of women in the 1970s that a woman’s “proven worth,” again quoting the Book of Proverbs, was to be found in her ability to be equal to men. Recalling Annie Oakley’s phrase — “Anything you can do, I can do better” — some women sought their worth exclusively in pursuing traditional masculine goals and, alas, often ignoring and even demeaning the traditional feminine role of wife and mother.
In this regard, Alice von Hildebrand, speaking at Providence College, noted that feminism has been the death of femininity. In striving to be equal to men, some women have forsaken those unique roles that only a woman can offer to the world: wife and mother. Women are not called by God simply to mimic men. Women rather are called to know themselves, their unique strengths, their distinctive virtues, their exceptional talents. Womanhood must put its own brand on the world. Today’s society must ask once again exactly what the vocation of wife and mother entails.
And while we are at it, the same investigation into self-knowledge must be demanded of men. Quite often when marriage difficulties are frankly faced, a wife will admit of her husband, “Well, he’s a good provider.” And certainly this is a boon to any marriage. Keeping bread on the table, a roof over the family’s head and the check book balanced are worthy goals. But the man’s true role in the family is not merely to pay the bills. As a woman’s unique contribution to family is wife and mother, a man’s unique involvement in family life is husband and father.
“Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the Church,” advises St. Paul to his readers. And the Apostle no doubt meant a warm, loving relationship marked by tenderness and intimacy. Counselors insist that a close and caring rapport between husband and wife is the primary task of any married couple, more basic even than caring for any children. The spousal relationship is primary; parental responsibilities must never usurp the vocation to be husband or the vocation to be wife.
Not just textbook parenting but actually being a sensitive father and being a sympathetic mother are mutual responsibilities for a married couple. Men might well approach fatherhood differently than women might embrace motherhood, but neither role can be ignored. The challenging father and the understanding mother are not clichés. Children need to be tested just as much as they need to be affirmed. Both spouses must be aware of the God-given roles that are rooted in their own gender, each making their singular but integral contributions to family life.
Christ’s parable of the talents proclaimed this weekend celebrates the responsible believer who energetically puts him or herself in the service of the master.
God is delighted with every eager response to life’s challenges. “Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities,” the master announces.
The successful wife and mother, the effective husband and father, will not go unnoticed.