Here’s another sidebar to my recent “introduction to the Fathers” article published in Our Sunday Visitor newspaper. I’ve posted the main body of the article in halves, Part 1 and Part 2, plus the first sidebar. I have more to say about the “Mothers of the Church” in the expanded edition of my book The Fathers of the Church.
Were there “Mothers of the Church”? Well, yes and no.
We possess very few writings by women from the ancient world. Christian women are probably slightly better represented than their pagan counterparts. The many collections of Sayings of the Desert Fathers actually include proverbs by women ascetics, who are called “Amma,” or “Mother.”
St. John Chrysostom (fifth century) carried on extensive correspondence with an abbess named Olympias, but her letters have not survived. His contemporary St. Jerome corresponded with many holy and scholarly women; but, again, we have mostly Jerome’s end of the conversation. Tertullian has preserved the words of the martyrs Perpetua and Felicity. In the late fourth century, St. Gregory of Nyssa wrote a profoundly moving biography of his sister St. Macrina. Around the same time, Egeria, a nun from Gaul, took a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and wrote it up for her convent back home.
Their contemporaries honored these women as maternal figures. The Church has always honored them as saints. There is no custom of calling them “Mothers of the Church,” but there is no reason why individual Christians might not revere them as such.