Women, Feminism and Our Mother of Perpetual Help


In celebration of International Women’s Day (IWD) today, I would like to reflect on the rise of women’s movement called feminism and its implications for the devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help. On the other hand, this short essay will present how Mary, Our Mother of Perpetual Help (OMPH) can be a resource for feminism. Furthermore, this essay will contemplate on the icon of OMPH and its significance to women.

The Rise of Women

One of the most significant movements of the last fifty years of the 20th century was the feminist movement.  This movement brought significant changes to the traditional family.  As British sociologist Anthony Giddens declares, “As women stake claim to greater quality, traditional family systems are under strain, in many parts of the world.”[1]

A major consequence of this is the gradual breakdown of the patriarchal family.   “The inequality of men and women was intrinsic to the traditional family.”[2]   Consequently, we are now in a post-patriarchal family: “The heterosexual, nuclear, patriarchal family built around a long-lasting marriage is today the exception rather than the rule in the United States and in the majority of Western Europe.”[3]   The breakdown of patriarchal family not only transformed women but also men.  Marina Subirats talks about ‘new masculinities’ where men seek new perspectives of meaningful existence by liberating themselves from the burden of their responsibility as patriarchs.[4]

Philippines has one of highest regard for women in Asia. The Philippines is the world’s seventh most gender-equal society among 144 economies and remained the highest-ranked country in the Asia-Pacific region. The World Economic Forum (WEF)’s Global Gender Gap Report 2016 showed the Philippines closing nearly 79 percent of its gender gap. Does the status of the Philippine as a Marian country has something to do with this? Despite this glowing report, however, abuse of women continues in the Philippines—battered women, misogyny in many aspects of life, sexual harassment in the workplace, rape and income inequality, among others.

As the world is beginning to explore the value of women in the workforce especially at a decision-making level, sadly the church is one of the major institution of the world where women are not given as much role as men. Female involvement especially in decision-making processes within the Catholic Church is still very weak. Patriarchy runs deep within the church. Thus, from the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Francis has called for a renewed “theology of women.” Pope Francis also affirms the need for new “anthropological research” in order to understand both the feminine and masculine identity more deeply, and thus “better serve the human being as a whole.”

The shrine has exerted lots of effort in line with Pope Francis’ desire to find ways to empower women in the church.

Feminist critique of Devotion

The French philosopher and considered godmother of feminism, Simone de Beauvoir, claimed that the cult of the Virgin Mary is one of the ways in which Western culture had constructed an artificial version of femininity which was submissive and inferior.[5] Many feminists believe that Mary is a product of the Western patriarchal church. It was the male church who put Mary on the pedestal. The male church is manifested in the penchant for titles, power, status, and hierarchy. For Luce Irigaray, the fertile, corporeal, and maternal aspects of the Christian story have been neglected in favor of a life-denying religion based on the patriarchal and sacrificial relationship between a Father God and his crucified Son.[6] Dutch Professor Catherina Halkes argued that veneration of Mary arose out of a male church glorifying Mary while at the same time stamping male domination.[7] In this context, Halkes calls for liberation of Mary from the image that men have formed of her and from the projections that a male priestly hierarchy has attached to her.[8] Elizabeth A. Johnson, for her part, presented an interesting hypothesis that Mary’s image has been developed historically as a female representation of the divine, precisely because the “feminine” has been excluded from the mainline Christian perception of God as Father, Son and Spirit. The patriarchal bias of Christian theology has made God more as a powerful creator and just judge than a loving, caring, tender, nurturing being. God has been made theologically according to the image of man and the patriarchal society concept of maleness as tough, aggressive, dominant, and thus soft pedaling the so called “feminine” dimension of warmth, concern and love.[9]   

 Mary was also used as a model which played off against women. Marina Warner explored this through an examination of the cultural history of Mariolatry[10] which places the Virgin on an unreachable pedestal. Through Mariolatry, the Catholic Church has made women, with their ordinary desires and ordinary reproductive lives, feel diminished.[11]

On the other hand, American feminist theologian, Elizabeth Schussler Florenza showed that the development of Mariology throughout the world has contributed to the liberation of women. Feminist theologians have also recovered Mary as a powerful symbol for women. The femininity of Mary is a counter-symbol to power. Thus, Coyle argued that “[T]heologians must critique the silent and submissive images that have presented Mary as sweet and uncomplaining and that do little to uplift marginalized and oppressed women… Mary must be retrieved as a woman strong and resourceful, our sister in faith who did not hesitate to proclaim God’s concern for the oppressed.”[12] Similarly, Elizabeth Schussler Florenza pointed out the silence and neglect concerning women in the Bible and in Tradition.[13] Elizabeth Johnson’s endeavored to pull down Mary from the artificial pedestal that patriarchy have made of her by divesting Mary of all her queenly titles. In so doing, Mary become one like us, in Johnson’s words, Mary is truly our sister.[14] American writer Monique Ocampo explains further,

Mary was just as human as the rest of us. She felt pain, she felt fear, she felt loss just like the rest of us. She was a mother and a wife and a daughter and a cousin. I imagine her as a short and sassy woman who wasn’t picture-perfect in looks, but still beautiful in heart. Once we remember that Mary (and the rest of the saints) are as human as the rest of us, it helps us on the path of relating to her and imitating her.

Contemplatio: Looking through the Icon

Through the icon, Mary saw and heard the suffering and cries of women who contemplated on her icon day and night at the shrine.  Mary OMPH identifies with the suffering of abused and degraded women. Through the icon of OMPH, devotees have been invited to build a world where there is gender equality and free of degradation and marginalization of women.


Icons as images of glorious saints and Mary in heaven, invite devotees to a future where all are equal in God. Life with God in heaven transcends gender as St. Paul proclaims in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither…male nor female for all are one in Christ Jesus.” Anthony Kelly adds that,

[W] are not to identify ourselves by gender … all are equal in Christ. Male domination is an abomination. The icon is a rejection of patriarchy. As an icon of the Father in this way, she subverts the religious imagination that would see the ultimate origin in rigidly masculine terms.[15]

In the icon, Mary shows her son Jesus to the devotees as the model of inclusivity and respect for the most marginalized in society including women. He showed mercy for the woman caught in adultery, realizing the injustice of persecuting the woman while no punishment was directed toward her male sexual partner (John 8:3-11). Jesus treated women as people, not servants or sex objects. In a day when men did not even speak to women publicly, Jesus explained the scriptures and offered hope to the woman at the well, a member of an outcast race (John 4: 1 – 26). Moved by compassion, He resurrected the only son of a widow (Luke 7: 11 – 17). He was the perfect gentleman on every occasion, never abusing His power or celebrity status. He taught women, healed women, and accepted women, even those considered “unclean.” more appreciation and understanding of the gift and distinctiveness of femininity in all areas of life—this shines forth Jesus’ inclusive ministry in a deeply patriarchal and exclusive monolithic Jewish society. Through the icon, Mary invites devotees to follow Jesus’ example of treating women.

Missio: Following Jesus with Mary

Mary represents a break from the patriarchy in scriptures. Mary is a counter-symbol to male dominance in the scriptures. We saw Mary as the first evangelizer of Jesus walking 70 km to visit her cousin Elizabeth. She was a courageous prophet in proclaiming the magnificat. She is not meek and mild weakling. We can see her as an archetype for contemporary women in their legitimate desires to be more intensely involved in the mission of the Church and in the healing of societal wounds.[16]

Mary has shown us the true meaning and value of a human being not bound by gender nor any human boundaries but by the grace and power of God. She was chosen by God to be the mother of God’s son not because she was a woman but because of her utmost openness and willingness to participate in God’s mission. As Kelly explains,

She is defined in no other way, by no other relationship – neither by a human partner, nor by  social  expectations,  nor  by  human  ambition,  nor  even  by  the  common  religious  notions of her time or ours.  What determines her existence is solely what God can be and what God can do.[17]

Mary has a big role in transforming the understanding of the church (ecclesiology). Mary can help the church today in living out her true identity and mission in the world. The Catholic Catechism of the Church considers Mary as the exemplary realization of the Church, and her eschatological icon and preeminent sign of hope.[18] The Swiss theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar, hailed as one of the most important Roman Catholic theologians of the 20th century,[19] is one of the prominent theologians who vigorously advocated for the Marian transformation of the church.  He asserts that the Marian principle constitutes the soul of the Church. Without it, ecclesial life risks being reduced to mere bureaucracy and functionalism.[20]

Balthasar, in the tradition of the early Fathers, saw Mary as the archetypal image of the Church. Balthasar considers Mary’s bridal “yes” of bodily faith, which continues on in the Church as fruitful virginity, not only has implications for the Church; indeed, it is the Marian fiat that defines the Church. The fiat and redemption are so interwoven, so inseparably one, that the creature cannot say “yes” to God without being redeemed, but neither can the creature be redeemed without having somehow spoken his or her “yes.” Mary’s single “yes,” her personal fiat in its unlimited availability to God’s plan, sufficed for the incarnate Lord to say “yes” to all his creatures, and has become “by grace, the bridal womb, matrix, and mater” in and through which each creature can say “yes” to God, and by which “he also forms the truly universal Church.”[21]  In this light, he sees the Church as profoundly Marian, feminine, and bridal. He sees the Church as person, as body, as structure, and ultimately, as bride.[22] “The Church is primarily feminine because her primary, all-encompassing truth is her ontological gratitude, which both receives the gift and passes it on.”[23]

Inay Maria ng Magnificat

Ross Campbell points out Balthasar’s significant view that throughout the history of the Triune God’s dealings with humanity a female principle is present. The history of our salvation is marked by a feminine presence that responds actively and fruitfully to God’s initiatives: first Israel, which is presented throughout the Scriptures in feminine terms (as the daughter of Sion or, in those times when the prophets urge her to repentance, as a faithless wife); then Mary; and now the Church (the bride of Christ). And it is in this context, then, that the experience of the early Church and in particular the experience of Mary becomes pivotal for all believers.[24] For centuries, however, the feminine identification of the church has become subordinate to the symbol of the male provider of leadership which Balthazar calls the Petrine principle.[25] He describes the consequences of a masculine dominance of the church:

It has to a large extent put off its mystical characteristics; it has become a church of permanent conversations, organizations, advisory commissions, congresses, synods… structures and restructurings, sociological experiments, statistics, that is to say, more than ever a male church, if perhaps one should not say a sexless entity.[26]

Balthazar, therefore, argues that the Petrine-Apostolic ministry of word and sacrament is never an end in itself but rather it is always subordinate to, and in the service of, the Marian principle. The Petrine principle is given to us by Christ to enable the Church to become what she already is in Mary, the spotless bride. All that is given to Peter is given to him to make the Church (and us) more like Mary.[27]

The Petrine-Apostolic ministry of word and sacrament is never an end in itself but rather it is always subordinate to, and in the service of, the Marian principle.

In the light of all these, Mary can serve to counteract any tendencies of patriarchy in the church. Mary is a counter-symbol to any tendency within the church for bureaucracy, hierarchy, power and status. As Balthasar has advocated, Mary as prototype of the church entails a shift from structural ecclesiology (rules, order, hierarchy, structures, and management) to Marian ecclesiology (charism, prayer, discipleship; church as mystery). Balthasar declares, “Without Mariology, Christianity threatens to become inhuman. The Church becomes functionalistic, soulless … And people in their masses run away from such a Church”.[28]


Mary’s life and example is at the root and goal of our identity as church. It is in this light that Mary is key to the transformation of the church today.

In this transformation, women participation in the church is an essential dimension. Mary can inspire women to play a meaningful role in transforming the church. Participation of women in the church will make the church reflect more the values of inclusivity, equality, unity and peace of God’s kingdom which goes beyond nationality, culture, race, blood or gender.

Our concerted involvement and struggle for gender equality and other forms of discrimination can enrich our devotion to OMPH. Our devotion to OMPH can be more productive and meaningful if we can learn from Mary about the true meaning of feminism and freedom. For Mary, the meaning of a human being goes beyond gender. The fullness of humanity is experienced in humanity’s utmost freedom towards service to God’s mission and fellow human beings.

Icona dopo il restauro senza corone



[1] Anthony Giddens, Runaway World, 12.

[2]  Giddens, Runaway World, 54.

[3]  Manuel Castells, The Power of Identity, Vol. XXVIII of Information Age Series (John Wiley & Sons, 2011)

[4]  Marina Subirats in Castells, “Preface,“ The Power of Identity.

[5] “Simone de Beauvoir,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Accessed at https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/beauvoir/

[6] Irigaray, Luce. Marine Lover of Friedrich Nietzsche (New York, 1991). The last chapter of this book, “Epistle to the Last Christians,” offers the author’s most sustained engagement with the Marian tradition, although references to the Virgin Mary are scattered widely throughout her work.

[7] Edward Schillebeeckx and Catharina J. M. Halkes, Mary: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow (SCM Press, 1993), 62.

[8] Halkes, Mary: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow, 59.

[9] See Elizabeth A. Johnson, “Mary and the Female Face of God” in Theological Studies (50) 1989, 500-526.

[10] The term “Mariolatry” is a Protestant pejorative label for perceived excessive Catholic devotion to Mary.

[11] Marina Warner, Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary (New York: Vintage Books, 1983).

[12] Coyle, Mary in the Christian Tradition, 103.

[13] Elizabeth Schussler florenza, In Memory of Her. A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins (NY: Crossroad, 1983).

[14] Johnson, Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints.

[15] Kelly, “Mary: Icon of Trinitarian Love,” 17.

[16] Mary, O.P., Marian Theology up to Vatican II, 8.

[17] Kelly, “Mary: Icon of Trinitarian Love,” 23

[18] Catechism of the Catholic Church, #967.

[19] Edward T. Oakes, S.J and David Moss, eds., The Cambridge Companion to Hans Urs von Balthasar (Cambridge University Press, 2004).

[20] Campbell

[21] Hans  Urs von Balthasar, The Office of Peter and the Structure of the Church, trans. Andree Emery (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), 206-207.

[22] Sr. Thomas Mary McBride, O.P., The Marian Theology of Von Balthasar and the Proposed Definition of Mary Co-redemptrix, 1.

[23] Hans  Urs von Balthasar & Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Mary: The Church at the Source (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005), 100.

[24] Ross Campbell, “Balthasar and the Rediscovery of the Marian Profile of the Church,” Faith Magazine, May-June 2013. Accessed at http://www.faith.org.uk/article/may-june-2013-balthasar-and-the-rediscovery-of-the-marian-profile-of-the-church

[25] Halkes, Mary: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow, 62.

[26] Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Elucidations (London: SPCK, 1975), 72-74.

[27] Campbell, “Balthasar and the Rediscovery of the Marian Profile of the Church.”

[28] Hans Ulrich Von Balthasar