Today’s saint lived a generation after the Roman persecution of the Church had ceased. (Stay tuned in the next few days to hear more about that persecution.) He lived at a time when the Church was growing at a rapid pace- by the year 300, Christians in the empire numbered over 6 million. While the threat of persecution was over, peace was not reigning. Disputes over doctrine were heated and false teaching was spreading, and heroes like St. Cyril of Alexandria were busy teaching and preaching the truth.
St. Cyril of Alexandria (c. 376 – 444) is perhaps best known for fighting the Nestorian heresy, a teaching which held that Mary was not the Mother of God. The heresy taught that she only gave birth to the human nature of Christ. St. Cyril and other orthodox bishops recognized that this belief ultimately separated Christ into two persons, human and divine, violating the unity of Christ, Who was one Person. Every mother knows that she doesn’t look at her newborn and think, “What a lovely human nature I gave birth to!” Women give birth to people, not simply natures. The Church in the Council of Ephesus in 431 declared Mary Theotokos, or “God-bearer” and clarified that while Mary is not the source of God, nor did she pre-exist God, she did bear the Word Incarnate in her womb.
God chose a woman to bear His Son, to bear His flesh, to cooperate in salvation in an intimate way. What dignity this gives women!
Christianity elevated women at a time when their situation was rather bleak. In the Greco-Roman world, women were usually married before they reached their teens to much older men, and then were often forced to put up with marriages where unnatural sexual acts, adultery, and contraception and abortion were expected.
If their child wasn’t killed by abortion (and the abortions often killed the mother as well), it may not live much after birth, either.
Dr. Rodney Stark, a noted sociologist, observed: “Men greatly outnumber women in the Greco-Roman world. Dio Cassius, writing in about 200 AD, attributed the declining population of the empire to the extreme shortage of females. In his classic work on ancient and medieval populations, J C Russell estimated that there were 131 males for 100 females in the city of Rome and 140 males per 100 females in Italy, Asia Minor, and North Africa. Russell noted in passing that sex ratios this extreme can only occur when there is ‘some tampering with human life.’”
And tampering there was. Exposure of unwanted female infants and deformed male infants was legal, morally accepted, and widely practiced by all social classes in the Greco-Roman world. Another historian noted that even in large families “more than one daughter was practically never reared.” Historians were able to construct 600 families in the city of Delphi, using inscriptions from the time. Of these 600 families, only six had raised more than one daughter.
On the subject of female infanticide, Stark asks us to consider “a letter written by one Hilarion to his pregnant wife Ails, which has been reported by many authors because of this quite extraordinary contrast between his deep concern for his wife and his hoped-for son, and his utter callousness toward a possible daughter: Know that I am still in Alexandria and do not worry if they all come back and I remain in Alexandria. I ask and beg you to take good care of our baby son. And as soon as I receive payment I shall send it up to you. If you are delivered of a child before I come home, if it is a boy, keep it, if it is a girl, discard it. You have sent me word ‘Don’t forget me.’ How can I forget you? I beg you not to worry.”
As you might imagine, this imbalance of men and women inevitably led to rape and sexual aggression. All of which was considered quite normal.
Church historian Mike Aquilina comments, “That is the world in which the first Christians were born, in which they grew up and married, and in which they raised their families. You might call it a culture of death.”
In the midst of this culture of death, the son of God had come into the world… as the son of Mary. And before leaving this world, He left us a Church- a Church that believes in the inherent dignity of the human person, one which sets a woman — the Blessed Mother — as the role model for Christian life — one that elevates marriage to a sacrament, that commands husbands to love their wives, that values the woman’s fertility.
During this current “culture of death,” may we turn to the Mother of Christ, asking her to intercede for us to Her Son. May her prayers for all of us, especially the women of our country, bear great fruit for the Church and for our beloved homeland.
“Give me an army saying the Rosary, and I will conquer the world.” -Blessed Pope Pius IX