Mother Cabrini and the Place of Women in the Church

Mother Cabrini and the Place of Women in the Church March 10, 2024

The recent film Cabrini shines a light on the life of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini and invites us to reflect on the role of women in the Church. Last week, when I reflected on the life of Mother Cabrini, I focused on three points: the role of women in society, immigration, and devotion to the Eucharist. The movie Cabrini deals with the first two and in this article I want to focus on how the movie portrays her contribution to the role of women in society.

Mother Cabrini and the Role of Women in Society

I find the way it deals with the role of women in society fascinating. One phrase that comes out a few times is “stay in your place.” This is always spoken by a man in power, but not total power. In fact, it is always a subordinate of the ultimate authority. It is presented first by a cardinal representing the Pope denying Cabrini’s petition to start her mission in the Far East. It is then repeated by an underling of the mayor of New York.

So, they are weak men, perhaps unsatisfied with their own station of life, who decide that Mother Cabrini should not engage in greater activities than what she has already begun. The Church official wants her to stay invisible in Lombardy. The mayor’s aide wants her to stay invisible in Five Points. It is reminiscent of Biden’s recent threat to the political establishment, saying that the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade means that all women will vote Democrat in November. Does he not realize that many women are pro-life and rejoiced at the Dobbs decision?

It seems to be like his campaign statement that all blacks should vote for him, or they are not “really black.” Now, it seems that women should vote for him, or they are not “really women.” It is all very reminiscent of the discrimination that Cabrini faces in the film, being a woman founder of an order of sisters trying to spread love in a world overcome by misery and despair.

Cabrini
Mother Cabrini Courtesy: Angel Studios

Conservative Pushback

Some conservative response has criticized the film for taking a feminist turn. However, this seems baseless. Frances Xavier Cabrini is a strong, independent woman trying to respond to the inspiration God placed in her heart. She does not try to smash the patriarchy, although she does speak truth to power, demanding that she be judged on the merits of her ideas and the content of her character rather than her biological sex.

This film debuted on the International Day of Women, March 8, and is a great example of the power of the lay apostolate. Rather than engaging in some ideological discourse about the role of women in the Church and droning on about the recent theological conversations about the possibility of a female diaconate, this movie proves that women have a place in Church through their holiness and apostolate.

Mother Cabrini and Red Tape

Mother Cabrini respects authority and hierarchy while she challenges useless red tape. The evangelical push in her soul is stronger than the centuries of tradition limiting the public role of religious sisters. The nineteenth century witnessed a development in religious life for women, introducing missionary congregations composed of women.

Political Savvy

Cabrini feels no need to overturn the clerical nature of governance of the Church. She works with the established offices to accomplish the mission that God has entrusted uniquely to her. Mother Cabrini responds to God much more than she responds to any person on earth. She is a powerful figure as a woman religious. The mayor is surprised by her political savvy, as she is able to force him to do what is right by making it the only politically viable option for him.

As Miilton Friedman said,

I do not believe that the solution to our problem is simply to elect the right people. The important thing is to establish a political climate of opinion which will make it politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right thing. Unless it is politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right thing, the right people will not do the right thing either, or it they try, they will shortly be out of office.

She makes it clear to the mayor that he must support the Italians, or soon the Italians will be the political force that remove him from office through the democratic use of their right to vote.

Is Cabrini a strong woman? Yes. Does Cabrini assert that she is treated differently because she is a woman? Yes. Does Cabrini present herself as a victim? Never. She responds with grace and aplomb of the world around her so that she can fulfill the mission God has given her.

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About Fr. Nicholas Sheehy, LC
Fr. Nicholas Sheehy was ordained a Catholic priest in 2013 for the Legionaries of Christ. He has been involved in youth work including missions, retreats and apostolic outreach in Germany, Italy, the United States and Central America. He is passionate about the New Evangelization and formation for young adults and married couples. He is a spiritual director and retreat director, offering marriage preparation and marriage counseling through the Divine Mercy Clinic and Family Center. He is currently Executive Director and Chaplain of the Newman Center at St. Philip the Apostle Parish in Pasadena, California. You can read more about the author here.
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