Today is the Feast of St. Monica. Unless you are an exceptionally well-read individual, you will probably not know this saint except by her relationship to one of the great saints of the early Church: St. Augustine. And that fact says everything.
Imagine the conversation! To the question, "who was St. Monica," you probably will not
hear the response, "She was holy wife of Patritius the pagan, who made her suffer greatly for her faith."
Likewise, to the question, "who was St. Monica," you will probably not
hear the answer, "She was the holy woman of Tagaste, whose example of patience with her husband and mother-in-law was a great inspiration to the other women of the city."
I would imagine that, to this question, "who was St. Monica," very few
would even give the answer, "She was the holy mother who prayed unceasingly and shed many tears for her son's conversion."
No, in fact, to the question "who was St. Monica," the overwhelmingly common answer will simply be, "she was the mother of St. Augustine."
And so she was. But she was more.
As the wife
of Patritius the pagan, she had to maintain constancy and fidelity in her Faith against his mocking opposition, terrible temper, and infidelity. Worse, she had to put up with his pagan mother, who likewise found her Faith to be ridiculous. She suffered greatly when her husband refused to allow their children to be baptized.
Thanks be to God, her patient and pious example, her silent acceptance of her suffering, eventually merited the conversion of her husband, shortly before his death. Thus St. Monica stands as a shining example of what can be accomplished by a wife
who is dedicated to holiness. Precisely in her role as wife, she won an eternal salvation for her husband.
As the mother
of St. Augustine, she suffered still worse. Her son was a rebel and a great sinner. When he went off to Carthage to study, he indulged himself in very grave sins, sired a child, and embraced the heresy of the Manicheans. All of this broke his mother's heart.
He went to Italy to continue his wayward lifestyle, and it would be some 15 years before she would see him again. Nonetheless, she prayed, she sacrificed, and she hoped.
It was in Milan that Augustine met the great bishop and future saint, Ambrose. Anyone who knows the story of St. Augustine knows that it was St. Ambrose who taught him the faith, and eventually administered baptism to him. Imagine the delight of the suffering mother, to finally receive word from her son after 15 years, inviting her to Italy to witness his baptism at the age of 33 on Easter Sunday.
So it was that St. Monica, this time as mother
, obtained another conversion for the Kingdom of God. She spent a blissful few months with her son in the unity of the Holy Faith, and then she passed on from this earth. In 1586, her relics were moved to the church of St. Augustine, where they were laid beside the relics of her son, for whom she had prayed so patiently.
And this is true feminism: St. Monica accomplished the greatest work that can be accomplished on this earth, by securing salvation for her husband and her son. Thus, she now enjoys one of the greatest honors the Church can bestow: she is "sainted," and her memory is honored on this 4th of May every year.
How did she do it? Not by pursuing worldly power or money; not by disparaging men and complaining about "male dominance"; not by claiming a false liberty, or by asserting her independence. She did it by being a wife and a mother. She used these two offices, these two responsibilities - faithfully carried out - precisely
as the tools of conversion. Her son went on to become a spiritual and intellectual giant, whose name and writings have become respected, even by those outside the Church. This is what a mother can accomplish.
How entirely appropriate, then, that her feast is celebrated in May, in such close proximity to Mother's Day.
And so, while it is a shame on us for not knowing her life story better, she is no doubt quite content (and even proud) to hear us say today: "Who was St. Monica? She was St. Augustine's mother."O God, the consoler of them that mourn and the health of them that hope in Thee, Who didst show Thine acceptance of blessed Monica's pious tears in the conversion of her son Augustine, grant us, by the intercession of them both, to deplore our sins and find the mercy of Thy grace. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, Thy Son, Who liveth and reigneth with Thee in the unity of the Holy Ghost, one God Forever and ever. Amen. (Collect, Roman Missal)