“Catholic saints are holy people and human people who lived extraordinary lives. Each saint the church honors responded to God’s invitation to use his or her unique gifts. God calls each one of us to be a saint.”
“But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” -1 Peter 2:9, NIV
A few weeks ago, Deb introduced us to the topic of women in church history. She wrote about Mother Teresa, Lottie Moon, and Mary Slessor, women who pioneered missions by stepping into the unknown and uncomfortable, compelled by the love of God. She also introduced us to Hildegard of Bingen, a nun who was a prolific author. Today I want to introduce you to some women in church history who were part of the laity–members of the church who are not ordained or committed to exclusive full time ministry. These are women who held positions of influence outside the church who made great contributions to the church.
Olga was the wife of Igor of Kiev in the early tenth century, ruling as regent on behalf of her son following Igor’s death. She refused a marriage proposal from Prince Mal, a member of the tribe that killed her husband. Instead she crippled their military power and killed their strongest and wisest leaders. Then burned their village, using pigeons to spread the flames She was converted to Christianity and baptized by the Emperor Constantine VII in 945 or 957. After her conversion she requested missionaries be sent to her country. She was successful in converting her grandson Vladimir who brought Christianity to Russia. Olga’s legacy is muddy to be certain. She was influential in spreading the church to Russia, but she was also known for her barbaric rule. Did she use a new religion for political gain? Or did her relationship with Christ give her a true change of heart? Perhaps we’ll never know. We do know that the church spread throughout Russia and Europe because of her influence.
Matilda of Tuscany “The Great Countess”
Matilda was a powerful political and military leader in the eleventh century. She was a key player in the conflict between the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope as they both struggled for power over the Church. Matilda, deeply religious, supported the Pope and was later sainted by the Catholic Church for her efforts. Though her position as ruler does call into question her sincerity of faith, she did make other contributions to the church, namely donations of land and money for developing religious communities and building a school of law. Whether for noble or selfish reasons, Matilda’s influence on the direction of the church was significant and is felt even today as the Catholic Church still recognizes a papal leadership.
St. Hedwig of Silesia
Hedwig was married to Harry I, Duke of Silesia and Poland, with whom she had seven children. Together they ruled Silesia in the 13th century and used their wealth to fund monasteries in the area, contributing to the spread of German culture through the monks. They founded the convent of the Cistercian Nuns at Trebnitz with their own money, built on land they donated. They also built hospitals where Hedwig would personally visit to care for the sick. She is known for her piety, caring for the poor, visiting hermits and prisoners, washing the feet of lepers on Holy Thursday, and giving her money to such causes up until her death, leaving nothing as an inheritance. Following the death of her husband, Hedwig took up residence in the Cistercian Convent they had built and lived under the direction of her daughter, Gertrude, abbess of the monastery. She was known to walk barefoot, even in winter. Hedwig is an example of the great good that can be done with political leadership and wealth. She was not a nun, but she built and expanded the convents and monasteries where many nuns and monks would dedicate their lives to the cause of Christ and the betterment of humanity.
Many women throughout church history have made a lasting impact on the direction of the church and the spread of the Gospel. Some through complete devotion to God as nuns, missionaries, or ordained ministers, and some through political leadership and financial contributions. God desires to use all of his children, regardless of gender, occupation, gifting, economic level, or anything else. He chooses to build his kingdom on earth with us humans. The question is: are you willing to be used by God where you are?