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“The idea of the perfect girl”

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Jesuits as promoters of women’s holiness from the origins of Christianity to the present day

Les jésuites comme promoteurs de la sainteté des femmes des origines du christianisme à nos jours

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Published on Monday, February 15, 2021 by João Fernandes

Summary

Because of their involvement in hagiographical literature as authors of Lives or as promoters of Causes, the Jesuits have been a privileged gateway for questioning female holiness since the beginnings of Christianity. To what end did they encourage cults, some of them already thousands of years old? How did they direct their efforts to bring their dirigées to the altars? What role did they play as promoters? What contours have they traced for female holiness, and what have been the repercussions of this configuration of gender relations? The papers will consider the vision of feminine holiness among the Jesuits, from a chronological point of view – saints since the beginnings of Christianity – but also from a geographical point of view: wherever the Society has been active.

Announcement

Argument

Hagiographical literature, often in tension with the writing of history, has made its way into the historian’s sources. In addition to its interest as a narrative that bears witness to the lives and spirituality of the saints, it reveals the issues surrounding the origin of the cults, their diffusion, the evolution of devotions, and, from the moment the processes of beatification and canonisation were institutionalized, the priorities and interests of the promoters of the Causes, but also the objectives of Roman institutions.

Whether it pre-dated the first canonisations or formed part of a wider ecclesiastical policy of establishing religious norms, the holiness of women was based on various figures, reshaped over the centuries, such as the holy martyr of the catacombs, the holy queen guaranteeing the royalty of her dynasty, the abbey foundress in the High Middle Ages, the widow choosing the convent, the mystic in early modern times, suffering and ill to atone for the evils of the world, or the foundress in the 19th and 20th centuries, in the wake of the rise of women’s congregations. For women, the most direct path to holiness was the monastic model - the nuns were the ones being canonised. The hagiographic models have evolved over time, as shown by this example of the emergence of saints involved in charitable or educational works in an industrial context, after the suppression of religious orders. During his pontificate, John Paul II beatified and canonised women teaching other women the role of wife and mother, in support of his discourse on the intrinsic nature of women. 

Research on female holiness has mainly been based on hagiographical accounts, (auto)biographies and spiritual writings, published or unpublished. These texts tend to show the holiness of women at every stage of their lives (even more so if they have been wives or mothers) and to rule out any accusations of false holiness. Gender studies have brought new questions to this field devoted to women’s holiness, particularly from the point of view of power relations, representations, embodied masculinities and femininities. For the early modern era onwards, the analysis of how these spiritual biographies were viewed and discussed during the canonisation process helps to understand the gender norms defended by Roman institutions.

Because of their involvement in hagiographical literature as authors of Lives or as promoters of Causes, the Jesuits have been a privileged gateway for questioning female holiness since the beginnings of Christianity – André Triquet and Aldergonde, Claude Chauchetière and Kateri Tekakwitha, Nazario Pérez and Cándida María de Jesús come to mind. In spite of the injunction in their Constitutions not to take on the cura monialium, the Jesuits were committed to the promotion of holy female figures, and to a long practice of founding women’s congregations and leading pious, religious and mystical women. This involvement remained constant over the centuries. To what end did they encourage cults, some of them already thousands of years old? How did they direct their efforts to bring their dirigées to the altars? What role did they play as promoters? What contours have they traced for female holiness, and what have been the repercussions of this configuration of gender relations?

The papers will consider the vision of feminine holiness among the Jesuits, from a chronological point of view – saints since the beginnings of Christianity – but also from a geographical point of view: wherever the Society has been active.

Main themes

Topic may include, but are not limited to:

  • What were the motivations of the Jesuits in the promotion of these saints, “old” or “new”? Why did they continue to work on the Lives of past figures? Is there broader strategy of the Order or of a province?
  • What place did the Jesuits give to the women who became saints through popular fervour? What changes and transformations did they make to the image of these ancient saints? Which ones did they make accessible and visible? For which saints did they arouse devotion? Is their vision of medieval holiness the same as their vision of early modern and contemporary holiness?
  • The elaboration and construction of female holiness by the Jesuits: what role did they play in confirming the religious visions and intuitions of women of all times? How did they articulate the idea of religious perfection to their practice of spiritual direction and then hagiography? What was the place of gender in this construction?
  • Within the framework of the Causes of beatification and canonization of women:
    • What was the content of the depositions of the Jesuits called as witnesses? What Causes did they agree to take up?
    • What role did they play within the Congregation of Rites and the Congregation for the Causes of Saints? Did they participate in the financial arrangements for the Causes? Did the Society of Jesus as an order intervene at any time in these Causes?
    • What were the gender norms defended in such Causes?
    • How did the Jesuits interpret the writings of women proposed for sainthood? How did they reconcile them with orthodoxy?
    • What happened to the writing activity of the Jesuits after the canonization? Did the Lives continue to be written in order to consolidate an image or, on the contrary, to nuance it?
  • The Lives written by the Jesuits:
    • Who were the women whose cult or Causes the Jesuits supported? Were they devotees, nobles, beatas, foundresses, nuns? What times did they live in? Is it possible to observe a particular geography in the choice of candidates for sainthood?
    • What were the aspects highlighted, the smoothing, the additions, the transformations made from one Life to another in order to make a convincing discourse on, for example, virginity and obedience?
    • How did the Jesuits approach the question of gender? Did they neutralise it, masculinise a figure to show its exceptionality, feminise a figure in order to conform it to a particular model? In other words, how did they determine what constitutes adequate gender representation?
    • What role did Jesuit confessors play in the Lives they wrote?
    • What sources, works, theological writings were used by the Jesuits in their hagiographic writings?
    • From a diachronic point of view, what differences can be observed in the Lives of medieval, modern or contemporary saints? Are there any changes when the same “holiness” is approached in several different periods? How did the older Causes, transformed many times, evolve? How did the Jesuits take over existing devotions?
  • How was the relationship between Jesuits and women’s congregations negotiated in the context of a Cause (for their foundresses), especially in the situation before 1983, when women could not become postulators, vice-postulators or actors?
  • The way in which models of female sanctity were adapted to the specific context of the mission: in the colonial context of the missions, where the traditions of the Counter-Reformation were followed more flexibly, how did the Jesuits restore traditional motives to these lives far removed from Roman rules?
  • How were images used? What were the representations produced and disseminated in the context of hagiographic publications? What place did female holiness hold within the Society’s cult buildings?
  • The way in which saints or candidates for sainthood were mobilised in the Lives of the Jesuits who supported them: what were the issues surrounding their apparitions in these Lives? With what influence on the gender configurations defended by these Jesuits, to their order or the Church?

Submission guidelines

Paper proposals up to 250 words and a brief biographical note should be sent

by 15 March 2021

to sarah.barthelemy@usaintlouis.be, philippe.desmette@usaintlouis.be et pierre-antoine.fabre@ehess.fr. Answers will be sent at the end of March 2021. Young researchers are encouraged to send a proposal.

Organizing and evaluation committee

  • Sarah Barthélemy (Université Saint-Louis – Bruxelles)
  • Philippe Desmette (Université Saint-Louis – Bruxelles)
  • Pierre-Antoine Fabre (École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales)

Colloquium locations

4 février 2022 : Bruxelles (Université Saint-Louis – Bruxelles)

4 mars 2022 : Paris (École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales)

Places

  • 43, Boulevard du Jardin Botanique
    Brussels, Belgium (1000)
  • 14, cours des humanités
    Aubervilliers, France (93322 CEDEX)

Date(s)

  • Monday, March 15, 2021

Keywords

  • Hagiographie, sainteté féminine, saintes, Compagnie de Jésus, jésuites, Causes, Society of Jesus, Jesuits, female saints, holiness, hagiography

Contact(s)

  • Sarah Barthélemy
    courriel : sarah [dot] barthelemy [at] usaintlouis [dot] be

Information source

  • Sarah Barthélemy
    courriel : sarah [dot] barthelemy [at] usaintlouis [dot] be

To cite this announcement

« “The idea of the perfect girl” », Call for papers, Calenda, Published on Monday, February 15, 2021, https://calenda.org/843336

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