The greatest created person

The role of 'Our Lady', educating women and the liberating role of faith

Jesus Christ, God the Son, came on earth as a man in order to overturn ‘the aboriginal calamity’, humankind’s assertion of equality with the Creator, and to give us the freedom to love outside ourselves. He achieved this through the generosity of a WOMAN.

Her name was Mary and her love of God was such that she did not hesitate when asked by God to become the mother of his Son on earth, surely the most unlikely of all requests! It left her vulnerable to the threat of stoning (as a pregnant unmarried girl at that time) and she could not have been certain that Joseph, her betrothed, would marry her in these unforeseen circumstances.

We are told that he did, and became protector to her and to her child. She remains both virgin and mother; she is the benchmark of womanhood, because of the quality of her loving.

Christians have, from very early times, always claimed her as their own – in many languages she is ‘Our Lady.’ No wonder that the image of Mary, with her Divine Son is one of the most familiar of all, wherever Christianity has touched the culture.

She reflects the existential nature of woman undamaged by sin – her loving, giving and understanding enabling her to identify herself with her son’s mission with such intensity of love that we see her as the loving mother of the whole world and the Queen of Heaven. She is the most powerful of women; that is why we ask her to pray for us.


Women’s understanding of themselves changed too, with the coming of Christianity. The laws of Rome, for the most part, gave, as we have seen, power of life and death over women to fathers and husbands. But by the end of the second century A.D., we find young girls defying their pagan fathers and refusing to marry the pagan husbands chosen for them, which would have meant giving up their Christian faith.

They asserted their autonomy as individuals. It was a time of great persecution and a number of young Roman women chose to be faithful to their love of Christ, rather than deny him, a choice that led to death - a choice that may well shock the people of our time.

But these young women believed in the thing that they professed, rather like anti-Nazis during World War II or dissidents in Stalin’s gulags. Note that they did not kill themselves. No doubt, they longed for a time when such choices were not presented to them. With tremendous courage, they determined not to reject Christ’s life and death in order to save themselves.


The formal education of women began in a surprising way under the auspices of an irascible scholar called Jerome in the fourth century. He was the first to translate the Bible into Latin. He was acquainted with a number of wealthy Roman women, who were Christians and he gave them lectures on the Christian faith.

They were remarkable women. One of them, Fabiola, set up the first known hospital, in order to care for pilgrims travelling to Rome. Her enterprise started off a tradition of medical care and hospitality which continues in the Catholic Church to this day, in many parts of the world.

Another of Jerome’s female pupils, Melania the Younger, by name, had inherited as many as a thousand slaves. She decided to free them because she was a Christian and she divided immense tracts of land in the Roman province of Africa between them – in a practical and personal way anticipating the work of William Wilberforce by a millennium and a half. .

These women were educated, they studied in many fields and revealed remarkable organisational talents. Their circle of women formed the proto-type of the convent and led to the life of the nun – a woman who dedicated herself entirely to God, living with like-minded women in community. Such women continue to this day. Mother Teresa of Calcutta is probably the best known religious sister of the last century, and she devoted her life to the care of the abandoned and dying, so that they would know love. Her sisters carry on her work all over the world.

Josephine Robinson studied at Oxford before working as an actress until she married and had children. She has worked for various Christian and pro-life charities and is author three books and numerous articles.
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We don't need to build more prisons - we need to send fewer people there

The government talks a good game on prisons - but at the moment, the old failed policies hold sway

Some years ago the Howard League set up an independent expert review of what should happen to the penal system. We called it Do better, do less.

Too many governments have come in with enthusiasm for doing more, in the mistaken belief that this means better. We have ended up with more prisons, more prisoners, a bulging system that costs a fortune and blights lives. It is disappointing that the new regime appears to have fallen into the same old trap.

It is a big mistake to imagine that the justice system can be asked to sort out people’s lives. Prisons rarely, very rarely, turn people into model citizens able to get a great job and settle with a family. It is naïve to think that building huge new prisons with fewer staff but lots of classrooms will help to ‘rehabilitate’ people.

Let’s turn this on its head. There are more than 80,000 men in prison at any one time, and 40,000 of them are serving long sentences. Simply giving them a few extra courses or getting them to do a bit more work at £10 a week means they are still reliant on supplementary funding from families. Imagine you are the wife or partner of a man who is serving five to ten years. Why should you welcome him back to your home and your bed after all that time if you have hardly been able to see him, you got one phone call a week, and he’s spent all those years in a highly macho environment?

The message of new prisons providing the answer to all our problems has been repeated ad nauseam. New Labour embarked on a massive prison-building programme with exactly the same message that was trotted out in the Spending Review today – that new buildings will solve all our problems. Labour even looked at selling off Victorian prisons but found it too complicated as land ownership is opaque. It is no surprise that, despite trumpeting the sell-off of Victorian prisons, the one that was announced was in fact a jail totally rebuilt in the 1980s, Holloway.

The heart of the problem is that too many people are sent to prison, both on remand and under sentence. Some 70 per cent of the people remanded to prison by magistrates do not get a prison sentence and tens of thousands get sentenced to a few weeks or months. An erroneous diagnosis of the problem has led to expensive and ineffective policy responses. I am disappointed that yet again the Ministry of Justice is apparently embarking on expansion instead of stemming the flow into the system.

A welcome announcement is the court closure programme and investment in technology. Perhaps, in the end, fewer courts will choke the flow of people into the system, but I am not optimistic.

It is so seductive for well-meaning ministers to want to sort out people’s lives. But this is not the way to do it. Homeless people stealing because they are hungry (yes, it is happening more and more) are taking up police and court time and ending up in prison. We all know that mentally ill people comprise a substantial proportion of the prison population. It is cheaper, kinder and more efficacious to invest in front line services that prevent much of the crime that triggers a criminal justice intervention.

That does leave a cohort of men who have committed serious and violent crime and will be held in custody for public safety reasons. This is where I agree with recent announcements that prison needs to be transformed. The Howard League has developed a plan for this, allowing long-term prisoners to work and earn a real wage.

The spending review was an opportunity to do something different and to move away from repeating the mistakes of the past. There is still time; we have a radical Justice Secretary whose rhetoric is redemptive and compassionate. I hope that he has the courage of these convictions.

Frances Crook is the Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform.