Woman to Know: Jessica Murdoch

CWF: One of the best things about the Catholic Women’s Forum is the chance to get to know some of the outstanding Catholic women serving the Church and shaping the world today. Many of these great women “fly under the radar” –delivering results, without seeking the spotlight.  But sometimes the spotlight finds them. Jessica Murdoch is one of these women. I’m delighted to introduce you to Jessica (or  “Jess”) Murdoch, an Associate Professor of Fundamental and Dogmatic Theology at Villanova University, where she’s been teaching for about ten years. Jessica also assists the U.S. Bishops in her role as Proactive Chair of the National Advisory Council of the USCCB. (You can learn more about Jessica’s work in our “Experts” section, or in our videos.

CWF: Jessica, tell us about your family.

Jessica: I have been married to my husband, Jim, for 12 years. He is a Catholic philosopher, who also teaches at Villanova – so as you can imagine, we have great conversations! I am the mother of four children – seven-year-old twin boys who ask questions every 3.5 seconds! A five year old daughter, who is a veritable library of scientific facts, and a three year old son who has no problem keeping up with the rest of his siblings.

CWF: I can only imagine the fun –and energy level in your home! I wonder, did you set out to be a theologian? 

Jessica: Not at all. My undergraduate degree is in chemistry – I thought that I would end up a scientist, not a theologian!

CWF: As a theologian, and a wife and mother, you no doubt experience society’s mixed messages to women about things like motherhood. On the one hand, there’s so much pressure to raise the ‘perfect child’ destined for material success. And on the other hand, the child’s life is so devalued that it’s ok to justify abortion on the basis that mom’s happiness outweighs the unborn’s right to life.  How does the Church help women sort through all of those mixed messages?

Jessica: I think that modern society has complicated things surrounding marriage, motherhood, and family life that are really quite simple. Fortunately, the Church is clear about these things. One of the greatest joys of being human is family life, and yet our society has understood this to be a burden. One of the most beautiful elements of a woman’s life is motherhood, yet society understands pregnancy to be paramount to an illness that requires intervention and elimination. The Church, however, sees things as they really are, because the Church views reality through what is most Real – God. Human life as refracted through God results in order, both interiorly in terms of the soul and exteriorly in terms of our family life, in healthy societies and in full human flourishing. Human life as refracted through our own finite human minds, however, results in chaos, degradation and ultimately death, of the unborn, of the elderly, and the spiritual death of many. When the Church speaks fully and clearly from her patrimony of faith, on matters of life, marriage and the family, we all benefit. In this regard, were the Church’s voice of realism to be diminished in any way, family life and society itself would also be diminished.

CWF: What a beautiful way to connect the reality of our lives and the Church’s role in helping us see the truths that lead us towards the fullness of life. Women also typically feel the struggles of life quite deeply—doesn’t that make life harder at times?

Jessica: I hear from a lot of women about how difficult the times are, how hard it is too raise up children in our post-Christian society, about their concerns for the direction of the Church, for their fears of drowning in an unmoored society. And there are certainly many of big problems in society today. But despite all of our anxieties, what a blessing and gift it is as women to have a sensitive heart that feels deeply the wounds of our hurting world. I think what is key is, rather than to anesthetize ourselves to the suffering that we experience from a broken world, we should remember that our suffering is actually a sign of our great love. And if we have great love we can accomplish much. My pastor recently gave a homily on St. Bernadette’s “Testament of Gratitude.” In this “testament” St. Bernadette thanks God for all of the elements of her life – both good and bad. One of the things that I find particularly poignant is that she thanks God for her “delicate and sensitive heart.” I think that we as women have delicate and sensitive hearts, indeed, and though sometimes it can seem a curse, it is really a gift. For from our sensitive hearts, we respond to the many needs of this world. And from our sensitive hearts we also bear the pain of this broken world. There is, after all, as the saints demonstrate, no love without suffering.

CWF: We’re all called to love and serve God, but few of us are immersed professionally in the world of theology. How are those connected for you?

Jessica: My work as a theologian is most definitely a part of my vocation, as it is really only a higher order reflection upon the truth that grounds any Catholic. St. Anselm famously described theology as “faith seeking understanding.” St. Peter urges us to “always be prepared to give an account of the hope that is in you.” St. Bonaventure relates that one can acquire theological knowledge only “through the burning love of the Crucified.” Taken together, we see that the life of a theologian is simply a particular execution of the theological virtues – faith, hope and love – those virtues that form the entire basis of the Christian life.

CWF: What spiritual practices are most helpful to you personally?

Jessica: The Mass, adoration and the total consecration to Mary are my spiritual staples. The most beautiful aspect of Catholicism is that Christ has given Himself to us — body, blood, soul and divinity — in Holy Eucharist. He is truly present to us sacramentally at all times. Since heaven consists of union with God, and since we receive Our Lord in Holy Communion, we participate to some degree in our future happiness even now. I cannot imagine a greater source of spiritual vitality – ultimately we consume Christ that we might be consumed by Him, to be conformed to Him, and having been conformed to go out to the world and share Christ with others. So I really think Holy Eucharist is the most essential aspect of my Christian life.

I also really love the devotion of consecrating oneself to Mary as St. Louis de Montfort describes. I think this devotion makes me fearless! The essence of the devotion is to give everything thing that we have and are – all of our gifts and talents, efforts and struggles – to Our Lady, who arranges everything perfectly for our good and presents them to her Son. The best part about this devotion is that none of our efforts are ever wasted – even our failures can be used to great profit for our souls or the souls of others.

CWF: To end on a light note – give us a “fun fact” about you — something “unexpected” about your interests.

Jessica: Well, theology is both my hobby and my profession J — but I am obsessed with English cottage gardens and I love to try to coax my garden at home into English cottage shape!

CWF: Sounds lovely!  Thanks so much, Jessica, for talking with us—and for all you do to bring the truth about God to those whose faith is “seeking understanding”!