My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,
As we come to the end of the National Women’s History Month and the International Woman’s Day recently celebrated, it is certainly important that we recognize the place of women in the Church and the yearning that women have for greater recognition especially as they have contributed so much to the life of the Church.
As our Holy Father, Pope Francis, has pointed out several times, the Church is a woman, the Church is a mother, and the Church reflects the role of Mary in the history of salvation.
Pope Francis said, “A Church without women is like the Apostolic College without Mary. The role of women in the Church is not only maternity, the mother of the family, but it is stronger: it is in fact, the icon of the Virgin, of Our Lady, the one who helps the Church grow!”
Rather shockingly, he also said, “Women in the Church are more important than bishops and priests; how, this is something we have to try to explain better, because I believe that we lack a theological explanation for this statement.”
Already Pope Francis has given a hint of it. We see that the Church breathes with two lungs, just as the human body. One lung we may call the feminine voice characterized by Mary’s motherhood in the Church. The other lung is called masculine voice for the Petrine legacy of the Church which defines the Church as the Body of Christ who came to Earth as a man. These references perhaps may help us equalize the role of women and men in the Church.
Gender equality is something that we hear a great deal about today. Women should be paid the same wage for equal work. Women and men should bear equal responsibility for child rearing. Women are equal to men. How important are these realities as part of our Church teaching and practice?
If we correctly understood the Book of Genesis, we can eliminate a misinterpretation regarding the role of women. I have recourse to an old rabbinical explanation of the creation of woman from the rib of Adam. Rabbinical teaching was that God had a choice from which part of Adam He could have taken a bone to create woman. If God had taken a bone from man’s head, it might have signified that woman might dominate man. If He had taken a bone from man’s leg or foot, it would be that woman would be subservient to man.
But God made the right choice. He took a rib from Adam’s side, signifying that she was his equal. And that since that rib was close to his heart, he had to love her as he loved himself. There is great wisdom in the interpretation of Genesis. It is the wisdom that we need to use in resolving the differences between men and women. I remember that famous book entitled “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.” How truly women and men are different from one another. But they are complementary to one another, and certainly should not be in conflict with one another.
As we look back on this celebration of Women’s History Month, the history of the women in the Church in the United States had been once dominated by the contribution of women religious. The Church in the United States would not be what it is today without the contribution of women religious in the area of education, healthcare, and social services. It was the incalculable contribution of the “feminine genius,” as St. John Paul II called it, that allowed the Church in the United States to make tremendous growth. The institutional structures that they created sustained us and gave today’s structure on which we build. At the same time, today we still need the feminine genius that will not come only from women religious, but also from lay women who need to be better integrated into the complete life of the Church.
Recently, Pope Francis, commenting on the theological commission of the Holy See, mentioned that only ten percent of that commission are women, making reference that perhaps they seemed like strawberries on a cake. A wonderful decoration, but not essential. Some were offended by this; however, the point is clear. Women cannot be window dressing for the Church. Women need to be part and parcel of the Church and integrated into all aspect of ecclesial life.
On the other hand, Pope Francis made it very clear that the ordination of women to the priesthood was definitively ruled out by the authoritative statement of St. John Paul II. Pope Francis, himself, is open to discussion of the ordination of women to the Diaconate; he set up a commission to study this. It is difficult historically to find the precedence that women were actually ordained to the Diaconate. Although the Church maintains credible records, there is not a ceremony of ordination for women to the Diaconate, as it would certainly have been somewhat different from that for the male ceremony. At the same time, it is clear that women religious orders, as they began, took over many of the functions that those who were known as deaconess performed in the early Church. This natural progression, perhaps, was the way that the early contribution of women in the Church was reinforced and strengthened, as women themselves were responsible for the religious orders and their governance.
In our own diocese, I recognize the incalculable contribution that women make in the life of the Church in Brooklyn and Queens. Our Diocesan Pastoral Council, for example, is largely populated by women. In our own diocesan offices, for several years now I have established a Women’s Advisory Group where I discuss directly with women who head our departments and/or have critical jobs that contribute to decisions that we are making, so that we do not lose the feminine perspective on perhaps the best way to accomplish goals for the diocese.
It is so important that we recognize the contribution, equality, and necessity of including women in all phases of life in the local and universal Church. As this month concludes, we give special thanks to the women who sustain our Church and give it the feminine qualities so the Church truly may be called our mother.
Many women over the years have put out into the deep and sometimes treacherous waters by making their contribution to the life of the Church. We pray for all who in the past have done this, and the many more in the future who will continue sometimes going against the grain to show their love for the Church.