The importance of women in the church

Father John A. Kiley

Pope Francis’ celebrated remarks on the return air flight from Brazil’s World Youth Day included a profound observation on the Blessed Virgin Mary: “Our Lady is more important than the Apostles! She is more important!” Our Holy Father offered this same observation later to the in flight reporters: “But I’d like to say something about this. I’ve said it, but I repeat it. Our Lady, Mary, was more important than the Apostles, than bishops, deacons and priests.” This second papal response answered a not unexpected question about women in the priesthood.

His Holiness emphatically dismissed the possibility of women priests: “With reference to the ordination of women, the Church has spoken and she said: ‘No.’” Wisely, however, the pontiff does not cut off dialogue about women in the church. Rather, he calls for vigorous study on the authentic vocation of women within the Christian community. “In the Church, woman is more important than bishops and priests; how, it’s what we must seek to make more explicit, because theological explicitness about this is lacking.”

In the course of his notable conversation with the reporters, Pope Francis was careful to note that woman’s place in the church was not solved by promoting them to the role of lector or extra-ordinary minister or religious instruction teacher or president of a parish society. This observation recalled the pope’s statement to the assembled bishops of South America during that same trip to Brazil on the prominence of clericalism with the Latin American Church: “Curiously, in the majority of cases, it has to do with a sinful complicity: the priest clericalizes the lay person and the lay person kindly asks to be clericalized, because deep down it is easier.” Lay women are not called to be priests nor are they called to be mini-priests. The same is true of lay men. The lay person, man or woman, has the vocation to transform the structures of secular society — family, neighborhoods, government, business, education, agriculture. The alert Catholic lay woman will bring an especially female perspective to these various areas of secular life, specifically a maternal and a spousal frame of mind. All women do not have to be mothers nor do all women have to be wives. The church’s long tradition of celibacy illustrates a woman, as well as a man, can have a full identity apart from married life. But married or unmarried, a woman brings unique maternal and spousal instincts to the discussion table and to daily life that men cannot contribute.

Pope Francis pointedly included a mention of Our Lady as “icon” in his extemporaneous remarks on women’s place in the church and in society. Mary was a mother to Jesus and Mary was a spouse to Joseph. Yet as a Virgin Mother and Virgin Spouse, Mary was destined for a greater role than the domestic happiness of Nazareth. Mary is mother to the whole church. As Pope Francis noted while flying over the ocean, Mary is “the one who helps the Church grow.” But Mary is also spouse of the Holy Spirit. So women’s vocation, the pope expanded, “must be more, but profoundly more! Even mystically more. The womanly role of wife and mother in the home was certainly not dismissed by the pope, but what enables a woman to be a good wife and a good mother at home, her maternal and spousal instincts, must be brought to and must contribute toward the larger society. The many orders and congregations of women religious down through the centuries have made women’s maternal instincts most vivid through teaching the young, nursing the sick, caring for the abandoned, and standing for the truth. These same communities of religious have made the spousal dimension of a woman’s calling most vivid and effective through lives of communal and contemplative prayer. Our contemporary church must lament the diminished witnessed of religious women in some areas. Yet lay women have the same maternal and spousal instructs as women religious. These uniquely female instincts must be brought just as faithfully and vigorously to the secular world. The business world and the political world as well as other environments would be enriched by a woman’s maternal perspective made solid by her spousal relationship with the Spirit.

Perhaps the airborne Roman pontiff’s greatest contribution to the dialogue on women’s role in the church and society was this: “I think we have not yet made a profound theology of woman in the Church.” With Mary as model and with an educated laity as stimulus, progress should be made.