It is customary in my home diocese of Albany, New York, to recognize every year women who have contributed to the life of the Church throughout the diocese. In a ceremony entitled Women Saying Yes to God these women are recognized and greeted by our bishop as a sign of the appreciation of the manifold works these women carry out in their parishes and places of work throughout our diocese. Since this annual event will soon be upon us, I wanted to add a few thoughts regarding the tremendous role these women play. It is my contention that our Church today would be in a sad state of affairs if it were not for the dedication and resourcefulness of the women who give of themselves so wholeheartedly to advance the mission of Jesus in our world today.
There is no doubt that down through history women have often found themselves in second-class roles both in the Church and in society in general. Male domination of various areas of life has often been the rule and women were expected to stay at home, rear the children and be obedient to their husbands. To many young women today this does not resonate with how far women have been able to advance and yet there still remains the reality that women always have to prove themselves beyond what may be expected of men.
In our Church this has also been true. Yet, down through history we have been blessed by the efforts and forthrightness of our sisters who have been apostles, leaders in education and charity not afraid to offer challenges to those in authority when necessary.
One definition of "apostle" is "one who has witnessed the resurrection of Jesus." If that be the case, then the first apostle was a woman - Mary Magdalene- who brought the news of the Savior's resurrection to his male disciples who cringed in fear in the upper room in Jerusalem. (We should not forget that, aside from the "disciple whom Jesus loved," all those who remained at the foot of the cross were women while the men ran away.)
The image of Catherine of Siena comes to mind, a women with fortitude who challenged the then pope, Gregory XI, to bring the papacy back from France to Rome. The three Teresas come to mind: Teresa of Avila, the reformer of the Carmelite Order and the first woman to be named a doctor of the Church (by Pope Paul VI in 1970); Therese of Lisieux - the "Little Flower" - who was allowed to join the Carmelite order at the age of 15 by Pope Leo XIII and since her death was named both the patroness of the missions and also a doctor of the Church; and Teresa of Calcutta - "Mother Teresa" - known for her work among the most abandoned in the streets of Calcutta. In our own country of the United States, we have the great work of charity made possible by Frances Xavier Cabrini, an Italian immigrant who became the first canonized American saint; one of the pioneers in education of our young, Elizabeth Ann Seton, foundress of the American congregation of the Sisters of Charity; Mother Katharine Drexel, the daughter of a wealthy family who founded a religious congregation and worked to meet the needs of African-Americans and Native Americans; Dorothy Day, foundress of the Catholic Worker program; and the soon-to-be-canonized Kateri Tekakwitha, who will be the first Native American saint (born and baptized within the confines of our present Diocese of Albany). What a rich history of service and dedication has been shown by these great women.
Of course, no woman - or man for that matter - can ever surpass the greatness of the humble maiden of Nazareth who said to the Angel Gabriel: Be it done unto me according to your word, thereby bringing into this world the one promised of the ages - the Messiah, Jesus Christ, the divine Son of God.
Sometimes Scripture is often cited to demonstrate that woman should know her place in society and the Church. The first letter of Timothy states in Chapter 2: A woman must receive instruction silently and under complete control. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man. She must be quiet. This instruction, supposedly coming from the apostle Paul would not seem to resonate with what the women cited above were about. As the New Jerome Biblical Commentary points out, the authorship of this and other "pastoral" epistles are not recognized as being authored by Paul but written at a later date with Paul's name ascribed to them. The statement regarding women teaching does not corroborate Paul's mention of the women who assisted him in ministry: Phoebe (the deacon mentioned in Romans 16:1-2), and Prisca (Romans 16:3 and 1 Cor. 16:19) both of whom are depicted as preaching.
I mention this because it is obvious that in today's Church we could not survive without the ministry of the many women who serve the Church. In the United States, the percentage of women in lay ecclesial ministry is 80%: 25% serve as chancellors in our dioceses, 65% in the ministry of music, and 88% in faith formation and Christian education. Of those involved in theological studies, 63% are women.
In the 25th chapter of the gospel of Matthew we read about the man who before going on a journey entrusted a number of "talents" to three of his servants. The first two servants upon receiving their talents invested them and made additional ones to give to the master upon his return. The third servant, out of fear, buried his talent so that it would not be lost. The first two servants were rewarded by their master for the use of their talents while the third was condemned for having wasted an opportunity to use his talent. Each of us needs to look at ourselves to see what talents we possess and how we use them for the good of others. I believe the women I have mentioned above used their talents wisely and well to benefit so many and those women currently involved in Church ministry are also using their talents. We all need to follow their example.
I salute all the women who grace our Church today: Christian mothers who instill a love of God and respect for the Church in their children; our Catholic school teachers and those who teach in our faith formation programs; those who serve in ministries to the sick and the homebound; and those who have positions of responsibility in our dioceses and parish churches as pastoral leaders. May God continue to shower his abundant blessings on these women of faith who are an inspiration to us all.