The National Catholic Review
Jean Molesky-Poz
The unique perspective of women preachers

During Sunday Mass years ago, the presider, after reading the Gospel and giving the homily, asked if anyone would like to share with the congregation. Seven parishioners, one by one, stood and spoke. Each was a woman. The first told of her healing from cancer, the second of the blessing of sitting with her dying father. A mother spoke on how God teaches her through her children. The other stories have faded from my memory, but what I do remember is the riveting witness of the women’s testimonies. I also recall feeling profound sadness that the voices of women throughout our church’s history had rarely been heard publicly at Sunday liturgies. I wept.

Lay people can be permitted to speak on the word at Mass either before Mass or after the Communion Rite, and over the years, I have heard women in various parishes give reflections on the word at Mass. I know some of these women, and for them preaching is a charism, a spiritual gift received for the service and building up of the community.

“As I stand at the ambo,” one of the women said, “I feel anointed, as if the words of Psalm 139—‘Before a word is on my tongue, you know the whole of it’—live in me.” When Scripture is proclaimed, God is made present and actively touches lives, one of the women preachers said to me, “so we take this ministry as a responsibility.” As if traveling with a lantern in the dark, the women seek out God’s presence in the details, often in those relegated to shadows or footnotes in the Scriptures. These women understand their work as aligned with Wisdom.

“My experience as a woman, mother, sister, daughter or friend influences my reflection on the weekend readings,” says one woman who preaches monthly. “My perspective complements what others who are not women, mothers and daughters might discover in God’s word.”

These women declare and make clear the Gospel’s message, often finding God in collaboration, in relatedness. One woman, when “reflecting” on Moses, the liberator and lawgiver, called our attention to his backstory. “What have we heard,” she asked from the ambo, “of the women whose courageous and disobedient acts saved the infant boy: the two clever midwives who told Pharaoh they could not kill the child because Jewish women are vigorous and give birth before they arrive; the Hebrew mother and the newborn’s sister, who instead of drowning the boy in the river, floated him in a basket in the rushes; the compassionate daughter of the oppressive Pharaoh, who told her maid to draw the child out of the water and entrust him to a Hebrew nurse? Had it not been for each woman’s obedience to the God of the living....”

Women are blessed and challenged with the gifts of wisdom and compassion in special ways. At times, this wisdom gives a new spin to an old story. In preparation for preaching on the widow’s mite (Mk 12:41-44), one woman wondered how someone with inside knowledge of the story (that is, a widow), though an outsider culturally and historically, would interpret the action of giving those two coins, so she interviewed a woman from her parish who at that time had been a widow for 25 years. In earlier years, this widow and her five freckled-faced, red-headed children—three girls in straw hats with ribbons trailing down their hair, and two boys—had paraded down the aisle together to sit in the front pews every Sunday. How would this widow interpret the reading?

“I never liked that story,” she said. “The church always thinks of the poor widow. I had a house. I told my five children, we live in one of the richest countries in the world. The story is not only about a so-called poor widow, but about, ‘Do not be afraid,’” she said. “It is about giving God thanks and praise.”

The woman at the ambo factored this insight into her reflection and closed by spelling aloud the homonym: “The gesture of the widow’s M-I-T-E resounds as the widow’s M-I-G-H-T.”

People sit in the pews, waiting for the word. Souls lean forward, hungry and longing. The word that is proclaimed must hold us, must stay with us. The women say this is why they understand their preparation and prayerful attention to the Spirit of God is foundational to their delivery. They experience grace, albeit in unique ways, in their readying.

“I usually start preparing about a month in advance,” said one woman, “I read the Scriptures repeatedly and let them simmer. As I go about my regular business, all sorts of ideas pop up that seem to be related to those Scriptures in ways I wouldn’t have imagined.” For another, the steps just before speaking provide a profound sense of the confirmation of her work. “What is most prayerful for me is going up to the ambo,” she said. “I have an opportunity to share grace, putting God’s message out there for the people, as a teacher would. It is exactly where I am supposed to be.”

In parishes where women preach, I found the congregations appreciative and eager to hear them. A male Catholic said to me, “Hearing a Catholic woman reflect on the word during Sunday’s liturgy is a breakthrough experience for women, and for men. It strengthens us as the body of Christ.”

Reclaiming Tradition

Church tradition gives evidence of women’s preaching. The first to see the empty tomb, women were also the first commissioned to proclaim the good news. “Do not be afraid!” the angel told the women. “Go quickly and tell [Jesus’] disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead’” (Mt 28:5-7). Jesus tells Mary Magdalene, the Apostle to the Apostles, “Go to my brothers, and tell them ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God!’” (Jn 20:17).

In the early church, St. Paul refers to Junia, not as a lesser apostle, but as “outstanding among the apostles” (Rm 16:7). He addresses husband-and-wife teams of house churches—where communities of Christians in a single household provided a center of worship, study and hospitality for wandering preachers—but he also singles out women who have headed their communities alone. He writes: “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae (Rm 16:1-2). In the First Letter to Timothy, Paul explicitly includes women among the deacons (3:11).

Women deacons served “members of their own sex in baptism” and “in the ministry of the word,” wrote Pelagius in the fourth century. Study after study leaves “little doubt that women deacons existed for centuries in Christianity,” Gary Macy writes in Women Deacons: Past, Present and Future. Yet the church eventually excluded women from ordained diaconal ministry, which includes preaching. How can we reclaim and continue some part of this tradition today?

There are women who feel called to preach and who are theologically and spiritually prepared. They have studied theology at the university level, are or have been members of a religious order or have knowledge of a particular pastorally sensitivity within their parish communities. They demonstrate an expertise or experience of the lay faithful, as required by Canon Law (No. 766). These women might work with pastors to set a schedule of regular dates for women to reflect on the word during the Sunday liturgy. Can the church find a more appropriate format for lay persons to preach on the word, not just before Mass or after the Communion Rite, but during the Liturgy of the Word? Our work as Catholic women, lay and religious, is one of midwifery for the future church. These women who preach are lighting a path, clearing the way.

“It seems to me that after listening to a diversity of good preachers—women, men, deacons, priests, mothers, fathers, spouses and single folks—it would be hard to return to listening to just one and the same person week after week,” one woman said to me. “After all, the word of God is boundlessly inspiring—challenging us over and over to discern how we can be better disciples and appreciate and share God’s love in our lives and relationships.”

Two thousand years after Mary Magdalene ran and told the brothers, 2,000 years after Junia served as “outstanding among the apostles” and our sister Phoebe taught as a deacon, many Catholic women feel discouraged or excluded by the church. Preaching offers an ancient yet new way for the church to hear the good news proclaimed with women’s wisdom. This wonderful practice of women preachers, one that enlightens everyone, must not stay hidden under a bushel basket, but must emerge as a light, so that others today might say, as the townspeople of Samaria did 2,000 years ago, “We believed in him on the strength of the woman’s testimony” (Jn 4:39).

Jean Molesky-Poz, a lecturer in the religious studies department of Santa Clara University, is the author of Contemporary Maya Spirituality (University of Texas Press) and recently published a series of articles on the charism of St. Clare of Assisi in The Way.

Comments

Marie Haener-Patti | 10/22/2013 - 4:28pm

I saddens me, that 40 some years after I became the first women lector (as a young teenager no less) at my parish church, that we are still talking about this. If I could read the old and new testament readings, and the psalm, as well as all of the intentions, and the announcements before and after Mass, I thought that surely, by now, we would have succeeded to a female diaconate if not priesthood by now. But instead we write, and read, scholarly articles trying to affirm an equal place in the Church, and suffer and refute blowhard reactionaries, valiantly trying to convince old celibate men of our inherent equality in the eyes of God. St Jude, patron of lost causes, pray for me.

WILLIAM ATKINSON | 10/22/2013 - 1:30pm

I'm waiting, still waiting, how long do I have to wait,
Oh! to read comments from a women, I guess they now know their place,
Pope Francis has spoken, The early culture of Palestine that Jesus radically
opposed, especially the all male managed Jewish/Roman society is still
rampart in todays Greco/Roman Anglo/Saxon Church.
When will there ever be a Mrs. Martin Luther King to raise women
up to the equality of all. Someday, somewhere, somehow, sometime
and then the world will experience FREEDOM like its
never seen before.

Frank Bergen | 10/22/2013 - 1:25pm

Carlo Maria Martini, S.J., of blessed memory, was on target when he remarked that the Roman Church is 200 years behind the times. Molesky-Poz's post and some of the comments on it make that abundantly clear in regard to preaching. Two of the most cogent preachers I've heard in recent years are Katharine Jefferts Schori, currently serving as Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, and Susan Anderson-Smith, an Episcopal priest here in Tucson. Katharine would make an excellent addition to the College of Cardinals! In the parish I serve as a retired priest associate we have at present a rota of three priests, three deacons and a retired Presbyterian minister. Two of the deacons are women, as is a third now on sick leave. And in my three years at St. Matthew's we've also had two female priests now gone on to other congregations. Our congregation gets to hear the Word from seven quite different perspectives and no single preacher gets to inspire or bore the folks in the pews every single Sunday. And how many preachers are able to inspire every single Sunday?

Mike Evans | 10/22/2013 - 6:37pm

Extremely well put. We expect our Catholic priests to deliver uplifting, inspiring, well prepared homilies 3 or 4 times each weekend. In a few instances, they get a break if a deacon preaches occasionally. No wonder that by the last Mass a priest is just pooped out.

Joseph Keffer | 10/22/2013 - 12:50pm

Regarding Michael Goodwin's comments. He just doesn't "get it." we must pray for him that the Holy Spirit will open his mind to think. Regardless of the direct citation from Pope John Paul, Michael, that is not infallible and is directly contradicted by the solid remarks that preceded your note.

Deacon Tom Lang | 10/22/2013 - 12:09pm

In many parishes this will never fly. I've been blessed to not encounter this in my Ministry to date, but there are plenty of pastors who even prohibit their own ordained deacons to preach because they want the parishioners to be taught from the ambo solely by them. It has nothing to do with competency, but it solely relates to control, power, and distorted sense of self importance. I've even heard of parochial vicars who get talked to because they are not preaching the exact message or in the format that the pastor desires. In my experience, the congregation benefits most from differing styles and methods. Some engage in deeper biblical exegesis, some come more from a teaching perspective, and some are more "spiritual" or "mystical" in their style and message. There are of course many different combinations of these styles too. Just my two cents!

Mike Evans | 10/22/2013 - 11:32am

I have worked with and listened to several women who are pastors in our community. I have worked side by side with Episcopal church women deacons. I can testify wholeheartedly to their skills and charisms as preachers, teachers, and inspiring ordained leaders. The Catholic church could certainly restructure the deaconate to include women and thereby give them an immediate voice and presence in leading and preaching at liturgy. We now allow women as Eucharistic Ministers, Lectors, Chaplains in hospitals, and leaders in pastoral council and parish organizations. It is time to get fully past our fear of women and embrace their gift which is so badly needed.

Solvitur Ambulando | 10/22/2013 - 10:16am

Surely, one day, the question will come. Why did we, servants of the Master, bury the talent given?

Chris Sullivan | 10/19/2013 - 11:22pm

Thanks Jean for a wonderful post.

If there is anything in Catholic teaching on sexual complementarity, in JPII'S Theology of the Body, and his idea of the "feminine genius", am I am convinced that there is, it would seem to follow that the Church needs to hear women preaching out of their experience as women, and providing a female perspective in leading the Church.

We must find a way to appoint women cardinals, heads of Curia departments, ordain women deacons, find a way to facilitate suitable lay preachers, and reopen a discussion on ordaining women priests.

God Bless

Michael Goodwin | 10/19/2013 - 8:34pm

Ms. Poz is sadly mistaken about what the Church teaches concerning this issue. America Magazine is wrong to promote this teaching, which goes against the Church's teaching on this issue.
Can laypeople ever preach in church, even if it is not a homily?

The homily, on account of its importance and its nature, is reserved to the priest or deacon during Mass. As regards other forms of preaching, if necessity demands it in particular circumstances, or if usefulness suggests it in special cases, lay members of Christ’s faithful may be allowed to preach in a church or in an oratory outside Mass in accordance with the norm of law. This may be done only on account of a scarcity of sacred ministers in certain places, in order to meet the need, and it may not be transformed from an exceptional measure into an ordinary practice, nor may it be understood as an authentic form of the advancement of the laity. All must remember besides that the faculty for giving such permission belongs to the local ordinary, and this as regards individual instances; this permission is not the competence of anyone else, even if they are priests or deacons (161).

Sometimes our parish has a layperson give a “faith talk” after or in place of the priest’s homily. Is this allowed?

If the need arises for the gathered faithful to be given instruction or testimony by a layperson in a Church concerning the Christian life, it is altogether preferable that this be done outside Mass. Nevertheless, for serious [Latin, “grave”] reasons it is permissible that this type of instruction or testimony be given after the priest has proclaimed the prayer after Communion. This should not become a regular practice, however. Furthermore, these instructions and testimony should not be of such a nature that they could be confused with the homily, nor is it permissible to dispense with the homily on their account (74).

From: Redemptionis Sacramentum (Latin, “The Sacrament of Redemption”). It was prepared by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments at the request of Pope John Paul II
http://www.catholic.com/documents/liturgical-abuses

Mike Evans | 10/22/2013 - 11:37am

So apparently all that is needed is a revision allowing women and other laity to make "presentations" at any appropriate time. There is a substantial difference between what the church "teaches" and what its rules "regulate." Remember it used to be that use of the vernacular was prohibited. Vatican II changed that without doctrinal problems.