Nuns in Sagrada consecration spark debate about women's role

When I was leaving Barcelona for the airport last Monday, there was a vigorous discussion on the taxi's radio about whether the nuns who cleaned the altar at last Sunday's consecration of the Sagrada Familia gave the wrong image - or for some, an accurate image - about the place of women in the Church.

The nuns who mopped up the oil of chrism were not the only women involved in the Mass. A lay woman did one of the readings; a woman with her children were part of the offertory procession; and -- invisible to viewers at home -- a woman played the organ. And of course hundreds of women sang in the choir.


But it was the sight of the four nuns -- two Spanish, two Mexican -- on their knees with cloths, the only women in a sea of men in the sanctuary, which sparked the controversy. Feminists, progressives and liberals of all stripes -- as well as Catholics -- have been warmly debating the topic ever since, asking why women get given the demeaning tasks in the Church.

"At a moment when Catalonia was projected across the world thanks to a ceremony presided by the Pope, the opportunity was lost to give greater emphasis to the role of women in the Church, and that pains us greatly," says Gertrudis Nin, Abbess of the Benedictine convent of Sant Pere de les Puelles. 

Montserrat Biosca i Duch,  who heads the Catholic women's group Collectiu Dones en l'Església, agrees: "It is clear from what we saw that the church hierarchy considers women to have a different mission from that of men, and that women are only there to offer secondary services," she says.

Now the nuns, surprised by the furore, have spoken to the Barcelona daily, La Vanguardia, and of course they don't see it as demeaning at all. 

"For us it was a wonderful gift, to take our daily work into a very solemn place with enthusiasm and expectation, " says Sr Antonia Caro, the mother superior of the the Parish Auxiliaries of Christ the Priest (I translate: Auxiliaries Parroquiales de Cristo Sacerdote), which maintains the sacristy of Barcelona cathedral.

In fact the whole vocation of the Auxiliares is to prepare liturgies, looking after vestments and chalices and other items needed for the Eucharist.

"Why do they focus on that one moment when we were cleaning?" she asks, adding that it was a marvellous liturgy which they were privileged to be part of. "What we did was an honour. We did it with pleasure and gratitude to the Lord, not because the Pope was there, but because the most important thing is the direct service of the Lord".

The nuns see themselves as the modern-day equivalent of the deaconesses of the early Church. "The women of the early Church had a great presence in the liturgy," says Sr Antonia.

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Marie Rehbein
8 years 2 months ago

There is a lot of power envy, of course.  That isn't exactly Christian in nature, though.  Seeing the nuns who are cleaning reminds me of cleaning up after potlucks at our previous parish.  People transformed themselves into cleaning machines and got it all done in a flash by not worrying about their status during the whole business-men and women, boys and girls.  Decorating the church for Christmas went the same way.  If there was anything status oriented, it would be to see who could do the most.

The resentment that people feel on behalf of the nuns is clearly not their impression of their role or their tasks.  If the clergy stand back and let the nuns do it all because it is beneath them to pitch in, they are fools. 
8 years 2 months ago
Once we see priests doing the cleaning of the sanctuary, once we see priests embracing the ''least'' of the possible tasks available, then some of the statements of the posts here might begin to ring true. As it is, women are denied the ''leading'' roles that are reserved to men.  And the men are not stampeding to assume those wonderful tasks such as cleaning, or ironing altar cloths, or repairing torn vestments, that are reserved, it seems, only to women.

I wonder why that is? 

  According to the Catholic hierarchy, women are, now and forever, limited to serving roles and only those that men allow them to do.  A woman would not read unless a man (the priest) allows her to read.  A woman may be a eucharistic minister if a man, the priest, allows it.  Women are always subject to the wishes and decisions of the males in the church.
Bill Mazzella
8 years 2 months ago
What Ann C wrote.
Gabriel McAuliffe
8 years 2 months ago
Fascinating to me that a good many comments made here completely ignore the statements of the nuns themselves.
E.Patrick Mosman
8 years 2 months ago
The sisters of "Parish Auxiliaries of Christ the Priest (I translate: Auxiliaries Parroquiales de Cristo Sacerdote), made it perfectly clear that they are performing a religious duty to honor our Lord, a duty they willingly and knowlingly accepted when they entered the order. If today's sisters spent their lives in the service of our Lord as Mother Cabrini, founding schools, orphanages and hospitals in both North and South America or returning to teaching in  parish schools instead of politicking, perhaps there would be more vocations.
ed gleason
8 years 2 months ago
Nothing new about servants taking on the 'airs' of the masters. You do live in the UK yes?
8 years 2 months ago
“Whosoever will be greater among you, let Him be your servants; even as the Son of Man did not come to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give His life as a redemption for many” (Mk 43:45).
8 years 2 months ago
"“Whosoever will be greater among you, let Him be your servants ..."

Juar wondering:  have the *guys*  in church ministry read this one?
8 years 2 months ago
What's the salary grade of a nun compared to a priest?  Does one role have more perks than the other?
Isn't the point that whatever role one holds in the Church, the purpose is the same: to serve God?  And isn't envy for other roles a matter of selfishness, the antithesis of service to God?
In my family, my wife manages the house; I provide the financing.  She cooks dinner; I clean up.  I suppose I could complain of the menial nature of my clean-up duties; that I am a better cook than she; that she gets all the thanks and my job is thankless.  But in the end, the needs of the family are served; we eat, the house is clean. 
Marie Rehbein
8 years 2 months ago
Quite frankly, I think the cleaning up is the most important thing about everything that we do in this life.  Just imagine if this were not done-or maybe it isn't necessary to imagine.  Nothing is more important to quality of life.
Vince Killoran
8 years 2 months ago

In the end Michael one person is in the t.v. room with their feet up and the other is folding laundry and making the kid's lunches for school the next day. Women still do a vastly disproportionate amount of domestic labor, even when both partners are working.

Let's not pretend that there isn't a gendered division of labor at work in our Church-or ignore the unequal power and influence it produces.
8 years 2 months ago
Maybe it's not so important what job people have, but their choosing it?  Being a priest may not be more important than being a nun, but it's not like the nuns had a choice between the two jobs.
Marie Rehbein
8 years 2 months ago
David, that doesn't make sense.  If A has the cleanup job, B wants it?  Maybe it has to do with the fact that people, generally, do not like to clean.  So, no matter how important or valuable that is, the people who do the job no one wants are presumed to be lowlier.


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