April 7, 2024 Essay: Called to Serve: The Role of Women in Our Church

Mar 27, 2024

Each year, the Holy Father asks for our prayers for a specific intention each month. This is Pope Francis’s intention for April: “We pray that the dignity and immense value of women be recognized in every culture and for the end of discrimination that they experience in different parts of our world.” This is a particularly apt intention during the Easter season, in which we recall the critical role of the women disciples in the proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus.

In every gospel, the women disciples are the first to receive the good news of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. There is, therefore, a strong affirmation of the central role of the women disciples. A striking feature of the resurrection accounts is how women are commissioned to be apostles, ones who are sent to proclaim the good news of the resurrection. In Matthew’s gospel, it is an angel who commissions the two Marys to report the resurrection of Jesus to the other disciples. In John’s gospel, it is Jesus himself who tells Mary Magdalene: “…Go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” The foundational texts of our faith underscore the important role of women in the community of faith that would evolve into the church.

Reflecting on the centrality of women in the scriptures, we should not overlook Mary. Before we made of her a plaster saint, she was a real woman who is, for us, a model of discipleship. On one occasion, when crowds were pressing in upon Jesus, a message was brought to him that his mother and brothers and sisters were there and wanted to speak to him. To which Jesus replied, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mk. 3:31-35; Mt. 12:46-49; Lk. 8:19-21). Mary’s whole life was a radical assent to the will of God for her. In the annunciation, she heard the call of God to her, wrestled with that call, and ultimately gave her assent to what God was asking of her. She then persevered in that “Yes” through the many trials that were hers. The last time we see Mary in the scriptures, she is at prayer with the other disciples during the Jewish feast of Pentecost. Only a woman of deep prayer could have been as faithful to her “Yes” as Mary was. Mary is the model of discipleship. She is a person of discernment, a person with a profound trust in God, a person who gave all of herself to God in her “Yes,” and who persevered in her self-gift to God through a life of prayer.

Pope Francis has sought to elevate the role of women in our church. He has made significant efforts to bring women into positions of real leadership in the Church. In early 2023, the Vatican News Service reported that during his pontificate, the percentage of women working at the Vatican increased from 19.3% to 23.4%. In the Curia alone—the Holy See offices that actually run the universal Catholic Church—the percentage of women has now risen to 26%, such that one in four employees is female. It is interesting to note that the Vatican News Service candidly admits that while there has been an increase in the Vatican’s female workforce, including in high-ranking positions, “women face continued resistance from the all-male Catholic hierarchy.” Perhaps they need a refresher course in scripture!

Let us do as the Pope asks us to do and pray for a recognition of the dignity and immense value of women and for an end to discrimination against them. We can also pray that the Church itself will model for the world what it means to truly value women.

— Fr. Mark Hallinan, S.J., Associate Pastor