A Crack in the Curtain

Chris McDonnell,  CT August 21 2020.

On August 6th, Pope Francis broke with tradition when he named six women to the high-level Committee which oversees the financial activity of both the Vatican City-State and the offices of the Holy See.

This group, comprising 14 members had previously been a male-only gathering. In one fell swoop Francis brought six women into membership, two of them from the United Kingdom.

Ruth Kelly, a labour politician who served in government under both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown as secretary for Education, is now vice-chancellor of St Mary’s university in London. The other UK appointee is Leslie Ferrar, a former treasurer to the Prince of Wales. Two other members, Charlotte Kreuter-Kirchof and Marija Kolak are from Germany and two are from Spain, Maria Garaicoechea and Eva Castillo Sanz.

Although there is still a male majority, this is a significant crack in the curtain. Among the other new appointments was Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, New Jersey, the only US prelate to be included. Quoted in an email to the National Catholic Reporter, the cardinal said:

“I see their nomination as an effort by Pope Francis to ensure greater opportunities for women to offer their gifts in service to the church. He clearly considers the academic formation and vast experience of these colleagues as crucial contributions to one of his cherished priorities, the ongoing reform of the financial administration of the Holy See.”

 Discussion of the role of women in the Church has been a recurring theme during his seven year presence in the See of Rome. These appointments are a significant move in the right direction. By statute the membership of the Council for the Economy must include eight cardinals or bishops and “seven lay experts of various nationalities.” Given that under present circumstances the cardinals and bishops will be male, the female presence will remain a minority one, albeit significant.

There is however a more fundamental issue that won’t go away and that involves the ministry of women within the Church. It is all very well appointing women to administrative roles, excellent and important as they might be. There remains the overwhelming question of women exercising ministry within the diaconate and yes, the ordained priesthood, that won’t go away.

Addressing a gathering of the International Union of Superiors General of Women’s Religious Orders in May 2016, one sister asked Pope Francis why women were excluded from decision-making processes in the Church and from preaching at Eucharistic celebrations. In her question she quoted his own words: “the feminine genius is needed in all expressions of the life of the Church and Society”

Our broader society has accepted this need to be inclusive and has gained much from the experience. The role of women expressing their political voice has been the consequence of years of struggle and we are better for it. It has not been an easy ride for over time male prejudice has created many difficulties.

Now we are benefitting from the journey made by others who refused to accept the status quo, insisting that their voice be heard and that their opinions be listened to.

Three months after the question was put to him by a religious sister, the pope honoured his commitment and instituted a commission to study the theme of the women’s diaconate, especially from a historical perspective. We await its Report.

Our appreciation of the Early Church is often a misunderstood story, clouded by the passing years. We can certainly say that it would be hard to recognise when compared with our present day experience. We tend to think that we have inherited a ready made model and that little has changed. That there were women deacons is of little doubt. Exactly what was their role is a matter of some conjecture, but they certainly participated in the mission of the Church and quite likely directed domestic churches.

There are some passages in the New Testament where they are mentioned. Paul writing in the final chapter of his letter to the Romans makes this reference. “I commend to you Phoebe, our sister who is also a deacon of the Church at Cenchreae” Phoebe is the only woman deacon of the first century church whose name is known to us.

We shouldn’t be surprised that women did have this prominent role in those formative years of the Christian community. After all they were only continuing the Gospel tradition where Jesus established an acceptance of women within his gathering of friends. Martha and Mary are well-known figures as is Mary Magdalen. We should never forget that it was to the Magdalen that he first showed himself that Sunday morning after passover.

The words that follow are taken from the 15th Station of the ‘Walk With Me’ Stations published by McCrimmons in 1994

and first light in the garden
brings shadows of women moving.

they did not recognise
in this Springtime Pasch
the Nazarene
passing over into Galilee.

Contained in the finger space
of the morning dawn,
the Resurrected Christ
greets us.

we did not trust you
we did not understand
we thought it was all over’

 ‘No my people,
It has just begun’ “

It was the women who first heard of the Resurrection and who in their turn hurried back to tell the men.

Their functional role in the early Church was not maintained. That they exercised a Pastoral role within the community is of little doubt, how far this extended to a Liturgical role is a more open question.

Gradually over the early centuries, the dominant role of men within the liturgical function gained precedence. It wasn’t until the middle ages that women of the stature of Hildegard of Bingen, Julian of Norwich and Catherine of Sienna were heard in the community of the Church. Matters of governance and liturgical practice were in the hands and gift of the male gender and in spite of their evident gifts, the female voice was largely ignored.

Women were the founders of religious communities, they taught in schools and cared for the sick. One, Teresa of Avila, a Spanish member of the Carmelite order broke the mould and set out on a path a reformation for both men and women Carmelites. Her significance was such that she is now accepted as a Doctor of the Church, but that acceptance only occurred some four centuries after her death in 1582. It would seem to be the lot of inspirational women that they have to wait on the word and timescale of men.

Where does all this take us? In our own time there is a strong and vibrant movement within the Church for a greater recognition of women in the Governance and Liturgy of the Church and certainly the recent appointments made by Francis are a step in the right direction. But that is not enough.

At Pentecost 1994 Pope John Paul II concluded that “the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination of women”.

That there are cracks beginning to appear in the curtains is obviously without question. Other members of our Christian family have come to terms with an evident need. We can only hope and pray that we too recognise the movement of the Spirit and respond appropriately.













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One Comment

  1. Chris McDonnell says:

    Since going to press I have had my attention drawn to a factual error.

    Ruth Kelly was Pro-Vice Chancellor when Francis Campbell was Vice Chancellor. Her departure from St Mary’s was announced recently as per the link:


    my apologies for this inaccuracy

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