When considering the history of the Catholic Church and the direction it is going, one constant in its structure is the distinctive roles men and women play in its running. Following in the path of its predecessor of ancient Biblical times, the Catholic Church has encouraged men and women to differentiate their respective roles, which often looked like categorizing their tasks either as leadership or caretaking. As popes, cardinals, bishops, priests, and deacons, men have led the Catholic Church since its inception and continue to do so from high levels. Women, alternatively, serve as abbesses, nuns, sisters, educators, and in other roles on a community level and within convents and monasteries.
Women have played a vital role in the Catholic Church for centuries, though their contributions and experiences often were overlooked or marginalized. In recent years, however, a growing movement to recognize and uplift the voices and experiences of women within the Church and to promote the equality of men and women within the Church’s structure and teachings has emerged. Social media, ease of access to learning, the feminist movement, and modernity are pushing for the acknowledgment of women’s contributions to Catholicism. With younger Catholics’ interest of retaining the value of the traditional Catholic faith and progressing the Church to meet their needs, this is Catholicism’s time to ensure the role of women is valued, acknowledged, and accessible.
The Unexpected Blessings of a Neighbor and Sister
One sunny day last fall the temperature was unseasonably warm. By all sensibility, I should not have taken out my preemie daughter for a walk, but something more than the weather was calling to me to step away from the computer that afternoon. My townhouse is half a mile away from the small Catholic Church my husband and I call our parish home, so I hooked up our dog to his leash and put our daughter in her stroller for the first walk all of us had taken in quite some time.
A block or two down the street a certain shade of a brown caught my attention. Early October days in Virginia lean toward leaves retaining their green and orange hues, so this brown stood out. I couldn’t determine the nature of the object, so I kept my focus on ensuring our dog didn’t detour into the middle of the road until my moderate pace brought me closer to the halfway point of my walk. As I closed in upon church, it all started to make sense. My trio was about to come upon a sister.
At this point of my journey into new motherhood, my husband and I still were refraining from attending weekly Mass in person to limit our daughter’s exposure to illnesses. Despite this, our connection to the neighborhood parish remained strong. Interactions such this one with the sister were an important why. As I came up beside the sister from a safe distance, the movement of her fingers along her blue Rosary beads became more apparent. My lips lifted into a small smile, and I joined her in a silent Our Father. A few seconds later, a “good afternoon” greeted me. When I looked the sister’s way, she grinned and slowed her walk before peering into the stroller and exclaiming in delight. We conversed for a couple of minutes as we crossed the parish parking lot and meandered around the convent, church, and rectory. The sister had heard my family’s story from the priests who’d been praying for and visiting us. A community of support and prayer had enveloped my family for more than a year, and we hadn’t even known it until I took that walk. The sister likely hadn’t realized the gift she’d given me when we talked, but I like to think the Holy Spirit was upon her during our conversation.
Female Religious in the Church: Then and Now
Women like my neighbor sister have served through religious life as long as the Church has existed. Demanding and challenging, the calling to take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience is equally rewarding. Women who enter the religious life often do so out of a deep desire to serve God and the Church, and their lives are marked by a strong commitment to prayer, spiritual growth, and service. Many are involved in charitable works such as running hospitals, schools, and shelters or providing spiritual guidance and support to those in need.
Anyone who attended Catholic school in the mid-1900s likely will say that the sisters who taught them were strict disciplinarians unafraid to dole out corporal punishment. Sisters with rulers in their hands and grimaces on their faces come to mind whenever I hear that someone my parents’ ages got into trouble at school. This depiction may well be true as standards for appropriate educational behavior have changed these past couple of decades. But it also could be misunderstood. While I can’t time travel to prove or disprove the stories my dad told about Sister Bernadette of Saint Mary’s in the 1960s, I can say that I have talked both with kind and unpleasant sisters. I’ve seen sisters knock unruly teenage boys on their heads with missals, and I’ve seen sisters sit with grieving mothers in bereavement gardens for miscarried babies. These women are like any others—serious and funny, athletic and studious, strict and warm. Time and change have dictated their approach to their work and their interactions with their communities, but they all have their places in the Church and serve God in their own ways. They are role models and leaders, exemplifying what it means to live a life dedicated to God and to the service of others.
In recent years a renewed emphasis on the importance of the feminine genius within the Church and the unique gifts and insights that women bring to the faith has emerged within the Catholic faith, especially younger Catholic. Pope Francis has called for a greater recognition and appreciation of the role of women in the Church and has encouraged the participation of women in all levels of Church leadership and decision-making. Nuns and sisters have taken the suggestion to heart, and their work is paying off. In the past few years I have:
- Watched videos of the Daughters of St. Paul discuss how social media has influenced their work as missionary sisters in the spirit of St. Paul through the means of effective communication.
- Visited the websites of various sister groups who comfort grieving mothers.
- Received visits from sisters who serve those in need in hospital settings.
- Observed sisters of a more mature age adjust their teaching styles to a modern approach.
These ladies and those who serve with them recognize the unique gifts God has bestowed upon them as females and as women of the current age. They are speaking out to Church leadership about what they experience firsthand when they serve their community, spotlighting themselves and the causes that need to be addressed so that they can show God’s love to everyone with whom they interact. These ladies are the ones making it possible for younger people to live out the Catholic faith and not feel out of place among their peers. They are the ones encouraging older Catholics to come back to the faith after decades of scandals have rocked the Church. And they are the ones acting as Jesus on the streets.
While the roles and experiences of women within the Church have varied throughout history, it they have always played a vital and invaluable role in the life of the Church. As the Church continues to grapple with issues of gender inequality and the need for greater inclusivity, the contributions and voices of women will be more important than ever. The religious life offers one important way for women to use their talents, gifts, and passions to serve the Church and to make a difference in the world.