Sojourners Magazine reported last month that L’Osservatore Romano is publishing a series of essays advocating for women to preach in the context of the Roman Catholic Mass. With these authors, and with many others, I agree that women should be invited to use fully the gifts God has given to them, and this includes the gift of preaching. For Roman Catholics in pews across the world – and indeed, for the enrichment of the entire body of Christ – I hope that women’s gift for preaching will be welcomed so very soon. To those communities who already bend the rules and allow gifted and educated women to offer “reflections” on the gospel during the Mass, please continue bending rules. Preach the good news!

I have journeyed with Roman Catholic women gifted with preaching and who already share this gift in a variety of contexts: as hospital chaplains during ecumenical services, as leaders of retreats, as directors of faith formation programs (friends, you know who you are!). The liturgy would be enriched and God even more authentically worshipped if these women’s baptismal gifts could be welcomed during the Mass. My own personal desire to preach eventually moved me away from the Roman Catholic Church and into a communion in which women can exercise such ministerial gifts, the Episcopal Church.

Two years ago I had a Holy Week that was extra holy, you know, the way that life and liturgy sometimes eerily overlap. On Palm Sunday it was made clear to me that I, as a woman, would not be allowed to preach at my Roman Catholic parish, despite my theological education and ministry gifts. On Holy Thursday I kept watch at my dying grandmother’s hospital bed, and was with her as she breathed her last on Good Friday. In this heightened sensibility that Easter Sunday, I heard the space in between the Sunday lectionary readings. I was yearning for the truth of a resurrected body in the Easter Sunday gospel reading, but heard only the empty tomb, for the first time ever. I eagerly anticipated Jesus calling “Mary” and heard silence. I listened for “Go to my brothers and tell them…,” but nothing. I wanted confirmation that “I have seen the Lord!,” but dwelt only in blank time and space.

Allow me to state more directly what I learned that Easter Sunday: the story of Mary Magdalene (John 20:10-18) is never proclaimed on a Sunday in the Roman Catholic Church. Rather, Easter Sunday ends with an empty tomb (just before we are told that the disciples go home while Mary stays), and Divine Mercy Sunday resumes with the Resurrected Christ appearing to the disciples in the locked Upper Room. The interaction between Mary Magdalene and the Resurrected Christ – attested to in three of the four canonical gospels – is sliced from the liturgical telling in a manner that does violence to the integrity of the text. Somehow in my studies – which included excellent works like Katherine Ludwig Jansen’s The Making of the Magdalen – I had not caught the Sunday lectionary’s grave omission, which simultaneously conceals the historical reality of a woman as the first preacher of the good news of the Risen Christ, and protects the power of men.

My revelation that Easter Sunday is this: Mary of Magdala, the apostolorum apostola – the first person called by name and sent by the Risen Christ to proclaim the good news – has no public voice in the Roman Catholic Church; I should not be surprised that women in general possess no public voice, and I among them.

To me, the issue of women preaching in the 21st century is a question of giving women’s voices space in a much larger historical context. It means advocating for Mary Magdalene’s biblical story to be proclaimed on Easter Sunday, as those of us following the Revised Common Lectionary heard last week. It means giving serious scholarship to the voices of all biblical women, as Lindsay Hardin Freeman has done in her book Bible Women: All Their Words and Why They Matter. It means recovering the dangerous memory of women preachers and mystics in history, such as Hildegard von Bingen. And it means claiming the space for women today to exercise their baptismal gifts and to let God’s voice speak through their art, music, prayer, and yes, preaching. Let it be so among the communions, for the greater glory of God.

11 thoughts

  1. Our Roman Catholic parish uses a Catholic NRSV lectionary, probably from the Canadian Catholic Bishops Conference, which has an option for the longer reading John 20:1:18 which was proclaimed on our Easter Sunday.

    Things are slowly changing in the Catholic Church and it is encouraging to see L’Osservatore Romano is publishing a series of essays advocating for women to preach.

    I think it would be helpful for the Catholic Church to ordain women deacons.

    Easter Blessings

    1. So glad to hear that your parish elected to proclaim the longer reading, Chris! Progress is being made. Blessings this Eastertide! ~Alyssa

  2. I have only attended Easter Sunday Mass twice in my life (I much prefer the Vigil) but the two times I did I could not help but notice that the best part of the story, Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene and asking her to tell the good news toe the apostles, was ignored.

    This is even crazier because just before the Gospel is read, the sequence Medieval Paschale Laudes is sung, which contains the following verses.

    Tell us, Mary, what did
    you see on the road?

    “I saw the tomb of the living Christ
    and the glory of his rising,

    The angelic witnesses, the
    clothes and the shroud.”

    “Christ my hope is arisen;
    into Galilee, he will go before his own.”

    Divorced from the story of Magdalene encountering the Risen Christ, and then being commissioned to proclaim the Resurrection to the Apostles, these verses make no sense!

    1. Yes, the Easter Sequence! Thanks for drawing our attention to this, Emma. (PS: I love and more regularly participate in the Vigil, too). Blessings in the Risen Christ. ~Alyssa

  3. …and protects the power of men.

    Indeed! Verses 3-8 seem so blatantly crafted to shore up Petrine primacy (the other disciple got there first, but waited so Peter could be the first to go inside), it practically makes me roll my eyes every time I hear it.

    It came to my attention some years ago that, while it was not permitted for women to preach, there were no restrictions on who could author collections of homilies that priests who were busy, overworked, or just didn’t have the gift of preaching might use for their homilies. And apparently, most of those books are written by women… 🙂

    1. Thanks for adding your insights to this conversation! It would be interesting to collect a survey of homiletic resources… Easter blessings! ~Alyssa

  4. There is nothing stopping women from preaching in the Roman Catholic Church. Mother Angelica is one of our most famous preachers and she had a massive reach during her lifetime and she left a media business that carries on without her that covers television, radio, and the internet. Mother Angelica’s preaching has a far greater voice than any parish priest who only preaches at Mass.

    Preaching is not tied to the Mass. Priesthood is for men, Jesus ordained men to the priesthood. This means that women cannot preach within the Mass’ liturgy, but it does not mean women are unable to preach. I am a youth worker, if I speak to my youth group about God, I am preaching. I am a woman. Now with the internet, or as I like to think, the beginning of Teilhard’s noosphere, anyone with an internet connection can publish their thoughts to the world. Women’s voices are more available than ever.

    I wish that the energy that people put into the impossibility of women being ordained was put into other things, things that are actually possible and hence productive. I wish people would not bend the rules so that women “reflect” publicly during Mass. My being unable to be a priest is no more insulting, or belittling than men being unable to bear children. Sorry Fr X… you will never have the privilege and joy if feeling new life grow inside you, you will never feel little hiccups inside you, that are not of your own body, but someone else’s. That doesn’t make a man lesser, it just acknowledges our sexed differences.

    1. Thank you for your comment. To your first point, as Sr. Thea Bowman noted in her lifetime, “I can’t preach in the church. But I can preach in the streets. I can preach in the neighborhood. I can preach in the home. I can teach and preach in the family.” Indeed, spreading the good news is constitutive of being a disciple of Christ, “not only with our lips, but in our lives.”

      To your second point, I intentionally avoided the issue of women’s ordination in this post so as not to distract from the legitimate question I am raising. My point is that I struggle to find any good (theological/liturgical/biblical/pastoral) reason to omit John 20:10-18 from Easter Sunday proclamation. Christians are a people, not of the Empty Tomb, but of the Resurrected Body. I am suggesting that an unwillingness to proclaim from the pulpit the biblical story of Mary Magdalene as the first person called by name and sent by the Risen Christ to preach the good news may be related to the unwillingness to allow women to preach from the pulpit during liturgy.

      Blessings in the good work that you do among the youth! ~Alyssa

      1. Thank you for your blessings. Please pray for me to do good work with our youth.

        Sorry for bringing up women’s ordination, I did that because other commentators had.

        Whilst I think that sectioning off Mass from lay people for preaching is fine because this is such a small section of time/space, I do agree with you that not mentioning Mary Magdalene is odd. Mary Magdalene has her own feast day, and as I write this I’m trying to find out when her story is told. As far as I can find her feast was reduced in the 1960s down to a memoria.

        Looking at my daily missal the opening prayer for her memoria is:

        your Son first entrusted to Mary Magdalene
        the joyful news of his resurrection…

        The Evening Prayer first antiphon on Easter Sunday is “Mary Magdalene came with the other Mary to see the tomb where the Lord had been laid, alleluia. And the Fourth Reading from the Office of Readings on Easter Sunday is Matt 28:1-10 – Mary Magdalene and Mary meeting Jesus. Easter Saturday Mass has the Gospel according to Mark (16:9-15) which is the story of Mary Magdalene. On the Easter Vigil the Gospel is Matthew, Mark and Luke’s description of the women finding Jesus.

        Year A Matt 28:1-10
        Year B Mark 16:1-7
        Year C Luke 24 1-12

        For the Mass of the Day for the Easter Vigil it’s John 20:1-9, and in my missal it states that Luke 24:13-35 can be substituted or the Gospel for the Mass of Easter Night.

        So yes, John 20:11-18 is omitted, but it seems a leap to say that this is related to not allow women preaching during Mass. No lay person can preach during Mass, not just women. Even having a deacon preach is only to be done occasionally according to the GIRM.

        I would be very interested to know why John 20:11-18 is ommitted.

        I have an old missal from 1954. Here Matt 28:1-7 is read on Holy Saturday, Mark 16:1-7 is read on Easter Sunday, Luke 24:13-35 is read on Easter Monday. Easter Thursday is John 20:11-18. We read John through the Easter season in the new missal, but I don’t see where John 20:11-18 is read now.

        Most puzzling.

      2. Thanks for adding this information to the conversation! In the present Roman lectionary, John 20:11-18 is proclaimed on the Tuesday in the Octave of Easter, having been moved from the Thursday in the previous (Tridentine) lectionary, as you noticed in your research. Another reader, knowledgeable in a variety of lectionaries, noted that only vv. 11-18 are proclaimed in the Ambrosian rite on Easter Sunday and that the RC Canadian lectionary includes vv. 11-18 on Easter Sunday, similar to the Revised Common Lectionary used by several liturgical traditions.

        I certainly would need to do more academic work in order to strengthen my suggestion that the historical exclusion of those verses may relate to the suppression of women’s preaching during the Mass. For this post I can only state my observation that neither Mary Magdalene nor women today have the space to preach the Good News from the Sunday pulpit. There may or may not be an intentional or unintentional historical connection. But as you noted, the omission of those verses from Sunday proclamation is puzzling.

  5. I am from a conservative Protestant background. One that has long felt women should not preach over men. In a discussion I recently had about the shifting of this position in our denomination, a brother argued the “biblical view” that never did Jesus advocate women preachers, and the usual scripture to debate up in. I ended that debate searching my heart and asking Jesus in prayer about how He really feels. In that moment I felt He brought to mind what preaching is… the sharing of the Good News of Christ’s resurrection. And I felt a question raised by Him in my Spirit, “And who was the first one to do this? And to whom?” The answer is Mary Magdalene at the foot of the tomb and it was to His 11 men whom she told it to. I thanked God for this revelation and the peace it brought upon the stance I was taking. Just wanted to affirm and share.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s