Women in the church

This month, before offering my personal reflections on the theme for our year of reconciliation — “The Dignity of Women,” I will invite a couple of women to have the first word. The first is my sister, Mary Ann Jepsen. Some of you may remember her when I introduced her at my ordination Sept. 29, 1999. Mary Ann is the wife of Dr. Stephen Jepsen and the mother of four boys — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Sean. And now, let me present the reflections of my sister, Mary Ann Jepsen:


During the middle to late 19th century, Catholic European immigrants, particularly the Irish, were flooding the shores of America. Largely, they arrived destitute, unskilled, and unprepared for life in the major cities like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. They faced indifference, discrimination, and hostility at every turn. Their homes in the New World were the wretched and paltry slums.

It’s no surprise that once they were settled in and able to scratch out a living for themselves, the men sought employment as laborers while the women worked as domestic servants in middle and upper class Protestant homes. In American Catholic Women, A Historical Explanation, edited by Karen Kennelly, it is noted that here, in the wealthy Victorian homes of the day, with the influence of aristocratic, French Catholics, much of the late 19th century notion of the “proper” Catholic home was conceived.

The ideal Catholic home was described as being scrupulously neat, clean, orderly, and tidy at all times. Meals would always be warm and nutritious, and the woman should make sure her family was catered to in a pleasant fashion. The home should be cheerful, restful and harmonious. There would be no discord amongst the members of the family. Peace and love would be the order when the family gathered, and it was the woman’s duty to see to it. The men were to be the breadwinning patriarchs of the family.

It still sounds like a pretty good model to follow, but how many of us actually achieve the ideal? And, since our church (which did so much to promote the ideal) is a home for us, in a spiritual sense, wouldn’t it be nice if it could live up to that same ideal as well? Particularly where cheer, rest, harmony, lack of discord, peace and love are concerned.

While there is no doubt some in today’s church have concerns with the patriarchal model, there certainly are those, on the other side of the aisle, who have equal concerns without it. So where do women really find their place in the church?

Too frequently, and sadly, it seems we find ourselves employing our well-honed domestic skills mopping up the messy middle ground. The barbs hurled from either side are often painful and bloody. It’s difficult sometimes to focus our efforts on truly being Christ’s Mystical Body to the world when there is such anguish within. Because we are active in the life of the church, in administrative, liturgical, educational, or pastoral works, does not mean we are either “priest wannabe’s” or “spineless sell-outs.”

Throughout the 20th century, women have achieved extraordinary heights in most areas of our society: in the marketplace, the political arena, science, academics, technology, medicine, law, athletics, and fine arts to name just a few. It’s not unusual to see women doing almost anything a man can do and often better. On the other hand, one need only look to the lives of Sts. Joan of Arc, Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila or any of the myriad female saints throughout the ages to find that strength, determination, and accomplishment in women is not a 20th century invention.

The fuel that drives the engine in most any Catholic woman likely had its initial spark somewhere in the soul. The desire to do good and make the world a better place, to nurture or teach, to clothe or feed or heal, or to right the wrongs of an unjust society is set aflame through our baptismal call and the Christian example of our homes and churches. We shouldn’t be fearful, angry, or resentful when we see someone honestly attempting to answer his or her call.

The Second Vatican Council set about changes in the church that, after over 30 years, many are still uncomfortable with. For some the changes have gone too far; for others they’ve not gone far enough. For some, a woman’s place in the church is confusing, at best, and a bitter battleground, at its worst. The truth of the matter remains that it is possible to faithfully embrace the doctrines and traditions of the church and still be an activist.

In his apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem, On the Dignity and Vocation of Women, Pope John Paul II states that “The Second Vatican Council renewed the church’s awareness of the universality of the priesthood. In the New Covenant there is only one sacrifice and one priest: Christ. All the baptized share in the one priesthood of Christ, both men and women, inasmuch as they must ‘present their bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God (cf. Romans 12:1), give witness to Christ in every place, and give an explanation to anyone who asks the reason for the hope in eternal life that is in them (cf. 1 Peter 3:15).'”

What can be said with certainty is that humility is a stark necessity if we are ever to remain truly faithful to Holy Mother Church, the Bride of Christ. Our humility must be universal, in each of our hearts. Here we surrender our pride and self-righteousness and look with kindness and patience upon the efforts of those with whom we may have differences. Here we look at each other, face-to-face, men and women, and share hope in the Resurrection, not just Christ’s, but our own as members of the One True Church.

With the things of God there seems always to be a paradox. Throughout his life on earth, Christ revealed some of the most profound mysteries of God to the meekest of women. The king of kings chose a humble peasant woman to be the bearer of the New Covenant. To the sinful Samaritan woman with five husbands he told of his life-giving waters. To Martha, after the death of Lazarus, Christ says, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25-27). In Luke 7:36-50, we see the sinful woman bathing Christ’s feet in her tears and anointing them with oil. Her sins are forgiven, because she has shown great love.

Though in the secular world it’s what women do, and have, and achieve that proves their status, in the church the paradox still lives. Here there are no entitlements. The simple gifts share equal billing with the greatest. The widow’s mite is as precious as gold. The poor in spirit inherit the kingdom, and the meek possess the earth. Here, it is in giving that we receive, in pardoning that we are pardoned, in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Here simple gifts are given, not taken … and the greatest of these is love.