by Margaux Salcedo
When I was a child and my nun aunt, Sr. Vicky Reyes, would tease me that I should become a nun when I grow up, I would give a firm no but I always said that I would love to be a priest.
Ten years later, as segment producer for the talk show Firing Line hosted by the legendary journalist and once-upon-a-time Press Secretary Teddy Benigno back in 1998, we interviewed Cardinal Jaime Sin and as I sat across him at lunch after the interview, with enthusiasm (or was it bravado), I asked him, "Cardinal, how come women can't be priests?"
With signature wit, he replied, "How did the Lord tell the world that Jesus had risen? All he had to do was tell three women! Imagine if women were allowed to hear confession?" To which the entire table laughed.
I didn't pursue the question that afternoon although I tried - throughout the years - to find answers on my own.
Women in the Catholic Church
Pope Leo XIII's explanation in Rerum Novarum (No. 33) was baffling in its portrayal of women: "Women, again, are not suited to certain trades; for a woman is by nature fitting for home work, and it is that which is best adapted at once to preserve her modesty, and to promote the good bringing up of children and the well-being of the family."
Pope Paul VI, while a champion of evangelization in the "modern world" (Evangelii Nuntiandi), still closed the door to the idea of women as priests, citing tradition as his reason in Inter Insigniores.
Pope John Paul II in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis called it a 'perennial norm': " the Church has always acknowledged as a perennial norm her Lord's way of acting in choosing the twelve men whom he made the foundation of his Church (cf. Rv 21:14). These men did not in fact receive only a function which could thereafter be exercised by any member of the Church; rather they were specifically and intimately associated in the mission of the Incarnate Word himself (cf. Mt 10:1, 7-8; 28:16-20; Mk 3:13-16; 16:14-15)."
And then, almost sounding exasperated, in the same Apostolic Letter closed the issue: "Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church's divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32), I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful."
This response to demands for equality was made in 1994, even after he had written extensively about the "dignity of a woman" in Mulieris Dignitatem in 1988.
A student of St Scholastica's College under then-President Sr Bellarmine Bernas - the St Scho that welcomed the widow Corazon Aquino back on campus to speak on democracy when she ran for president - I grew up in an environment and with a mentality that leadership is genderless. Women can be president. Women can run the country and run the world. Hence, papal infallibility notwithstanding, my Scholastican mind has been unable to reconcile the reasons given by the Holy Fathers.
Our role model - as we were molded by our alma mater to become "empowered women" - was St. Scholastica.
Scholastica is credited for having established Benedictine communities and a convent at Piumarola in Italy, near Monte Cassino (a monastery founded by St Benedict) that allowed women to lead monastic lives in accordance with the principles of the monastic rule established by her brother, St Benedict. Hence, she is considered the founder of the Benedictine nuns.
Not much has been written about her or her life, except that she was dedicated to God from an early age; that she and St Benedict would see each other once a year and one time, as she approached the end of her life, she wanted him to stay longer on this annual visit but he refused so she prayed and a storm came, forcing him to stay (she is now a patron saint invoked against storms and rains); and that when she died a few days later, St Benedict saw her soul ascend to heaven in the form of a dove.
These stories, lifted from Chapters 33 and 34 of Book 2 (on the Life of St Benedict) of Dialogues by St. Gregory the Great, establish her holiness. First, as the female version of St Benedict, who created a twin world of holiness for women who would likewise follow the Rule of St Benedict. Secondly, as an absolutely pure soul, for certainly one cannot earn favor with the Lord to conjure up a storm if one is not in an absolute state of grace.
But as a woman, I draw inspiration from the iconography on her, which reflects her values as a leader.
She holds a crucifix or, sometimes, a dove, which go back to her holiness and the centrality of Christ in her life.
However, she also holds a book. This shows that beyond holiness, she also derives strength from education. She is literate. She can read. There is a thirst for knowledge. (She has also become the Patron saint for books, reading and schools.)
Beyond literacy and thirst for knowledge, there is also significance in the book that she holds. The book she holds is the Rule of St Benedict. This reflects the quality of literature that she seeks to fill her mind with. As prayer is food for the soul and literature is food for the mind, she fills herself with that which can fuel her to live "for God's greater glory", a Benedictine mission. Here you see a commitment to a higher purpose, showing that beyond excellence, she exudes wisdom.
Most notable for me is also the fact that she holds a crozier - a stylized staff that is a symbol of the governing office of a bishop and is carried by high-ranking prelates of the church. Anyone can hold a book but not everyone can hold a crozier.
St Scholastica allegedly carries the crozier to signify her authority as an abbess. But I think beyond her authority as an abbess, this symbolizes female empowerment and equality, a subtle statement that women, empowered by knowledge and wisdom, have the capacity to be bishops as well - if they would only let us! Not only can we wear the pants, we can carry the staff!
In reality, fifteen centuries later, women still technically cannot carry the staff.
Pope Francis, in a 2016 interview, confirmed his fidelity to the Apostolic Letter of Pope John Paul II, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis: "On the ordination of women in the Catholic church, the last word is clear ... It was given by St. John Paul II and this remains."
In 2020, at the Amazon Synod, he also rejected proposals for women to be ordained as deacons to address the shortage of clergy in South America's Amazon region. In Querida Amazonia (No. 101), he said,"Women make their contribution to the Church in a way that is properly theirs, by making present the tender strength of Mary, the Mother."
Also in Querida Amazonia, he attempts to present the argument or the perspective that to think that women can better participate only if allowed to become deacons or priests is "clericalism": "This summons us to broaden our vision, lest we restrict our understanding of the Church to her functional structures. Such a reductionism would lead us to believe that women would be granted a greater status and participation in the Church only if they were admitted to Holy Orders. But that approach would in fact narrow our vision; it would lead us to clericalize women, diminish the great value of what they have already accomplished, and subtly make their indispensable contribution less effective." (Querida Amazonia, No. 100).
A recognition of the cry yet still a firm pass on equality.
Nevertheless, Pope Francis makes a good point that the lack of titles or authority should not hinder women from serving the Lord, from serving the Church. Remember, it did not hinder St. Scholastica!
In fact, while he is bound by Pope John Paul II's Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, Pope Francis has been strongly campaigning for women to participate more actively in and for the Church. While respecting precedent, he has been finding ways to empower and enable women with more influential roles in the Church.
He really meant it when he said that women "should have access to positions, including ecclesial services, that do not entail Holy Orders and that can better signify the role that is theirs." (Querida Amazonia, No. 103).
In April 2020, following the Special Synod of Bishop on the Pan-Amazon Region, where this was a hot topic, Pope Francis instituted a new commission to study women deacons.
In his latest book, Let Us Dream (published December 2020), he reminds us of his 2016 appointment of Italian Barbara Jatta to lead the Vatican Museums; the appointment of Linda Ghisoni and Gabriella Gambino as undersecretaries at the Vatican's Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life; and his naming of Francesca Di Giovanni as an undersecretary at the Vatican's Secretariat of State.
And just last February 6, he appointed Sr Nathalie Becquart, the first woman to ever hold the position, as Under-Secretary at the Synod of Bishops. She will have voting rights in the synod and puts her in a place to help make key decisions in the Catholic Church.
Earlier this year, in January 2021, he also made the unprecedented move of changing the Code of Canon Law to institutionalize that ministries of Lector and Acolyte would henceforth be open to women. With the Motu Proprio Spiritus Domini, the first paragraph of Canon 230 of the Code of Canon Law was modified and Pope Francis firmly established that women can have access to these ministries. Through this document, women can now be installed as lectors, to read Scripture, and serve on the altar as eucharistic ministers. Pope Francis said he was making the change "to increase recognition of the 'precious contribution' women make in the church, while emphasizing that all baptized Catholics have a role to play in the church’s mission."
In 2020, Pope Francis made it his prayer intention for the month of October "that women have greater leadership roles in the Church".
It's a beautiful prayer and shows the fluidity by which Pope Francis has been addressing this delicate issue - laying the groundwork for women empowerment while respecting time-honored albeit outdated traditions and doctrines.
For God's Greater Glory
On this Feast Day of St Scholastica, let us once again pray with Pope Francis for women to have greater leadership roles in the Church.
Let us also remember the advice of the Holy Father - and the fine example of St Scholastica herself - to not let the lack of a title, official role or designation keep us from fully offering our lives to the Lord.
Let us keep the fire of the Holy Spirit that descended upon BOTH men and women at Pentecost alive in us! Let us remember that staff or no staff, we can empower ourselves from within, through the Spirit of Christ that lives within us!! And with this fire, let us work zealously and tirelessly, inspired by St Scholastica, for the greater glory of God!