There are people who reject the Catholic Church out-of-hand based on a single issue – gender roles. I have a cousin who is a Methodist pastor; she and her husband (also a Methodist pastor) look askance at the Catholic insistence that women cannot be ordained. To some women, the Catholic Church is part of The Problem, with an all-male leadership and no possibility ever of a female Pope. They hear about “Vatican persecution” of nuns and believe this to be the religious arm of the “war on women.” They have no intention of throwing their support to the oppressor.
Having never been an armed combatant in the Gender Wars, those concerns didn’t bother me too much when I was a Protestant considering the Catholic Church. I knew that Jesus appointed no female apostles, I knew that St. Paul did not allow women to teach men, and I accepted that as I would a traffic regulation – I was convinced that it said absolutely nothing about my worth before God. Folks nowadays like to believe that a person is what she does. I have never entertained such malarkey. I will not be clutching my résumé when Christ calls me to my judgment – He will have no interest in that. The question won’t be, “How many committees did you chair?” or “At the peak of your earning potential, how much were you worth?” If I recall correctly, the question will have something to do with providing succor to Him in the least of these His brethren, and that is an eminently equal opportunity assignment, the fulfillment of which God will make possible whether I can ever be ordained or not. Splenetic nuns did not deter me from judging the Church on its own merits. I was concerned, though, about a gender issue of another sort.
I had spent all of my Protestant life in conservative Evangelical churches. My last Protestant incarnation was as a Baptist. The necessity of masculine participation in the church is a bedrock Baptist conviction. Conservative Baptists would rather eat glass than sit under female leadership. At my old Baptist church, we didn’t even have female greeters. If you were a person of my chromosomal persuasion, you could sing in the choir or you could teach Sunday School – CHILDREN’S Sunday School. We took very seriously St. Paul’s words about not allowing a woman to teach a man, so women were allowed to teach children and other women. We had a great choir, Women’s Ministries abounded, and our Children’s Ministry wasn’t shabby, either.
Not being particularly musically gifted, I worked with children. When I began considering Catholicism, I was happy that I as a Baptist could agree with Pope John Paul II’s insistence that the Church had no right to ordain women. My interest was piqued, though, by the concept of the “saints” which Catholics seemed to take quite seriously. So many of them were women. And to my surprise, several of them were what Catholics call “Doctors of the Church.” Talk about a leadership position! Heady stuff for someone who isn’t choir material….
But I became concerned when my reading suggested a purported lack of human beings of the masculine persuasion in the Church. Catholic men, I was given to understand, were basically missing in action. The “priest shortage” was often discussed in the media, and from my reading I began to get a mental image of the typical Catholic parish as an institution consisting primarily of women, women at the door to greet you, women reading the announcements, women bringing forward the gifts, women passing out Holy Communion, women “manning” the ministries, women cleaning up afterwards, and not a few of those women resentful that the few males in the Catholic scheme of things were hogging all the power and influence. I don’t know where exactly I was getting this information from back then, but that was my understanding, and I was concerned….
I suspected that things might be particularly bad in our part of the country. After all, we reside in the Diocese of Richmond, with none too many Catholics around to begin with. Maybe Catholic men just stayed home on Sunday morning, embarrassed to be Catholic in Baptist City, leaving their womenfolk to catechize the little ones. I realized that a Catholic parish was most probably more racially diverse than what I was used to; as an Evangelical, I had attended some seriously white churches. But at least half of the people at those white churches were male. Were Catholic parishes as testosterone-starved as I feared?
I must say I was delighted when I attended my first Mass – facial hair everywhere, more mustachioed males assembled under one roof than you could shake a straight-edge razor at. That was 9 years ago; this past Sunday at Mass I was noticing that with the exception of two ladies, the entire pew ahead of me was filled with men – little boys, big boys, old boys and their middle-aged counterparts, awash in aftershave and faith. Looking around the building, men were probably in the majority, or were certainly at least holding their own against the ladies in attendance. Our music director is a man, the ushers are men. Back in September one of our parishioners was ordained a deacon, and we have two more men in diaconate formation. (Our diocese, by the way, has 18 seminarians.) The head of our RCIA is male. The Knights of Columbus are active in our parish. Now, to give the ladies their due, one of the two lectors on Sunday was a woman, and there were of course female as well as male choir members and extraordinary ministers. The head of the parish council who got up to speak after Mass was a woman. Our business manager and the director of Christian formation are both women. I find this pretty balanced. The woman worried about opportunities to serve as a Catholic layperson can rest easy. So can the woman concerned about men manning up, so to speak.
Around Christmastime Christian attention seems to focus on two extraordinary people: the mother and Child. What with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe (¡Viva Nuestra Señora!), the feast of the Nativity and the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, all celebrated in the next few weeks, attention is riveted on the newborn King and on His holy mother. We lose sight of the fact that Advent is our opportunity to contemplate the Holy Family, all three of them. As St. Luke tells the story, Mary accepts God’s will for her life, and Joseph accepts God’s will for his. God’s will brings the two of them together. The Virgin is asked to have faith in the Divine Plan to bring salvation to men through the Son she is to bear. St. Joseph is asked to have faith as well, the faith which enables him to accept the mysterious pregnancy of his virgin betrothed as a part of the Divine Plan. As Blessed John Paul II so memorably put it, “the faith of Mary meets the faith of Joseph.” And this, it turns out, is God’s plan for the Church as well.
Catholics focus heavily on Mary during Advent, and very rightly so – but as great as the Blessed Virgin’s role is in the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity, her role is limited, and very rightly so. God never asked her to go it alone. She didn’t do it all – she was never expected to. God, of course, was the One Who oh-so-long ago interrupted the Genesis litany of “it was good!” with a decided “It is NOT good” – not good that man should be alone. And that goes for women as well. His plan for the body of Christ reflects this; it requires full participation on the part of both sexes. The Blessed Virgin was asked to travel to Bethlehem to fulfill the prophecy of Christ’s birth; she was not asked to saddle up and ride there all on her lonesome. Bethlehem was the city of David, and St. Joseph was of his lineage. Mary was asked to bear the Son of God in a stable, but it was St. Joseph who found the accommodations, St. Joseph who paid for them, St. Joseph who provided tenderly for her as she nursed God in the flesh. St. Joseph and the young mother took the Babe to be circumcised, and St. Joseph announced to the world that His Name would be Jesus, thereby proclaiming to the world Christ as Savior. It was St. Joseph to whom God gave direction, telling him to flee the wrath of Herod. As Mary swaddled Jesus in the middle of the night and clasped Him in her arms, it was St. Joseph who set mother and Child on the back of the donkey, and quietly led them out of town to safety in Egypt.
He set himself to protect with a mighty love and a daily solicitude his spouse and the Divine Infant; regularly by his work he earned what was necessary for the one and the other for nourishment and clothing; he guarded from death the Child threatened by a monarch’s jealousy, and found for Him a refuge; in the miseries of the journey and in the bitternesses of exile he was ever the companion, the assistance, and the upholder of the Virgin and of Jesus. Pope Leo XIII
It was St. Joseph who earned a living in a foreign land until God gave him the all-clear. It was St. Joseph who brought his family back to Nazareth, set up shop, and taught Jesus to be a man. St. Joseph was, in the pithy phrase of Pius IX, the man who “fed Him Whom the faithful must eat as the bread of eternal life.”
Nothing spectacular… St. Joseph was just doing what men of God do. Catholic men are protectors. Catholic men are providers. Catholic men are leaders. Catholic men listen to God. Catholic men have faith. Catholic men seek God’s will. Catholic men proclaim Christ to the world.
As a female convert to the Catholic Church, I’m pretty excited about the female Doctors of the Church, about all the female saints, and about the faithful religious sisters loyal to the Pope and thrilled to live out their vocation as brides of Christ. I’m excited beyond words to be called the daughter of the Blessed Mother of God. But to be honest, I couldn’t be any happier about the 7 guys in the pew in front of me at Mass.
I really don’t want to have to go it alone. Thank God for Catholic men.
On the memorial of St. John Damascene
Deo omnis gloria!