Introduction to the Role of Women in the Life of the Church

granada-diptych-right-wing-the-holy-women-and-st-johnThe Church has always recognized the essential and unique role of lay women in the life of the Church. In recent times, since the Second Vatican Council and its declaration on the universal call to holiness,[1] the Church has drafted document after document exhorting and teaching both men and women how to live out their Catholic faith in the world. This short reflection will lay out a brief introduction to the role of lay women within the life of the Church.

Many Catholics fall on a wide spectrum with regards to how they see their role in the Church. Some well-intentioned but miss-catechized Catholics see their role as that of the priest, making frequent communion calls, offering spiritual direction and running parishes. This view, while well-intentioned, is incorrect. Many other faithful women, yet un-catechized Catholics believe that as long as they attend Mass on Sunday, avoid sin, frequent the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and pray daily they are living their lives as faithful Catholic women. While all of these things are good and fundamental for living a Catholic life, this line of thought completely misses the point of what it means to live as a lay Catholic woman in the world; it fails to realize their call by the Father to their vocation in the lay state. Living our lives as a member of the Church is about more than just doing a list of things. It involves our whole being, our thoughts, words, actions, and dispositions.

Before one can understand her role in the world she must first understand who she is, where she comes from and where she is going. Every woman is on a journey to return to the Father in heaven. All Catholics at their baptism were claimed for Christ.[2] They are marked by Christ who created them and calls them back to Him. At her baptism each woman was anointed with chrism, uniting herself to the people of Christ, the Church, and uniting herself to Christ who is Priest, Prophet, and King.[3] It is from their baptism and confirmation that lay Catholics receive their mission which, while it overlaps with the mission of the clergy, is essentially different.

Each woman lives out this journey and mission in a concrete and specific way on this earth through a specific calling from the Father, her vocation. No woman is left alone in this world to fend for herself. God sent His Son into the world to save the world and sent His Spirit to be with the Church until the end. God provides all people the graces they need to return to the Father and the gifts they need for their mission, no matter their vocation, but each woman must freely accept these gifts and use them to build up the kingdom of God.

God calls some people to the priesthood, others to religious life and still others to the lay state. All three vocations are important and have a proper role to play in the mission of the Church. Christ reminds us that as members of the Body of Christ[4] we are grafted on to Him and thus to each other. The way each individual lives out his life has an effect on the Church.

It is the laity and not the clergy who not only compose the majority of the members of the Church but also are on the front lines charged with bringing the Gospel message to every aspect of human life. They are called to live out their vocation as Christians in the secular world by grounding their vocation and receiving strength from the Church. If the laity are to effectively live out the beautiful gift of faith they received at their baptism, they must be rooted in the life of the Church.

Pope John Paul II properly noted that any theology of the laity must begin with the universal call to holiness through living a sacramental life.[5] The Church calls the laity to open themselves to Christ, who through the Holy Spirit leads them to the Father. They are called to be alive in Christ by living a sacramental life. A sacramental life links them to the Father through Christ in the Holy Spirit and enables them to apply the teachings of Christ to their life and live a life pleasing to the Father. At the heart of a sacramental life is the full and active participation in Sunday Mass. The frequent reception of the sacrament of Penance and daily prayer are also in dispensable for living a sacramental life.

Having been nourished by the sacraments the lay faithful are called to evangelize through their lives. In the words of the psalmist, after they receive the Spirit sent by the Father they are called to “renew the face of the earth.”[6] The Good News Catholics know and which has transformed them should compel them to want to go out and share it with others. All Catholics are called to give witness to their faith but the laity, who are on the front lines, have the obligation to give witness to their faith at all times whether at work, school, in the family or in social settings. As Catholic women direct their gaze to the love of Christ[7] they will draw others to Christ. Catholics have received the gift of faith and have the obligation to share this love of Christ with others. This only makes sense; any person who has heard good news will desire to share it with others.  When this faith is shared with others it will strengthen the faith of the one sharing it.[8]While words are certainly necessary, the ordinary way of spreading the Gospel is by the living out of faithful Christian lives by the faithful.

Often well intentioned Catholics think the priest has the “religious role” and they are to live their lives and leave evangelization to the priest. On the other hand, some very well intended Catholics think that to be a good Catholic they need to attend two Masses a day and make a daily Holy Hour. The Church, however, reminds the laity not to take either extreme, but to take the middle road.

Catholics are called to live out their faith in their daily lives through their specific vocation. One’s state in life will dictate how they live out their life. A young mother of three, for example, has an obligation to raise her children. She most probably should not be attending two Masses and making a Holy Hour every day because this will take away from her obligations to her three children. An older retired widow, however, may have more time and can make it to daily Mass, spend an hour in front of the Eucharist, and volunteer at the local soup kitchen.

Living out one’s faith in the context of their state in life is not an excuse to ignore the spiritual life. All people are called to be united to the Trinity and the Church and develops a deep spiritual life appropriate to their state in life.[9] Regardless of one’s state in life all people must integrate their spiritual life into their everyday lives.

Lay women have a unique, important, essential and beautiful mission in the Church. They are called to work in cooperation with the clergy to bring the Gospel to the ends of the earth.[10]Their mission and indeed their entire life must be rooted in the universal call to holiness and must be grounded in the sacramental life of the Church. This call to holiness is lived out in the world, the workplace, home and places of entertainment, yet is formed and receives strength within the communion of the Church.

[1] “It is therefore evident to everyone that all the faithful, whatever their condition or rank, are called to the fullness of the Christian life and the perfection of charity.” Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium (21 November 1964), §40, in Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils Vol. II, ed. Norman P. Tanner, S.J. (Washington DC: Georgetown University Press, 1990), 881.

[2] “I claim you for Christ our Savior by the sign of his cross.” Reception of the Child, Rite of Baptism for one Child, in The Rites of the Catholic Church, vol. 1 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1990), §79, p. 395.

[3] “He now anoints you with the chrism of salvation so that, united with his people, you may remain forever a member of Christ who is Priest, Prophet, and King.” Anointing After Baptism, Rite of Baptism for one Child, in The Rites of the Catholic Church, Vol. 1 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1990), §98, p. 404.

[4] John 15:1-17

[5]“Holiness … must be called a fundamental presupposition for everyone in fulfilling the mission of salvation within the Church.” Pope John Paul II, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation on the Vocation and Mission of the Lay Faithful in the Church and in the World Christifideles Laici (30 December 1988), §17, at The Holy See,

[6] Psalm 104

[7] Pope John Paul II, Encyclical on the permanent validity of the Church’s missionary mandate Redemptoris Missio (7 December 1990), §4, at The Holy See,

[8] Pope John Paul II, Encyclical on the permanent validity of the Church’s missionary mandate Redemptoris Missio (7 December 1990), §2, at The Holy See,

[9] “neither providing for their families nor any other business in the secular world should be thought to be outside the scope of the spiritual life.” Second Vatican Council, Decree on the apostolate of the laity  Apostolicam Actuositatem  (18 November 1965), §4, in Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils Vol. II, ed. Norman P. Tanner, S.J. (Washington DC: Georgetown University Press, 1990), 983.

[10]“Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” Mt 28:19 – 20

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