Saturday, June 30, 2007


God created us man and woman. The balance fluctuates only minimally. There is no favoritism of one sex over the other.

At Mass last Saturday I noticed that there were four altar servers--all girls--and thought about the many comments I've read online indicating that when the girls move into altar service, the boys move out. Shortages in altar servers seem to grow out of the use of girls in this ministry.

A reader sent in a link to John Allen's comments in the Conversation Cafe this week. He speaks of the feminization of the Church, and his comments have me wondering if the same dynamics that apply to the ministry of altar service also apply to other ministries in the RCC. When the ladies move in, do the gentlemen move out? He titles his comments "Lay ecclesial ministry and the feminization of the church". Here is what Allen has to say:

Cultures invent new words when they've got new things to name, and so it is with the American church, which has recently contributed a new bit of taxonomy to Catholic conversation: "lay ecclesial ministry." The term refers to a new class of lay professionals performing tasks that were once the near-exclusive province of priests, such as parish administration, bereavement counseling and sick calls, sacramental preparation, liturgical planning, catechesis, faith formation, and a host of other roles. Today's reality is that, save for Mass and the other sacraments, most people's experience of pastoral ministry in the Catholic church is increasingly with a lay person rather than a priest.

The late Msgr. Philip J. Murnion, who conducted the first studies on this trend, called it "a virtual revolution in parish ministry."

Revolutions, as any historian knows, have unpredictable consequences. That's also the case with lay ecclesial ministry. Though no one planned it this way, the plain truth is that lay ecclesial ministry is rapidly "feminizing" pastoral leadership in the Catholic church. As the 21st century develops, that trend is sure to excite some and to worry others.

According to the National Pastoral Life Center, there are 31,000 lay ecclesial ministers working in Catholic parishes in the United States today, surpassing the 29,000 diocesan priests in the country. Growth has been rapid. As of 1990, there were just 22,000 lay ministers, meaning that American Catholicism generated an additional 9,000 lay ministers in just a decade and a half. During the same period, the total number of priests, diocesan and religious, dropped by almost 6,000, from 49,054 to 43,304. This imbalance is destined to grow under even the most wildly optimistic projections of priestly vocations. There are currently 18,000 people preparing to become lay ecclesial ministers, roughly six times the number of seminarians preparing to become priests.

For a church long perceived as bastion of male privilege, it's striking that these new lay professional roles are held disproportionately by women. As of 2005, roughly 80 percent of lay ecclesial ministers in the United States were women. A 2005 document from the American bishops provides this breakdown: lay women, 64 percent; religious women, 16 percent; and lay men, 20 percent. While the percentage of male lay ministers grew from 15 percent in 1900 to 20 percent in 2005, the overall pattern seems to be that the bulk of these positions will be held by women.

Balance is essential in all of life. When things get out of balance trouble follows, and we have trouble in spades. We need the men, but in looking around at Mass, time and time again I see a disproportionate number of women.

In my family over the years there has been an imbalance. There are many more women than men, mostly because the men die younger than the women. I've watched widows attempt to cope with life after their man is gone. For these ladies things tend to get blown out of proportion. The emotional side overtakes the rational practical side of their personality. The imbalance prompts them to blow things out of proportion, and to gloss over that which should be addressed because they want to avoid confrontation. Women who have lost their men struggle to maintain balance.

I think the same thing is happening in our Church, and the source of this can't be God who calls all of us, man and woman, to come to Christ. We need the guys to come back and help restore the balance. We need the priesthood. Without it our sacramental faith simply falls apart.

When my mother was in a nursing home in the terminal years of Alzheimer's two ladies held a communion service each week. They did their best, but my mother couldn't recognize the Eucharist in the hands of a woman. She determinedly refused to have anything to do with them. In her mind the Eucharist was delivered in the hands of a priest, not a couple of women, and whatever these ladies were doing, it had nothing to do with her Lord.

What is a sick call when a woman makes it? In days gone by the sick call included the opportunity to go to confession, and when death was near, Extreme Unction. That opportunity is denied to our sick and dying because priests no longer make sick calls. A woman cannot bring the sacraments to a nursing home. She may be able to carry a host, but she is a very poor substitute for the real thing.

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