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Diversity of Roles and Solidarity in Christ by Helen M. Wright from 'Women Priests'

Diversity of Roles and Solidarity in Christ

by Helen M. Wright

from Women Priests, Arlene Swidler & Leonard Swidler (eds.), Paulist Press 1977, pp. 244-248.
Republished on our website with the necessary permissions

Helen M. Wright, SND, received her Ph. D. from St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto. She was at the time Assistant Professor in the Department of Ecclesiology at the Washington Theological Coalition; formerly she had been Director of the Training Center for Educational and Pastoral Ministry at Emmanuel College

The Eucharist is “the source and center of the Church’s unity,” states the Declaration. In this context, it is ironic that the celebration of the Eucharist should be the moment in the life of the Christian community when the members are assigned roles according to maleness and femaleness. Yet, such is the position of the document when it requires that the priest possess maleness to act truly in thc person of Christ at the celebration. Such an enforced division of roles on the basis of sex fosters a radical duality in the community worship.

The religious experience of women and men does not bear out this dichotomy. Contemporary Christians find the gracious presence of God in mutuality, so that friendship and equality become distinguishing marks of the Church. Even though gender, power and class may be used to distinguish people in society, Christians look for an expression of community that transcends these categories in the Church. The Judaic-Christian tradition offers a firm foundation for this aspiration in the belief that every woman and man is made to God’s image (Gen 1:26; Wis 2:23). In that image they possess a mysterious presence of God, a presence charged with the power of the Creator, a presence that recognizes no dichotomy, that envelops the whole human person.(1)

The communitarian character of God’s people developed and reached its fulfilment in Jesus Christ and his Church. The Pastoral Constitution describes it thus:

For the very Word made flesh willed to share in human partnership.... In his preaching, he clearly taught the people of God to treat one another as brothers and sisters. In his prayers he pleaded that all his disciples might be one.... As the first born of many and through the gift of his Spirit, he founded after his death and resurrection a new community composed of all those who received him in faith and love. This he did through his Body which is the Church. There everyone, as members of one another, would render mutual service according to the different gifts bestowed on each. (Gaudium et Spes, art. 32)

Through the energy of his Spirit, Christ is still at work in the hearts of men and women. The gifts of the Spirit are diverse, but each gift empowers the recipient to continue Christ’s saving action that God’s reign may come on earth as in heaven. The freeing action of the Spirit enables each person to put aside selfish love and to work at bringing all earthly resources to the service of human life (GS, art. 38).

Paul spells out the roles that the early Christians played in this task thus: “And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors, some teachers” (Eph 4:11; Rom 12:6-8). He speaks too of those who would bring gifts of healing and interpretation of tongues (1Cor 12:8-11). According to the New Testament witness, especially in the Pauline epistles, women are associated with the different charismatic ministries (diakonias) of the Church (1Cor 12:4; 1Tim 3:11, cf. 3:8): prophecy, service, probably even apostolate—without nevertheless, being of the Twelve. They had a place in the liturgy at least as prophets (I1Cor 11:4).(2)

Through the course of the centuries, it has come to be recognized that God gathers a people and fashions a Church by grace that is in some way institutionalized so that Christ’s saving action is expressed through institutional roles. At the same time, the Spirit continues to create all sorts of gifts, initiatives and services for the benefit of the building of the kingdom. Theologically and pastorally, this leads to the gradual awareness that the priest is not the sole director of the assembly of the faithful, nor the only member in the community to act in the person of Christ.

The various ways that the People of God strive to take on the role of Christ and to realize his saving action today may be divided into three groupings.(3) First, there is the broad unstructured grouping. If the Church of tomorrow looks for its existence not only within its structures but in the structures of the global society, then the emerging signs of Christ’s action in the first grouping are manifold. Some are occasional, some spontaneous, some conscious, some dictated by circumstances quite beyond the control of the people involved. In the latter category are to be found the millions of “anawin” of the world with whom Jesus identifed in his description of the last judgment. They cut across lines of sex and race. They live out the kenosis of his Incarnation is a special way:

. . . I was hungry and you gave me food.
I was thirsty and you gave me to drink,
I was a stranger and you welcomed me,
I was naked and you clothed me,
I was sick and you visited me,
I was in prison and you came to me.

(Mt 25:35-36)

In this grouping too are all those who strive in one way or another to minister to them as well as those who challenge the structures of society which cause such violations of human life.(4)

Group Two contains analogous ways of taking on the role of Christ, but the activities are more formally related to the Institutional Church. They too flow from the nature of the Church to be a community of faith, of cult, of caritative service and of apostolic witness. But, in contrast to Group One, they are more organized; they are publicly recognized by the official Church implicitly or explicitly. They comprise the liturgists, the rectors, the cantors, the preachers and catechists and teachers, the spiritual directors, the pastoral counselors and others. Pope Paul’s Apostolic Letter Ministeria quaedam opens the way for each episcopal conference to recognize these ways of living out the baptismal commitment in the Christian community as well as to recognize new charisma as they emerge in the power of the Spirit.(5) It is difficult to reconcile this openness with the directive in the same document to restrict to men the institution into the ministry of reader and acolyte. Missing is Paul’s understanding of the fundamental equality of all those who put on Christ in baptism: “There is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:27-29). The question must be raised as to how the Christian community, as community, can join Christ’s prayer to the Father for unity when so many members of that community are excluded from sharing in even the most insignificant roles of leadership in the celebration of the sacrament of unity, the Eucharist.

Women have no official role in the Third Grouping of those who represent Christ in the Church. These are the ordained ministers, the deacons, the presbyters, the bishops. Essentially, they are called to express the leadership role of Christ. Through ordination, they are called, “ordered,” to occupy a certain function, “ordo,” in the community and to serve it. The members of the community ordained to the service of leadership become the converging point of the diverse charisma of Group One and Group Two in the Christian community. In this capacity, they can be called “the presiders over the building up of the Church.” If one remembers that this role is functional, it becomes possible to express at the same time the equal dignity of all charisma, their common responsibility, and the special character of ordained ministry.(6)

According to the Declaration, it is the special kind of presiding at the Eucharistic celebration that prevents women from participating in ordained leadership in the Church. Because the priest acts in persona Christi, “taking the role of Christ to the point of being his very image when he pronounces the words of consecration,” only males may do so.(7) The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church places the action of the priest in a context that allows for a better explication of in persona Christi. It states:

Acting in the person of Christ, he [the priest] brings about the Eucharistic sacrifice and offers it to God in the name of the people. (Lumen Gentium, art. 10)

Here it seems clear that the priest represents Christ as he offered himself to God for the people. So it is Christ, redeemer, representative of the human race who is present here. All peoples were redeemed insofar as Christ offered his total humanity, not just his maleness.(8) Instead of raising the question about a woman’s capacity to express the image of God, the Church needs to ask how an exclusively male-dominated priesthood can be an authentic sign of Christ as he offers his saving action in the sacramental celebration.

The Risen Christ left behind a pledge of hope and strength for the pilgrim People of God in the sacrament of his love, the Eucharist. It was intended to provide a meal where people experienced diversity and solidarity. The gathering of Christians to celebrate the paschal mystery was to be a time when the community would recognize and experience the richness and variety of the gifts of the Spirit in their midst. It was to be a time when all barriers of race and sex and class would break down and allow for the oneness that being “in Christ” meant. But for more and more women, the Eucharistic celebration is becoming an experience of segregation and alienation.


1. In the context of the ancient understanding of “image,” the meaning is not merely metaphorical but is used in a more literal sense; an image is the appearance in relief of the essence of the thing; it renders someone present. G. Kittel, “Image of God,” Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1964), Vol. II, p. 389.

Schnackenburg insists that it is every human person, in his or her entirety, even with the human body in its present state, that is made to God’s image. This contradicts Augustine’s contention that the male alone is the full image of God (De Trinitare, 7.7, 10). Rudolf Sehnackenburg, “Toward a Biblical Image of Man,” in Juan Alffaro et al., Man Before God (New York: Kenedy, 1966), p. 5.

Gaudium et Spes makes it clear that the primary form of interpersonal communion produced by the companionship of man and woman is constitutive of “the image of God” dimension of a Christian anthropology (art. 12).

2. The Report of the Pontifical Biblical Commission on Women in the Bible, 1976, Part II, No. III.

3. Yves Congar, Ministères et communion ecclésiale (Paris: Les Editions du Cerf, 1971), pp. 46-48.

4. “Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel....” The Synodal Document on Justice in the World, 1971, Introduction.

5. “Besides the offices common to the Latin Church, there is nothing to prevent episcopal conferences from requesting others of the Apostolic See, if they judge the establishment of such offices in their region to be necessary or useful because of special reasons. To these, for example, belong the offices of porter, exorcist and catechist, as well as other offices to be conferred upon those who are dedicated to works of charity, where this service has not been given to deacons.” Apostolic Letter, Ministeria quaedam, 1973.

6. Hervé Legrand, O.P., “Ministries: Main Lines of Research in Catholic Theology,” Pro Mundi Vita, No. 50, 1974, p.11.

7. St. Thomas qualified the notion that the priest is “the very image of Christ”: “. . . the priest also bears Christ’s image in whose person and by whose power he pronounces thc words of consecration. And so, in a measure, the priest and the victim are one.” Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Q.83, Art 1, Ad 3. In the Declaration, this citation from the Summa omits the qualifying statement that I have underscored.

8. If one understands “person of Christ” as it was defined at Chalcedon the insistence on encompassing the maleness of Christ into it seems quite irrelevant. As Rosemary Ruether points out: “Traditional Chalcedonian orthodoxy denied to Jesus a ‘human person,’ making his person that of the divine Logos.” Rosemary Ruether, “Male Clericalism and the Dread of Women,” The Ecumenist, No. 11 (July-August, 1973), p. 65.

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