It is no great secret that the official Calendar of Saints is marked by a numerical imbalance regarding the women and men who have come to be recognized as saints. Simply put, the Roman Catholic sanctoral cycle includes far more men than women and thus seems to privilege male versions of the holy life. The same imbalance marks other forms of devotion to the saints (e.g., the Litany of Saints). Moreover, the liturgical reforms of Vatican II have been quite ambiguous when it comes to women saints. The reform of the sanctoral calendar affected women saints disproportionally as the rule of historicity came to be applied to hagiographic narratives. Women’s histories, after all, are generally less well documented than those of men. The demise of popular devotions after Vatican II further reduced the presence and appeal of women saints in the lived lives of the faithful, as revised hymnals and prayer books eliminated songs and devotions to the saints in significant numbers. And the names of the women found in the Roman Canon—Felicity, Perpetua, Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, Cecilia, and Anastasia—have come to be rarely heard in the liturgical assembly.
So much for the numerical asymmetry in the veneration of saints. A similar asymmetry marks the ranking of days in the sanctoral cycle, if one brackets out liturgical devotion to Mary the Mother of God. The highest rank in the liturgical calendar that any woman (other than Mary) has achieved is that of memorial; there are no feasts or solemnities associated with a female saint. At stake here is not only the ranking, but also the richness or poverty of euchological and lectionary texts related to the different ranks. Moreover, there are the uneven descriptors for saints in the liturgical calendar. The prevalence of the descriptor “virgin” for women and its lack as a descriptor for men are a case in point. The liturgical calendar, to put it sharply, regularly seems to tie female sanctity to an “intact” virginal female body.
So much for some of the problems. Enter the Solemnity of All Saints. IF this liturgical feast calls attention to all the saints, especially those otherwise not named and remembered in the church’s calendar, does it not stand to reason that this feast is gender-imbalanced in the other direction from the official calendar? Concretely: Because more women than men are left out of the official calendar, All Saints will have to include more women than men, more “ordinary” women than “virgins,” more women who lived the Gospel on the margins of ecclesial visibility than powerful abbesses and monastic reformers, more mothers at prayer than those who birthed famous men (St. Monica is primarily remembered as the “mother of St. Augustine”).
This November 1, then, I will celebrate All Saints as a Solemnity especially of unnamed, unrecognized, forgotten or unknown holy women. And I will rejoice in the large number of these female saints.