The Liturgical Office of Evangelist – a Proposal Inspired by the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene

Calls for the admission of women to ordained offices in the Catholic Church are becoming louder than ever, and all arguments are on the table. At the same time, demands and protests usually are addressed to the wrong people, since neither parish priests nor bishops nor even bishops’ conferences have the authority to change the rules concerning ordained offices. The pope seems to be not (yet?) willing to accede to such requests, and all the arguments for the male-only ordained office are also on the table.

In this context I would like to make a proposal. It clearly falls short of the requests mentioned above, but it is designed to make use of the holistic power of liturgical symbolism to break through the current impasse. (I have dealt with more canonical matters some months ago; this proposal here only deals with liturgy.)

The proposal should be viable

  • without risking a schism based on different opinions on Catholic theological anthropology;
  • without any need to change the teaching on ordained offices of the Second Vatican Council; and
  • without causing difficulties in ecumenical dialogues, which are important to the Catholic Church, with churches that are founded primarily in patristic sources and leave less room for contemporary philosophical worldviews.

I propose that the Roman Catholic Church create an office of “Evangelist” strictly reserved to women, grounded in the biblical role of Mary Magdalene on Easter morning according to Matthew 28:1–8, Mark 16:9–10, and John 20:1–18.

  • The proclaiming of the Gospel in the Eucharist should be assigned to the evangelist: this is the key place where the Church actuates its paschal message as the foundation of Christianity.
  • No Eucharist should be celebrated without an evangelist.
  • Evangelists trained in homiletics – at least with the same formation as permanent deacons – should be permitted to preach the homily in the Eucharist.

If this suggestions were adopted, it would follow that

  • bishops and (parish) priests would then have the task of building up a group of evangelists and jointly developing a culture for the treatment of the Bible and the Word of God in the liturgy;
  • bishops and priests would no longer have the opportunity to celebrate their “personal” Mass without having concord with an evangelist (somewhat similar to Isidore of Seville’s statement that no priest can celebrate Mass without a deacon);
  • deacons would hand over their most prominent vocal role to the evangelist. (The idea of the evangelist would lapse if the Catholic Church [re-]introduced the female diaconate; in that case the offices of deacon and evangelist would merge into that reordered diaconate.)

All men – ordained and non-ordained – would have to accept that there is a specific liturgical role to which they may not be assigned, even when they are best-skilled, best-trained, and best-intentioned.

Such a pattern could have effects, hopefully salutary, on the way men and women, ordained and non-ordained, treat each other. It would admittedly rely upon a model of well-defined sexes, but after all, any attempt to draw inspiration for women from the biblical Mary Magdalene presupposes a male-female binary. It would imply a reciprocal relation of men and women to each other within the liturgy – a relation that is currently only one-way.

Pope Francis elevated the memorial of Mary Magdalene to the rank of feast in 2016. I would further suggest elevating this feast of the apostola apostolorum to the rank of solemnity. Thus it would be equal to Peter and Paul – until now, the only solemnity of apostles in the Roman Catholic calendar.

30 comments

  1. This is a really thought-provoking idea, and quite compelling in many ways.
    Historically, I think, there might even be tiny shreds of precedent: the Arabic version of the Canones Apostolorum seems to know women lectors (as well as women deacons; can. 53? — I am not double-checking the references here, just jotting down what came to mind). And I think Syriac monastic communities of women also knew diaconal abbesses who read the epistle and gospel, albeit in non-eucharistic liturgies.
    Do send the proposal to Pope Francis 🙂

  2. “No Eucharist should be celebrated without an evangelist.”

    Good luck with that. It’s hard enough in many places to find enough priests to celebrate parish masses. To throw into the equation another required minister, who will probably be similarly imbalanced geographically, would (with mathematical certainty) result in a drastic reduction in the number of masses that can be said, with rural areas being the most affected. If the idea is to make the mass more accessible and inclusive, with all due respect this proposal is absurdly counterproductive.

    That this idea seems aimed at succeeding and elevating the liturgical role of the diaconate (and making them canonically indispensable) leads me to wonder if this is not so much a debate about gender, but status. As I frequently remind my servers and lectors, liturgical ministry is NEVER about status; everything we do is in service of the Lord, not us. It’s laudable that we encourage people to bring their God-given gifts to the Holy Sacrifice, and to make space for that, but we need to place them in a context apart from secular notions of power, status, and significance. That I can’t preside or preach at mass doesn’t make me less important or than our priest, in the same way the Mary Magdalene didn’t contribute less to the early Church than the Apostles. We’re just called to serve the Lord in a different way.

    1. I actually do not see the problem you identify at the beginning: most congregations are, numerically, overwhelmingly female. That is to say: If we can find a priest, a woman can be found not too far away (and I am not thinking of his mother here!). In fact, in each of the congregations I have been a part of — and that crossing continents, countries, languages, and other divides — several women immediately come to mind who would be utterly compelling in this role.

      1. I don’t think the author is suggesting that “any” woman in the pews could spontaneously take up this role at mass (as with current deacons), since he says in his second point:

        “Evangelists [would be] trained in homiletics – at least with the same formation as permanent deacons – [and] should be permitted to preach the homily in the Eucharist.”

        Requiring these new Evangelists to complete several years of seminary theological schooling in addition to extensive pastoral formation (as permanent deacons currently do), is all right and well IMHO, but it would greatly reduce the number of women who would pursue it, if the small number of permanent deacons relative to priests is any comparison. What happens if the priest is there but the Evangelist caught the flu or is simply unavailable? Would mass be canceled for what are pretty typical circumstances in the vast majority of parishes today? What about male monastic communities? IMHO it would create a lot more trouble than its worth in the name of trying to address a perceived imbalance in status (to reference my initial second point), and us laypeople will be the ones on the short end of the sacramental stick. Personally, I think our time would be much better spent improving liturgical formation for all involved (priests included), and one that focuses first and foremost on humble service to the Lord.

      2. Patrick,

        I don’t think you have any idea just how many women have gone through the same theology, etc, courses (including homiletics) as men have, alongside those men, the difference being that the men were then ordained whereas the women weren’t (although some have come from other Churches and went on to ordination there). To say that women are not fit to be evangelists because of lack of training, or that only a few women would follow the courses, is simply incorrect. They have been following those courses already, and want to continue to do so because they recognize the need for proper formation for ministry, apart from anything else.

        We already have a substantial body of lay women with theology degrees, etc, working in parishes and institutions — more lay women than lay men, in fact. Now is the time to capitalize on that.

      3. Patrick, I’m with Teresa here. Utterly compelling, is right. There is a much greater pool of women than men for every ministry in the church, and this would be no exception.

        Also, Patrick, I must offer a corrective to your reading of the post. Liborius did not say that every woman had to be trained in homiletics before she could serve as an Evangelist. What he said is that those who are trained in homiletics should also be allowed to preach. Even today, (male) deacons are not always given faculties to preach. The same would be true of the ministry of Evangelist.

        An Evangelist without preparation for preaching would only read the gospel. It would not be hard to find suitable candidates.

        Finally, Paul makes a good point about women already having suitable preparation and theological education. Far more women have sought out theological studies and acquired theological competence than you might think. If you add up all the lay ministry course hours that lay ecclesial ministers take, the hours that religious educators and catechists put in to acquire certification, the number of classes deacons’ wives attend, and the extensive background in religious studies possessed by women religious, you have a very large base upon which to draw. As with any ministry, there is an element of discernment, but there is no lack of candidates.

      4. Paul and Rita, I think it’s perfectly reasonable to expect (as the author’s proposal does) that these liturgical evangelists have the formation on par of that of permanent deacons in the real world. I have never doubted that many women currently do as you both note (I personally know many). But again, that doesn’t mean all or even most of them would be willing to discern this entirely new ecclesiastical vocation (many laymen in the real world have also taken theological and pastoral coursework but never became deacons). Again, and I’m really beating a dead horse now, to make this a required liturgical ministry at every mass will absolutely create barriers to its access, because two specific mutually-exclusive canonical ministries would be required to celebrate it where you previously just needed one. It would have a similar effect as canonically requiring a sacred musician or an actual deacon to celebrate a licit mass. It is a mathematical certainty that some parish communities, likely many, could not produce both an available priest and evangelist, and sacraments would be cancelled as a result.

      5. Sorry, Patrick. Read the post again. It does NOT expect the same preparation, except if the faculties to preach are included.

        You can object to this idea on a number of grounds. But the claim that this would reduce the number of celebrations of the Eucharist is not one of them.

      6. Rita, thank you for the clarification on the required formation program, but we still run into the same issue where we’re arbitrarily requiring an additional ministry to licitly celebrate a mass, however low the entry point may be. Tollways will inevitably produce less traffic than if the tolls weren’t there, even when the toll is just $0.10. There will inevitably be situations in which a qualified woman evangelist (even a non-preaching one) will not be present at every mass that is offered, and in my experience this isn’t nearly as unconscionable as you may believe (even beyond male monastic communities and that odd weekday morning mass).

        I’m one of the sacristans at my large parish and I can cite multiple examples within the past year where we were missing an entire roster of lectors, servers, or ushers for otherwise well attended masses where no qualified substitutes were present (wherein I step in last minute), and mine isn’t the only parish where I’ve experienced this. To suggest with any degree of certainty that these situations would be virtually impossible under Dr. Lumma’s proposal is not reassuring to me, because as someone whose day job is as a financial analyst at a bank, the literal odds are strongly not in your favor.

      7. Thank you, Patrick. Now I understand what you are concerned about. You are right in that it would require a commitment to teamwork that is not in place at present. A cultural shift, with practical consequences.

        I believe these challenges are related. No one feels necessary to the carrying out of ministries in the liturgy, so no one shows up.

  3. Before one starts suggesting 22 July ought to be a solemnity,might be better instead to focus on restoring the “lost” women of 22 July: Mary of Bethany and the Sinful Woman.

    The EF honors all these women in accord with the understanding that all 3 were 1 woman; the texts of the liturgy refer to episodes connected to all 3 women.

    Historical-critical analysis aside, the OF calendar explicitly honors only 1 of the women, relegating Mary of Bethany and the Sinful Woman to liturgical oblivion. Martha, of course, remains on the “octave” of her once upon a time sister…no room for the sister who “chose the better part.”

    1. The 2004 Roman Martyrology assigns a commemoration of Lazarus and Mary of Bethany to July 29 alongside the the Memorial of Martha. I think one of the simplest ways address with difference in liturgical rank between the siblings would be to upgrade Lazarus and Mary alongside Martha so that it would be the Memorial of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus of Bethany on July 29.

      1. I agree. And they should be classed as Disciples of the Lord. (Friends of the Lord would be even better, but I suspect hierarchs might have indigestion with that as a class of sainthood, even if the very heart of sainthood is being a friend of God. But I digress…)

    2. Mary of Bethany is named only in John’s gospel. Remembering her liturgically would probably displace her alt, the unnamed woman in Bethany about whom Jesus says “What she has done will be told wherever in all the world the gospel is proclaimed” according to Mark and Matthew. The 3 versions probably describe the same woman, but “Mary of Bethany” will likely lead everyone to John’s fuller account of her and away from the prophecy of Jesus.

      I guess I would prefer The Anointing Woman (john identifies her as Mary whose siblings are Martha and Lazarus). That does not come off the tongue too easily, but it puts the emphasis on what she did, which is what we are supposed to tell.

      Maybe the Christening Woman?

  4. The ordination of deacons makes clear that it is their duty to proclaim the gospel – I doubt that this duty can be taken away from the deacons who have already been ordained.

    1. Funny how it only becomes a worry about “turning people into clerics” when women are involved. This proposal does not require ordination; these ministers would not become part of the clerical state.

      Do you object to the (male) diaconate? That actually turns a lot of folks (i.e. laymen) into clerics, quite officially. They are in the clerical state. Somehow I don’t ever hear a murmur about that…

      1. With all due respect, I do not understand. The diaconate “turns laymen into clerics” because it is the first degree of the Sacrament of Holy Orders, i.e. ordination. I think Mr Johnson’s original comment had to do with the tendency to “clericalize the laity”, which even the Holy Father has denounced.

      2. There is something demeaning about the term “mini-clerics.” Why is reading the gospel an act of clericalism? Why isn’t it a ministry?

        Pope Francis had no problem with a woman reading the gospel at the recent penitential service held with bishops from all over the world.

      3. Yes I do have the same view about the permanent diaconate. If people show signs of leadership and service in their parish I can see no reason they should not be encouraged to continue as lay folk. To my mind it diminishes the lay vocation to clericalise them as though that in itself adds something extra to what they are already doing.
        Yes I realise there is a liturgical dimension, but shouldn’t that be secondary to diakonia? And in areas where there is a severe shortage of priests aren’t those roles covered by catechists who remain lay?
        I could do without your implication that I have issues surrounding women, to be honest. It gave me a grumpy couple of hours.

      4. Alan, thank you for your response. I understand the concern and I am sorry for the misunderstanding.

        It has been my experience, sadly, that the “don’t clericalize the laity” argument is often used to quash women’s aspirations to service by calling into question their motives and suspecting them of being on a power trip. Whereas men are considered admirable when they profess a call to ministry.

        How many times when a young man says he feels called to priesthood, for instance, does a chorus instantly arise saying: “You only want power! You are seeking status!” Never. Yet this accusation is hurled against women all the time — even if they want some rather neutral position. It’s very unfair. I accept that this was not what you meant, but this is how the argument is used not infrequently.

      5. Rita – apology accepted. I can understand where you are coming from. And I must admit that a part of my thinking comes from mixed experiences with permanent deacons.

  5. at this point, I would really love to hear from more women on this topic — so far (having read somewhat quickly, and assumed gender identities), the two women bloggers — both with theology degrees — find this proposal intriguing; and by that (speaking for myself here) think this is a thought-experiment worth pondering: if we don’t dare to explore ways of thinking in new and fresh ways, and thereby open space in our heads, things will remain the same much longer than they need to.
    This said, I would love to hear from more women on this. Come on, readers of this blog who are gendered female, weigh in! In any direction you want — I am not clamoring for support for Rita and myself here…

    1. Theresa – in reply to your plea for more female commentators, here I am (for the record, I also have a theology degree). Just a thought – so far I have not seen any comments on the official guidelines that state that the presiding cleric should be the one to give the homily unless there is good reason for a deacon to do so instead. The deacon reads the gospel but does not automatically give the sermon. I realise that many deacons do preach regularly but this is not strictly correct practice. A lay speaker may only speak after the homily, preferably at the end of Mass. So we are a long way away from women reading the gospel and giving the homily.

      1. Thank you fo posting, Jane. Yes, we are a long way from this, as you rightly note. I realize that — since I don’t have any officially-sanctioned pastoral role and responsibility — my main thought when easing this initial post by Liborius didn’t immediately turn to all the practicalities but engaged this as a thought-experiment, a way to think ages and into the future… I continue to think that there is much here to ponder. But having just lived through the worst heat wave ever in Europe, I also suspect that we will have made this planet uninhabitable way sooner (namely, in the next 50 years!) than we solve any of these issues of liturgical presiding…

  6. Thanks to all for your thoughts on my post! There are some aspects I would like to add to the discussion and maybe to clarify some things that could be misunderstood:

    I have no precise “training program” for evangelists in mind. I imagine women with theology degrees, with certain vocal and rhetorical skills, working full-time or part-time in pastoral care, religious women (just as examples) as potential “evangelists with permission to preach”; I think that group of women should come to one’s mind as the first candidates for female deaconate (if there was a female deaconate). The second group of “evangelists without permission to preach” might be skilled readers or singers, members of parish councils, voluntary helpers in all aspects of parish work. In any parish we find women of both groups, and we also find men of both groups too, but it seems that there are more women then men in any of those groups in any parish. So creating a stable group of evangelists should be no serious problem.

    For centuries, priests were not permitted to say Mass without an altar boy, and according to Vatican II the model of Mass (yes, it is permitted to say Mass alone, but this is not the theological model of Mass) assumes a group of different offices among which the presider who has to be a bishop or priest is only one (deacon, reader, choir, cantor, altar servers, etc.). Hence the idea that there must always be a second office (evangelist) in order to celebrate Mass is not so new, what is new is that I propose that that office should be restricted to women.

    […continuing]

  7. [Part 2]

    I do not see clericalism in my idea. “Clericalism” has become a thought-terminating cliché in Catholic debates, and I still do not exactly understand what it means. Catholic rules restrict certain liturgical roles to bishops, priests, and deacons, but a lot of those rules have been changed in the past and can be changed in the future. As long as an office is not restricted to ordained, anyone can be assigned to that office (under whatever condition and by whatever procedure). And we already have liturgical offices that are explicitly restricted to laypersons.

    I also see the point that the proclamation of the Gospel has been (and still is) a core office of deacons in many traditions. But surprisingly Vatican II did not argue with the proclamation of the Gospel when it reinstalled the permanent deaconate (see Lumen Gentium), and even the ordination rite of deacons does not focus on that point. But as I say in my post: If we had the female deaconate, there would be no reason to separate the liturgical proclamation of the Gospel from the office of the deacon.

    I agree to Rita that I sense a certain pressure on women in the church who always have to justify themselves when they act in a public liturgical role. I am convinced that if the Church sticks to the male-only ordination, it would be a very healing experience if men could not celebrate Mass without women – even if the roles of men and women would remain different, they would depend on each other.

    Finally: All those thoughts depend on (theological) anthropology. My post presumes that it is well-grounded to assign different roles in the “sacred game” of liturgy. But there are good reasons to make different presumptions, and I am aware that my proposal fall far short in that case.

  8. And with Teresa I would also be grateful for more female voices on this topic! I have little time for the internet in the next days, hence I will probably not find time to reply immediately, but I will follow the discussion.

    And please remain true to my INTROITUS series; I have already prepared and scheduled the posts for the next Sundays and feast days!

  9. Unless the rules were changed to reinstate different levels of solemnity (low, high, solemn) with the Evangelist being only required for a Solemn High Mass the way a deacon and subdeacon is required in the EF, I would not make the presence of an evangelist a requirement to have the Mass. If priests may not celebrate a private Mass without an Evangelist, would the rule also apply to weekday Masses? I’ve been to plenty of OF Masses on weekdays in smaller churches where a server or reader was not available – despite these roles being open to any layperson and thus having the largest pool to draw from. Would churches stop having weekday Masses? What if an Evangelist is unavailable for a funeral? I also found this very off-putting :”All men – ordained and non-ordained – would have to accept that there is a specific liturgical role to which they may not be assigned, even when they are best-skilled, best-trained, and best-intentioned.” This makes the role sound more like tit-for-tat rather than something that really honors the talents of women – a form of “see how you like it.” Good luck getting people on board with that attitude. Whatever good intentions you may have will be glossed over.

  10. “Good luck getting people on board with that attitude. ”

    You mean, subjecting men in one small instance to having their roles constrained simply because of their gender? Too outrageous for consideration? Off putting?

    Yes, it is! And far more so for women in the Church. Perhaps this is a major reason why Churches are having a hard time getting people on board–“that attitude” towards women.

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