When Pope Francis named the first woman, Francesca Di Giovanni, to serve a senior diplomatic role in the Vatican’s Secretariat of State this week, he was making incremental steps in fully recognizing the competency, expertise and proficiency that women can contribute to the life and governance of a church that is statistically made up of more women than men. Ecclesiologists are always quick to point out that the reality of the “church” is infinitely more than the fraction of 1 percent of celibate males called to serve the community in the ordained priesthood.
To the surprise (and consternation perhaps) of some, the face of the global church in our day is in fact poor, young and female, not to mention increasingly brown.
Part of this current series on those through whom God prepared His People for the coming of the Savior of the world rightly focuses on male prophets and prelates who contributed to this economy of salvation in Israel and beyond. But it’s vital that we realize the role that matriarchs played in this process as well.
Perhaps because of my interest in reading the entire history of salvation through the lenses of migration and “crossing over” from dark to light, from sin to redemption, from transience to permanence, one of my absolute favorite books of the Hebrew Scriptures is that of Ruth.
When Elimelech and Naomi move to Moab, their sons take local wives. Eventually the three men die, and Naomi is left alone with her two daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah (which is the actual spelling of Oprah Winfrey’s birth name). After the events, Naomi decides to uproot once more and migrate to the Jews’ homeland, encouraging the younger women to return to their families. Orpah reluctantly agrees, but Ruth’s courageous assertion remains one of the most memorable lines in all of Scripture: “Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For where you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God, my God.”
Eventually Ruth finds a second husband, Boaz, who is taken with her largely because of the unwavering loyalty and profound kindness she displays toward Naomi. The patriarchal overtones of the protective role Boaz necessarily comes to play in the ancient society notwithstanding, Naomi and Ruth provide inspiring testimony to the courage and fearlessness of women forging close bonds with one another and leaving everything to create successful lives for themselves in the face of tragedy, challenges and alienation.
They are important links in the intergenerational chain through which God continues to work marvels in history, for Ruth’s son Obed is the father of Jesse and the grandfather of King David, from whose stock a shoot will eventually arise, whose branches will bear the fruit of salvation (cf. Isaiah 11:1). That is to say, Jesus’ ancestral lineage is intimately linked to the fearlessness displayed by the Moabite Ruth to leave her homeland in the hopes of a stable and secure life with Naomi. His parents will one day echo their female ancestors’ migratory mettle, when the Holy Family themselves decide to cross the border into Egypt.
A recent book by Anglican priest and author Angus Ritchie closes with a fascinating paradox. The lamentations that oppression and inequality continue to exist or grow more acute in certain situations in our world are not only depressing, but also, in a curious way, oddly consoling. Such despondency “absolves us of power and therefore also of responsibility.” Though not dealing directly with sexism here, there is profound truth that we experience the tendency to throw up our hands and resign ourselves to realities that we know as Christians and rational human beings are unjust. The exclusion and belittling of women in society and in the church are false narratives and distortive corruptions of the Gospel, that willfully turn a blind eye to the actual facts of the tradition which we claim to inherit and to the real situations of the communities in which we today live, work and pray.
We are called to actively strive to change those states of affairs, and no one, from the pope to the personnel department to the playground, is exempt from that charge.
Originally from Collingswood, Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.