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Women, Sigmund Freud, Professor Higgins,  and… St. Vincent de Paul?

That’s quite a combination to connect! But bear with me.

These figures literally span centuries. What they all have in common is questions about women.

Sigmund Freud has long been associated with the question “What does a woman want?” One can almost hear the exasperation. A century later we hear another version. “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” asked Professor Henry Higgins in the classic Hollywood movie “My Fair Lady.” Today women themselves ask a whole series of other questions.

These questions have been asked for centuries … sometimes implicit in simple one-word exasperated exclamations – Women! … or Men!

In Christian circles today so many questions are being asked about women and ministry.

St. Vincent de Paul in the 1600’s

Over 400 years ago St. Vincent asked a variation of contemporary questions.

He asked: “Why can’t women participate actively in carrying out the mission of the Church?” His answer was not theoretical but practical.

Facing a shortage of well-formed clergy, France was in many ways a “mission” country in the 17th century. St. Vincent clearly broke new ground especially with regard to the role of women. He saw their willingness to serve and effectiveness.

Early on in his ministry, it is clear that his pastoral plan in everyt place he served involved organizing the Ladies of Charity. The successors to these “Confraternities” serve today as the oldest still-functioning group of laywomen serving in the church. Today there are more than 100,000 members in 53 countries.

With the foundation of the Daughters of Charity, he pushed the envelope making it possible, for the first time, for women to dedicate their lives to serving the poor outside the confines of a monastery.

Vincent was a man of action in following Christ the Evangelizer of the Poor. He realized that women were an untapped resource for mission in his day.

St. Vincent de Paul Parish in the year 2020

Fast forward! Recently I read A day in the life of a lay Catholic woman who runs a parish | America Magazine. Something immediately caught my eye.

It began…

With a growing shortage of priests, some Catholic parishes are thinking creatively about alternative models of pastoral ministry. Meet Elizabeth Simcoe, a lay woman appointed by her bishop to run St. Vincent de Paul parish in Albany, NY. It’s a demanding job that requires strong leadership and the ability to collaborate and listen. It’s about being “pastoral” which isn’t an attitude reserved only for ordained priests.

How apt that it was a parish named after St. Vincent de Paul!

Elizabeth Simcoe is called the “Parish Life Director” – a lay title assigned to certain administrators within the United States Catholic Church. They are professional ministers, appointed by bishops, and act as the leadership of a parish, while a priest is assigned to celebrate the sacraments. They have not taken priestly vows and may be married with children.

She stands in a tradition going back 2000 years. When St. Paul traveled around the Mediterranean basin establishing faith communities—churches—he entrusted them to various lay leaders: Nympha, Stephanus, Aquila and Priscilla, for example. The notion of the priesthood as we know it today had not yet developed.

With ever-declining numbers of ordained clergy to lead parishes, is it possible that the Holy Spirit is inviting the church to expand the areas of ministry of those who belong to the priesthood of the baptized?

What do you think?

What would the apostle Paul think?

For a more detailed history of this development read Parish Life History on the Los Angeles Diocesan website.

Click below for an audio version of this Vincentian Mindwalk.

Women, Freud, Prof. Higgins, St. Vincent
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