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The Quality of Evangelism and Preaching Does Not Depend Upon a Pulpit

August 8, 2019


In the weeks surrounding the feast day of St. Mary Magdalene, the discussion always arises: Since the first person to preach the resurrection of Christ was a female, shouldn’t women be permitted to preach from the pulpit during Mass?

There have been interesting arguments advanced, both pro and con, and they’re worth reading. But upon consideration, I think the discussion fails from the start due to improper framing and a presumed value that might be false on the face of it. It’s worth pondering at a very fundamental level: Are we attaching too much importance to the “power” of preaching from a pulpit? Are we assigning it a measure of value beyond what is there, simply because the pulpit is closed off to female voices?

For that matter, are we indulging in a bit of unintended clericalism when we see pulpit-preaching as something inherently more powerful than anything lay women can already do at this time?

It seems to me that modern women, particularly if they are deeply committed to feminist ideals, too frequently assign ideas of power and influence (and thus “value” and “success”) through masculine standards and measures, which—if you really think about it—means being defeated before one begins, because one has permitted another’s standards to define what it means to be effective or ineffective in one’s pursuits.

In this specific case, it’s worth considering that as long as masculine measures predominate feminine ideas of what “success” and “accomplishment” and “power” look like, women will always be disappointed, will always feel like victory or success in achieving equality has not happened. And they will be right, because they’re trying to build what they want on historically masculine principles and foundations.

This is a bit analogous to Hollywood’s stupid drive to “remake all the good movies, but only with women in the leads!” Some feminists cheer this trend; I strongly decry it for the simple reason that women do not help themselves when they settle for participation in stale or rehashed ideas—things that have already “been done.” Why aren’t they crying out for original material that is as good as (or better than) what came before, rather than being satisfied with mediocre reheats? Why aren’t they writing that newer, better material and producing it themselves? Rehashing old stuff is a battle tactic but—as the box office numbers largely prove—it’s an ineffective one; it may make a few generals feel good, but will never win a war. (Whether some have vested interests in keeping the war alive is a separate question . . .)

Suggesting that “when women can preach from the pulpit, that will be something” seems like a delaying tactic to me, and an excuse for not celebrating what Christian women already do brilliantly—and have since the Magdalene—thus completely selling women short.

Why not celebrate what is being done rather than downplay all that is strong and brilliant and wise and effective within the actual teaching, preaching, and evangelizing that Christian women are already doing at conferences, in podcasts and video presentations, and in books and blogs and on retreats? It seems a huge shame to me to discount or ignore the daily work of so many grace-filled and inspired women simply because they’re not climbing two steps and standing before a microphone in order to address an ever-smaller crowd of listeners.

Seems stupid to me. I’d rather write a piece on the Catholic import of “Eleanor Rigby”—something that over 20,000 people have read (and can access again if they want)—than preach on it to a couple hundred people who will forget it as soon as they leave Mass and pick up their cellphones. For me, that’s a much better measure of my own effectiveness as a Catholic communicator than whether or not the folks at my parish got to hear me speak my deathless pearls from a pulpit.

The faculties to preach belong to members of the Catholic clergy—the homiletics meant to be a continuation of the Liturgy of the Word and the Gospel reading itself—and every recent pope has made it clear that this will not be changing anytime soon. Why wait for a day that may never come to declare the demonstrated power and effectiveness of feminine evangelization and theological thinking, when it is quite worthy of celebrating right now? Women are able to say what they have to say right now, today, within far-reaching platforms that already exist—and there are more now than ever before—and we are perfectly able to create new platforms and define value and effectiveness within them.

I hope we do that, because the novelty of preaching from the pulpit, if it ever happens, will grow old fast. Female preachers will figure out soon enough—like every priest—that people have a five-minute attention span, and that the ideas one works so hard to articulate largely become part of the fug and fog of human distraction, forgotten on the air.

The real preaching, the real pulpit, is the one we carry within us, all day, every day—what Catherine of Siena might have referred to as “an interior pulpit.” It’s how we live our lives that most profoundly preaches the Gospel, not whether or not we’re wearing a robe, or even a habit, or preaching at a pulpit or on a street corner, or through a blog, or at a family dinner, or over cocktails with friends. And this is true for everyone, male or female, lay or clerical.

The real value and quality of evangelism and “preaching” doesn’t begin and end with a step up to the pulpit and a homily. People forget homilies. I’ve heard some great homilies—even taken notes while listening—and in retrospect I can’t tell you, with any real accuracy, what any of them said. I remember the fire alive within the words more than the actual words themselves, and it’s the fire that inspires and remains.

People forget the words, but they don’t forget the fire if they encounter it in us, and that must be a fire that burns continually, unendingly—living and communicated through the priesthood we all carry within us by virtue of our Baptism. The rest is just a mishmash of human contrivance, sincere effort, ego, and the unstoppable effects of everything that has come before us in our lives—natural rather than supernatural—wearying and subject to one’s own doubts or need for approval, and thus a fire too easily tamped down and out.

Why would any woman permit her call to holiness, and even her call to preaching, to live or die on a masculine standard that has absolutely nothing to do with how passionately and effectively she can communicate the truth of Christ crucified and resurrected, and the ineffable encounter with Justice and Mercy to be found within the mystery of that ever-present calling?