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Expanding the Lectionary: A Synodal Dialogue & Discernment

Further, synod participants rightly perceived the relationship between women’s full participation in the Church and the language, images, and narratives that represent women in our liturgical life. Thus, synod participants also proposed changes so that liturgical texts, including the lectionary, include “a range of words, images, and narratives that draw more widely on women’s experience” (Section 9, q).

There is a lot at stake for women and for the Church as a whole in the choice of scripture passages which are heard in the regular Sunday morning assembly. The ways in which we understand and know God are formed within the liturgy of the church. What we pray and sing, as well as the stories we re-tell in public worship form and shape what we believe about God, ourselves, and our relationship to God and to each other.

Thus, we might ask

  • Do the passages selected over the three-year cycle help or hinder us in dealing with what it means for women to have a full and equal role in both church and society?
  • Do the lections chosen praise women for being subordinate or cast them as people who brought sin into the world?
  • Are the stories about women which are in the Bible adequately represented in the lectionary, or does the choice of Sunday readings give the impression that the Bible, and thus our salvation history, is even more male-centered than it actually is?

The insights of synod participants regarding the need to be more inclusive of women’s narratives in our lectionary have been noted by other prominent scholars and officials since the Second Vatican Council. They have raised awareness about the omission of women from the lectionary recognizing that, as Pope Benedict XVI stated, “without the generous contribution of many women, the history of Christianity would have developed very differently,” adding that the “female presence in the sphere of the primitive Church” was in no way “secondary.”

In 1993, the Pontifical Biblical Commission asked that lectionary readings be “more abundant, more varied, and more suitable” and in 2008, the participants at the Synod on the Word, in Proposition XVI asked that “an examination be carried out of the Roman Lectionary to see if the current selection and ordering of the readings is truly adequate to the mission of the church in this historical moment.”

The late Sr. Ruth Fox, OSB, in her respected analysis, “Women in the Bible and the Lectionary” wrote,

A careful analysis of the lectionary reveals that a disproportionate number of passages about the women of the Bible have been omitted. Women’s books, women’s experiences and women’s accomplishments have been largely overlooked in the assigned scripture readings that are being proclaimed in our churches on Sundays and weekdays.

Other prestigious Catholic scholars affirm Sr. Fox’s insights and have written extensively about the “woman gaps” in our Catholic lectionary showing how biblical passages that feature women as prophets, leaders, co-workers, apostles, disciples, deacons, patrons, and ministers in the New Testament and the Hebrew Scriptures are excluded on Sundays and holy days, relegated to weekdays when few will hear the readings, or made optional.

Further, Professor emerita Katherine Tillman of Notre Dame observes that “if women’s stories are omitted from the readings, they are not likely to appear in homilies.”  Thus, Catholic preaching would be enriched by the stories of our foremothers in faith.

While the Church has honored the contributions of women in important ways, there is a lacuna when it comes to proclaiming their stories of faith, courage, and leadership at Mass depriving the faithful of the inspirational narratives of our foremothers in faith whose courage, ministry, sacrifice, and tenacity expanded Christianity throughout the world and shaped our tradition in essential ways. These overlooked stories have the effect of silencing our foremothers in faith whose voices are indispensable to Catholics who carry out the work of the Gospel in a world in need of healing, justice, peace, and love.