Women priests and desert mothers | Inquirer Opinion
Human Face

Women priests and desert mothers

/ 05:22 AM March 28, 2019

In the news recently was the call of a leading Catholic nun in Germany for the ordination of women into the priesthood, a call that is not new but still unheeded.

Christa Pongratz-Lippitt of La Croix International wrote about Sister Ruth Schönenberger, who was quoted as saying: “It is surely only natural for women to be priests and I cannot understand the reasons given as to why not.”


In an interview with katholisch.de, the official website of the German Catholic Church, she said, “I am surprised that the presence of Christ has been reduced to the male sex. Here in Tutzing, we, too, have excellently qualified women theologians. The only thing they lack is ordination—nothing else.”

Schönenberger is the prioress of the Missionary Benedictine Sisters of Tutzing in Bavaria. The nuns of this international Benedictine congregation run St. Scholastica’s College in Manila (where my mother, three aunts, cousins and I studied) and a dozen or so ministries in the Philippines. My batch had several German nuns as teachers —  Sister Ehrentrudis Eichinger, Sister Ma. Bruno Allmang and Sister Odiliana Rohrwasser. Sister Ma. Clemens Schwarzmaier was our librarian. It was boot camp, no doubt, that is why many of us are walking “OCs” (which also means overcompassionate, because we had to get ourselves muddied in depressed areas).


Schönenberger said: “Our present image/concept of the priesthood urgently needs to be fundamentally revised and I am genuinely surprised that priests themselves don’t protest more against present developments since these involve them. The extent to which this power imbalance exists the world over is truly alarming and so is the fact that we have not learned to grapple with it more effectively.”

“Gender equality,” the prioress said, is an important issue to be discussed and prayed for. Her community in Germany supports the initiative of the Swiss Benedictines of the same congregation for prayers for gender equality. I would not be surprised if their Philippine counterparts are doing this already.

While on this issue, I share insights from “The Forgotten Desert Mothers: Sayings, Lives and Stories of Early Christian Women” by Laura Swan, prioress of a Benedictine monastery in the Pacific Northwest.

Women’s history, Swan complains, has often been relegated to the shadow world, felt but not seen: “Many of our church fathers became prominent because of women. Many of these fathers were educated and supported by strong women, and some are even credited with founding movements that were actually begun by the women in their lives.”

Here’s one from a long list: Melania the Elder of Jerusalem influenced a circle of men whose writings would highly influence Christian theology. Of her was written: “A woman of more elevated rank, she loftily cast herself down to a humble way of life, so that as a strong member of the weak sex she might censure indolent men, so that as a rich person appropriating poverty, and as a noble person adopting humility, she might confound people of both sexes.”

Swan’s book was the fruit of graduate research in theology and spirituality. “(When) I began to pursue and collect traces of these women’s stories, it often felt like the sleuthing work of Sister Frevisse or Brother Cadfael in the medieval whodunits I enjoy. I found myself tracking down clues, following strands of evidence, and reading the shadow of texts to find these women.”

As Christianity moved into the mainstream when it became the official religion of the Roman Empire, many women were drawn to the desert and monasteries, because these offered them a greater sense of physical and spiritual autonomy.


The goal of the desert, says Swan, was apatheia, “a mature mindfulness, a grounded sensitivity, and a keen attention to one’s inner world as well as to the world in which one has journeyed… Apatheia is nourished by simplicity grounded in abundance of the soul.”

March being Women’s Month, it behooves us to reflect on the contribution of Christian women of ancient times and of the modern world.

My thanks to the many who came on Saturday to the launching of “Press Freedom Under Siege: Reportage that Challenged the Marcos Dictatorship” (University of the Philippines Press). For inquiries: [email protected], or 9284391 local 116.

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