Women’s role in the life of faith

It’s not difficult to see. Walk into a religious education programme in the US today and you’ll see that a large number of catechists are women.

Jun 26, 2015

By Daniel S. Mulhall
It’s not difficult to see. Walk into a religious education programme in the US today and you’ll see that a large number of catechists are women. Some are the mothers of the children who are in the programme but others may not have children of their own and yet, they have been performing the role for many, many years.

To hear of someone serving as a catechist for 20 to 40 years is not unusual. They stay for so long because they love to share their faith with others.

While the number of women involved as catechists today seems high, women have always played a significant role in handing on faith to children. Recent research helps us to understand why this is so.

Thanks to research conducted by the Pew Research Centre’s Religion and Public Life Project, and the National Study of Youth and Religion, we now have statistical data that highlight the important roles parents play in the faith formation of their children.

To wit, children are much more likely to have faith when their parents pray with them, and for them, on a regular basis, and they are even more likely to have faith when their parents share with them personal stories of faith.

Mothers, it seems, are far more likely to pray with their children and talk with them about faith than fathers. Why this happens has not been clearly determined. Perhaps it is because women historically have been tasked with raising children, so if they modelled certain practices of faith, the rest of the clan followed.

This does not in any way de-emphasize the role of men as models of faith. In fact, the research reveals that when fathers are actively involved in praying and sharing faith with their children, their children are more likely to have faith than if only the mother is involved.

Another prominent role that women play in handing on the faith is that of faithful witnesses. The National Study of Youth and Religion says it has found a correlation between the number of faithful role models (witnesses) young people have in their lives and their likelihood of having faith. Thus, the more adult witnesses young people have, the greater their chances are of having faith.

In her book, Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church, author Kenda Creasy Dean, a Methodist pastor and professor of youth, church and culture at Princeton Theological Seminary, notes the importance of role models when it comes to faith.

Dean says that we learn how to live our faith by watching how faithful adults live theirs. Just as we learn to speak a language by hearing and speaking it on a regular basis, we learn to live as people of faith by watching how others live and then imitating them. Eventually, we make the faith our own and live it our way, but it starts through imitation.

The Bible and Church history are filled with stories of women who are remembered because of the great witness they have given to their faith. For example, in the Book of Ruth, we read about the importance of faithfulness, of how Ruth leaves her homeland so that she may stay near to her mother-in-law.

Ruth abandons all she had known in order to keep her promise. As her reward, she finds happiness and becomes an ancestor of the great King David. Without her, David never exists.

In addition to Mary, the mother of Jesus, whom the Church names as the first disciple, other women played significant roles in spreading the faith in the early Church. After his resurrection, Jesus first appears to Mary Magdalene, who became the first evangelist when she ran back to the apostles and reported what she had experienced.

In Acts 9:36, we read of Tabitha (also known as Dorcas) who was “completely occupied with good deeds and almsgiving.”

Think of all the women who have been declared saints during the last 2,000 years: St. Catherine of Siena was declared a doctor of the Church because, by her dedication and commitment to the faith, she brought healing to a splintered Church.

While we honour the saints for their unflinching witness, it is important that we don’t forget the millions upon millions of women who have given faithful witness to their faith over the centuries, whether as wives and mothers, or committed to religious life. The world would have been a much sadder and poorer place without them.

Women today continue to serve as models of faith. They continue to hand on the faith to a new generation through prayer and witness, and giving their lives for their communities.

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