All Saints — a Solemnity of Women?

It is no great secret that the official Calendar of Saints is marked by a numerical imbalance regarding the women and men who have come to be recognized as saints. Simply put, the Roman Catholic sanctoral cycle includes far more men than women and thus seems to privilege male versions of the holy life. The same imbalance marks other forms of devotion to the saints (e.g., the Litany of Saints). Moreover, the liturgical reforms of Vatican II have been quite ambiguous when it comes to women saints. The reform of the sanctoral calendar affected women saints disproportionally as the rule of historicity came to be applied to hagiographic narratives. Women’s histories, after all, are generally less well documented than those of men. The demise of popular devotions after Vatican II further reduced the presence and appeal of women saints in the lived lives of the faithful, as revised hymnals and prayer books eliminated songs and devotions to the saints in significant numbers. And the names of the women found in the Roman Canon—Felicity, Perpetua, Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, Cecilia, and Anastasia—have come to be rarely heard in the liturgical assembly.

So much for the numerical asymmetry in the veneration of saints. A similar asymmetry marks the ranking of days in the sanctoral cycle, if one brackets out liturgical devotion to Mary the Mother of God. The highest rank in the liturgical calendar that any woman (other than Mary) has achieved is that of memorial; there are no feasts or solemnities associated with a female saint. At stake here is not only the ranking, but also the richness or poverty of euchological and lectionary texts related to the different ranks. Moreover, there are the uneven descriptors for saints in the liturgical calendar. The prevalence of the descriptor “virgin” for women and its lack as a descriptor for men are a case in point. The liturgical calendar, to put it sharply, regularly seems to tie female sanctity to an “intact” virginal female body.

So much for some of the problems. Enter the Solemnity of All Saints. IF this liturgical feast calls attention to all the saints, especially those otherwise not named and remembered in the church’s calendar, does it not stand to reason that this feast is gender-imbalanced in the other direction from the official calendar? Concretely: Because more women than men are left out of the official calendar, All Saints will have to include more women than men, more “ordinary” women than “virgins,” more women who lived the Gospel on the margins of ecclesial visibility than powerful abbesses and monastic reformers, more mothers at prayer than those who birthed famous men (St. Monica is primarily remembered as the “mother of St. Augustine”).

This November 1, then, I will celebrate All Saints as a Solemnity especially of unnamed, unrecognized, forgotten or unknown holy women. And I will rejoice in the large number of these female saints.







15 responses to “All Saints — a Solemnity of Women?”

  1. Christopher Douglas Avatar
    Christopher Douglas

    Interesting observations.

    Let’s remember St. Catherine who told the Pope what he lacked and where to go. (a spine; back to Rome) (“Speaking the truth to power”??? She may be an early example of it.)

  2. Cody Maynus Avatar
    Cody Maynus

    All you holy women pray for us.

  3. Karl Liam Saur Avatar
    Karl Liam Saur

    One group of exceptions on the memorial issue: the memorials of local or order patronesses and titulars and dedications can rank as solemnities and feasts, according to the instructions of the universal calendar. Moreover, such solemnities can be transferred to be celebrated on Sundays of Ordinary Time, which only rank equivalent to feasts. Far too many parishes, for example, make use of this privilege. Parish and diocesan patronal, titular and dedicatory solemnities should be more vigorously celebrated.

  4. Todd Flowerday Avatar

    A few additions:

    I believe the ratio in the Roman Martyrology is eight to one.

    Is it so hard to imagine that parents were more quick to abandon saints names for their girls than their boys?

    Thanks, Teresa for pointing out the ranking of saint feasts. We might have to edit out the Twelve along with the BVM to get a fair picture of the level of feasts. But as a corrective, July 22 should surely be on the same level as the feasts of apostles.

    And lastly, parishes that do have a woman patron should know the day of their name-saint is indeed a feast.

    But you are right in all your premises here; especially post-conciliar revision of the calendar–that had not occurred to me.

    1. Karl Liam Saur Avatar
      Karl Liam Saur

      Proper solemnities:

      a. Solemnity of the principal patron of the place, that is, the city or state.

      b. Solemnity of the dedication of a particular church and the anniversary.

      c. Solemnity of the title, or of the founder, or of the principal patron of a religious order or congregation.

      Proper feasts:

      a. Feast of the principal patron of the diocese.

      b. Feast of the anniversary of the dedication of the cathedral.

      c. Feast of the principal patron of a region or province, or a country, or of a wider territory.

      d. Feast of the title, founder, or principle patron of an order or congregation and of a religious province, without prejudice to the directives in no. 4.

      e. Other feasts proper to an individual church.

      f. Other feasts listed in the calendar of a diocese or of a religious order or congregation.

      58. For the pastoral advantage of the people, it is permissible to observe on the Sundays in Ordinary Time those celebrations that fall during the week and have special appeal to the devotion of the faithful, provided the celebrations take precedence over these Sundays in the Table of Liturgical Days. The Mass for such celebrations may be used at all the Masses at which a congregation is present.

      1. Query: May the anniversary of the dedication of a church and the solemnity of the patron or title of a church be transferred to a Sunday?

      Reply: Yes, in the following case: the Sunday is in Ordinary Time or in the Christmas season and the anniversary is of a particular church or the solemnity is of the principal patron of a specific place or of the title of a particular church.

      1. Teresa Berger Avatar
        Teresa Berger

        Thank you for pointing this out! This is important not only to remember but also for parishes named after women saints to take on.

  5. Christopher Douglas Avatar
    Christopher Douglas

    Coincidentally, it transpires that the Holy Father is doing a series of Wednesday teachings on holy women in the Church’s history, most recently on St. Bridgit, who as an Abbess had both monks and nuns under her authority. (Does that kind of situation still exist in the Church today? I guess it must, but one doesn’t hear much about it.)

    1. Anthony Ruff, OSB Avatar
      Anthony Ruff, OSB

      As far as I know, that situation does not exist any more. Can others correct me on that? I believe that in Spain there were abbesses to whom the priests in the region were obedient (see ‘abbey nullius’), but this was done away with by the 1917 Code of Canon Law.

      1. Karl Liam Saur Avatar
        Karl Liam Saur

        The functional thing that happened after Vatican II was the post-Tridentine avalanche of non-cloistered women religious, which might be said to have begun with the tremendous growth of the Ursulines and carried through with ebbs and flows into the 20th century, receded. These women often functioned as deaconesses, albeit non-liturgically, and much of the day to day experience of lay Catholics was mediated more through them than through parish clergy.

        The recession of women religious after Vatican II had the unintended but no less real effect of increasing the perceived masculinity of the institutional face of the Church.

      2. Bill deHaas Avatar
        Bill deHaas

        Fr. Ruff – the only current one I know is that the mother superior of the Daughters of Charity in certain areas must still consult and get approval from the Superior General of the Congregation of the Mission.

        Practically, not sure that this happens often.

  6. Ray Marshall Avatar
    Ray Marshall

    One Blessed Mother equals far more than all the other humans, Teresa!

    1. Anthony Ruff, OSB Avatar
      Anthony Ruff, OSB

      Well that solves it. That was easy.

  7. Scott Pluff Avatar
    Scott Pluff

    Here’s a link to an interesting litany of the saints compiled by J. Frank Henderson. It includes male and female saints in equal number, inclusive of: Old Testament and New Testament, saints throughout two millennia of Christianity, married and celibate, from all parts of the world, and serving the Church in a variety of roles. He gives a good explanation of his method in the introductory section.

  8. Braut des Lammes Avatar
    Braut des Lammes

    As for the virgins: similar to the fact that only a male can represent Christ as a priest, only a female can represent the bride of Christ, the church as a virgin.

    1. Anthony Ruff, OSB Avatar
      Anthony Ruff, OSB

      But the whole Church is the bride of Christ – how does that work for males?

      We have a similar problem, though you didn’t bring this up, with the image of “Body of Christ” – this is the whole Church, so how does that work for female members?

      I think images like Body and Bride are very, very powerful. But I think you are trying to extract more meaning from them than they can bear.


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