A Catholic bishop has appointed a laywoman as parish life coordinator over St. Anthony of Padua parish in Fairfield, Connecticut. Dr. Eleanor Sauers, who teaches religious studies at Fairfield University, has been overseeing the parish since March following the death of Rev. John Baran. According to the Associated Press, she will take official responsibility over the parish this January.
Sauers’ appointment is “a significant step in the growing role of women leaders,” the Rev. James Martin said.
In a letter to the St. Anthony of Padua parishioners, Bishop Frank Caggiano said,
Her responsibilities, as it is with any priest or deacon appointed as Administrator, is to work with the parish community to develop and foster its pastoral vision and mission. She will continue to be present to the parish in times of celebration and sadness. Her education, formation and experience makes her professionally, academically and spiritually ready for this role.
What Is Unusual About This?
Bishop Caggiano has taken a somewhat unusual step in the level of authority he has given Sauers. According to the National Catholic Register, the Code of Canon Law provides several options for what to do in the absence of a parish priest. One is to put the parish under the care of a team of priests, with one of them leading. Another is to appoint a layperson as parish life coordinator. Churches are to use this option only in “exceptional circumstances” and not “for its own sake.” That is, appointing a layperson ought to be a last resort when a priest is unavailable.
Sauers will have authority over a team of priests, who will help her by carrying out sacramental ministries in the parish. In his letter, Bishop Caggiano explained that when making the decision to appoint Sauers, he considered the parish community, the work she had already done in the parish, and the precedent already set by other dioceses.
Sauers is the not the first woman to serve as a parish life coordinator, but she is the first in her diocese and among few women throughout the country. According to the AP, parish life coordinators are typically deacons (that is, men) or even nuns, but they are rarely lay people.
Something else that makes Sauers unique is she reports directly to the bishop. Usually the parish life coordinator would report to a priest with authority over the parish. This is not the first time a woman has had authority over a parish, but it is unique for the church to officially recognize such responsibility in this way.
Sauers has said she “cannot speak to the issue of women in the priesthood,” but that she hopes women will be more open to the Catholic Church because of her appointment.
The Church’s Historical Stance
The Catholic church has historically prohibited women from being ordained because of various passages in the New Testament. In an ecclesiastical letter in 1994, Pope John Paul II reaffirmed the church’s historical position when he said, “I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.”
It will be interesting to see if putting women in higher positions of church leadership will be a growing trend in the church in the coming years. The church’s traditional stance is one that Pope Francis has so far been unwilling to reverse.