Thursday, March 10, 2022

“Each Has Received A Gift”: Guest Review of Dr Kwasniewski’s Ministers of Christ

NLM is pleased to offer this review by Fr. John Henry Hanson, O.Praem., of St Michael’s Abbey in Silverado, California.

Among his several recent books, Dr Peter Kwasniewski’s Ministers of Christ: Recovering the Roles of Clergy and Laity in an Age of Confusion (Manchester, NH: Crisis Publications, 2021) is remarkable for the lengths to which it goes in establishing correct Biblical and anthropological principles for why all-male sanctuary service has been the perennial norm for the sacred liturgy. It has always made intuitive sense to the clergy and faithful, so that the occasional admission of women to the sanctuary throughout Church history has been considered an abuse, and corrected as such by the hierarchy. Dr Kwasniewski includes a fine essay from Bishop Athanasius Schneider which surveys that history, showing the consistent disapproval of popes where the abuse has periodically (and infrequently) crept in. [1]
But Dr Kwasniewski’s book is more than an apologia for the restoration of all-male sanctuary service in the usus recentior of the Roman liturgy, not to mention the restoration of the minor orders. It is valuable on this score, to be sure, and leaves no doubt about the apostolicity of the practice, nor about the mind of the Church throughout the ages on the matter. In his typically sober and carefully argued way, he demonstrates not only how the current practice is clearly an aberration, but how it also ironically devalues women’s proper role in the Church.
Where the book really performs an invaluable service is its deeper look into the greatness and complementarity of maleness and femaleness with respect to Biblical revelation and the life of the Church. In fact, Dr Kwasniewski goes where few have the depth to go: into the nature of the human soul, which cannot be other than “bridal” in relation to God, and thus feminine in nature. This is a doctrine of great antiquity, the most famous Biblical example of which is the Song of Songs. Also of great note are the mystical teachings of Saints such as Bernard of Clairvaux (whose commentary on the Song is second to none), and John of the Cross, who takes this teaching for granted throughout his great works.
Why is this important?
In my experience as a priest and spiritual director, the idea of everyone, including men, having a bridal soul, although second nature to any devout woman, is often a real obstacle (even for devout men)—not surprising, since bridehood is written into a woman’s nature. Men espouse, women are espoused. So it is a significant and spiritually crucial leap for men to get there and feel natural both as men and yet receptive in spirit as women are receptive in nature. That Our Lady is the model disciple for both men and women comes directly from her complete and total receptivity to the word of God, her complete self-surrender to God’s plan for her and for the world. And this total openness is found in both male and female saints alike. You need look no farther than St Joseph for proof.
Photo courtesy of Allison Girone
But translating into practice what we know to be true in both natural and spiritual matters is where we have veered off the path taken by our ancestors. Under pressure from cultural factors, it would seem, the Church has seen fit not only to allow female altar service (under St John Paul II) but even (under Pope Francis) to normalize the practice. Dr Kwasniewski entertains the mild objection that, in fact, Pope Francis’ 2021 motu proprio Spiritus Domini merely makes official what has become standard practice in most mainstream parishes. And there is some truth in that. But there is an enormous difference between a concession—an ad hoc role undertaken in the absence of an ordinary minister—and a statement that effectively eliminates the distinction between the sexes with respect to altar service. To equalize, in this case, does not mean ennobling one to the level of another. It means sending a message to women that confuses rather than elucidates.
It would seem that equalizing men and women in the sanctuary conveys to women, along with anyone paying attention in the pews, that the Church has caught up with modern times and decided that women are “just as good as” men. Girls no less than boys can be entrusted with handling cruets, ciboria, and missals, whereas before… they weren’t trustworthy enough or somehow good enough to do what boys have always done? Is this the (at least) visible message here?
Everyone knows that women are entrusted with the care of the most precious and delicate thing on earth: human life, from its most vulnerable stages. And women do this better and more naturally than men, which every man acknowledges. God has given women this capacity and men normally must learn from them how to be gentle, tender, sensitive toward what is most fragile. Clearly, the reasons behind exclusively male altar service stem from a source other than carefulness and responsibility, other than personal worthiness—and nothing even approaching superiority or inferiority.
As worthy or unworthy as men may be, they are sacramental images of Christ in a way women cannot be, just as women are sacramental representatives of Our Lady and the Church in ways that men can never be. Most generations of Christians have had no problem with that and have seen it for what it is: something beautiful, something divinely willed. I remember hearing a Carmelite nun recount how once when she was in an airport, a child pointed at her and said very audibly to its mother: “Look! It’s the Church!” From the mouths of babes.
Compare the sacramental worldview of the Church throughout the ages to the attitudes that surrounded John Paul II’s acquiescence to female altar servers. In an April 1994 front-page article, the New York Times quoted a Monsignor Harry Burns of the New York Archdiocese lauding the decision in terms far from the sacramental, and even far from the legal:
“Msgr. Harry Byrne, pastor of the Church of the Epiphany at 22d Street and 2d Avenue in Manhattan, has allowed altar girls for 12 years, and said he had allowed them in his previous Manhattan parish since the mid-1970’s. In some cases, girls assisted during Masses celebrated by diocesan officials, he said. ‘I feel very strongly about the question of equality of women in society and church,’ Monsignor Byrne said. ‘It’s in the interest of creating a climate where women would feel the church is being responsive to them.’ Monsignor Byrne, who has a doctorate in canon law and once served as Chancellor of the Archdiocese of New York, said the Vatican’s decision [i.e., to admit women to altar service] was similar to other instances in which the church reconciled itself with common practice—as when women were allowed to be lectors and read from the Scriptures. ‘Canon law changes by some people being out on the cutting edge,’ he said. ‘The practice may not be congruent with the regulations, but regulations catch up with custom.’ ” [2]
Not surprisingly, the same Times article goes on to quote others who see the move as an advancement for women. And this is where the catechesis so exhaustively presented by Dr Kwasniewski is so crucial. For women to take an equally physical role in the liturgy as men denigrates the gifts of nature and grace God has lavished upon them—almost as if just being a woman in a pew, praying, is not “good enough.” Women are the models, after Our Lady, of how to receive the mysteries celebrated in the sanctuary. Men should be able to see the veiled woman in church and know something about his own soul, his need to be under God, humble in prayer, and docile to the promptings of the Holy Spirit.
Photo courtesy of Allison Girone
Dr Kwasniewski’s pages on the veiling of women in church are a particularly powerful expression of this modeling. “This beautiful symbol,” he writes, “gives the wife [and all women, mutatis mutandis] an opportunity to live her vocation more fully by reminding herself, including her daughters, of its Marian character of humility and obedience.” [3]  Dr Kwasniewski further elaborates on a woman’s spousal nature—highlighting, again, how nature points to the spiritual character of the soul:
[T]he traditional custom of all females wearing a veil in church finds justification in the natural and supernatural ordering of each woman to be a spouse—be it as a bride of Christ in religious life or as a wife in a Christian marriage. Even before this ordering is actualized, and even when it is never actualized, it remains an ontological and spiritual reality that deserves to be recognized, honored, and placed within the great mysterium fidei celebrated in the Holy Mass. [4]
This is exactly the kind of catechesis needed in the discussion of women in the sanctuary, instead of leaving a vacuum of ignorance, abandoning the faithful to the implication that the Church is just as confused as everyone else about the proper roles of men and women (or if they have roles proper to them at all). The truest and most beautiful teachings about men and women and their divine vocation are found nowhere more complete and convincing than in the Catholic Church. When people are exposed to and educated in these truths, then the question of distributing liturgical roles ceases to be a question at all.
The difficulty we encounter is trying to help people think in other than crude, materialistic terms, not only about the liturgy and sexual differentiation, but about life in general. Truly did St Paul say, “The unspiritual man does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2, 14).
To have a sacramental worldview is crucial to living our Catholic faith with any measure of coherence in this material world. Otherwise, we fall into the mere functionality that afflicts Western society in general. The idea that men and women are interchangeable in so many departments of public life, be it the workplace or the military, easily enters a Church left undefended by decent catechesis on God’s revealed plan for men and women. Thinking in spiritual terms requires that we form our minds according to the Biblical worldview as handed on from age to age by the Church—and not only that we know the teachings, but pray and worship as though they are true.
A final point needs to be made regarding the clericalization of the laity, and it is one which Dr Kwasniewski spends much time making. He rightly acclaims Vatican II’s doctrine on the role of the laity in the modern world and their call, rooted in baptism, to holiness. It had always been true, but needed to be proclaimed anew in the context of the rapidly changing world of the 1960s. The Council’s teachings were crystalized after decades of increasingly organized lay Catholic involvement in the political and social life of many countries. The influence of St Josemaría Escrivá and Opus Dei is often rightly touted as the decisive, proximate influence on the Council’s pronouncements on the laity. Yet, what does the founder of Opus Dei say about the issue at hand? In a book of interviews entitled Conversations, St Josemaría addresses “Women in Social Life and in the Life of the Church.” [5]  While not approaching the topic of female sanctuary service—a notion he would have found unthinkable—he lays down principles relevant to it. I quote him at length. The saint is asked:
“Could you give us your opinion as to how the role of women in the life of the Church can best be promoted?”
He replies:
“I must admit this question tempts me to go against my usual practice and to give instead a polemical answer, because the term ‘Church’ is frequently used in a clerical sense as meaning ‘proper to the clergy or the Church hierarchy.’ And therefore many people understand participation in the life of the Church simply, or at least principally, as helping in the parish, cooperating in associations which have a mandate from the hierarchy, taking an active part in the liturgy, and so on.
“Such people forget in practice, though they may claim it in theory, that the Church comprises all the People of God. All Christians go to make up the Church….
“In saying this, I am not seeking to minimize the importance of the role of women in the life of the Church. On the contrary, I consider it indispensable. I have spent my life defending the fullness of the Christian vocation of the laity, of ordinary men and women who live in the world, and I have tried to obtain full theological and legal recognition of their mission in the Church and in the world. I only want to point out that some people advocate an unjustifiable limitation of this collaboration. I must insist that ordinary Christians can carry out their specific mission—including their mission in the Church—only if they resist clericalization and carry on being secular and ordinary, that is, people who live in the world and take part in the affairs and interests of the world.
“It is the task of the millions of Christian men and women who fill the earth to bring Christ into all human activities and to announce through their lives the fact that God loves and wants to save everyone. The best and most important way in which they can participate in the life of the Church, and indeed the way which all other ways presuppose, is by being truly Christian precisely where they are, in the place to which their human vocation has called them.…
“Women will participate in this task in the ways that are proper to them, both in the home and in other occupations which they carry out, developing their special characteristics to the full.
“The main thing is that like Mary, who was a woman, a virgin, and a mother, they live with their eyes on God, repeating her words ‘fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum—be it done unto me according to Thy word.’ (Luke 1, 38) On these words depends the faithfulness to one’s personal vocation—which is always unique and non-transferable in each case—which will make us all cooperators in the work of salvation which God carries out in us and in the entire world.”
Yes, in the end, the “main thing” is very simple. In fact, we are really talking about the Lord’s “one thing necessary,” the “better part” chosen by another Mary, yet surely in imitation of the Holy Virgin of Nazareth (cf. Luke 10, 42). When we keep our eyes fixed on God, all of the other things in life come into sharper focus. Gazing upon the sanctuary and the solemn rites of the liturgy, we lose interest in promoting one human thing over another, in competition, in making a point about equality or anything else.
Photo courtesy of Allison Girone
God gives His gifts unequally but wisely. It is for us to receive and cherish them, using them to increase His glory. Whether we call them talents or fruits, they are the Lord’s to give, ours to handle with reverence and a sense of mission, and so “as each has received a gift,” we may “employ it for one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace” (1 Pet. 4, 10).

Ministers of Christ: Recovering the Roles of Clergy and Laity in an Age of Confusion may be purchased for $19.95 at (link; ebook also available) or from Sophia Institute Press (link).

1. See Bishop Athanasius Schneider’s “The Significance of Minor Ministries in the Sacred Liturgy” included in Ministers of Christ in chapter 4.
3. Kwasniewski, Ministers of Christ: Recovering the Roles of Clergy and Laity in an Age of Confusion, p. 189.
4. Kwasniewski, p. 191.
5. Conversations, nos. 87-112. See especially no. 112. Online version may be accessed via

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