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Widows

· ​Paul and women ·

charity comes first

Widows are true protagonists in Scripture. How can we fail to remember Tamar, Ruth, Naomi, Judith and the widow of Zarepath of Sidon, or the insistent widow of the parable in St Luke? According to ancient legislation, a childless widow had the right to marry, but she could also return to her father’s house. Thus she was permitted to remarry, except to a priest; yet second marriages were not usual.This explains the frequent reference to the category of widows, to their financial hardship, to their need for legal protection and to the duty to be charitable to them. The Lord himself supports them (cf. Ps 146:9), gives them justice (cf. Ex 22:21; Deut 10:18) and listens to their supplications when they are expressed in lamentation (cf. Sir 35:17). Their oppressors (cf. Ezek 22:8) and those who fail in their duty to them (cf. Job 24:21); Is 10:1-2) deserve divine chastisement. Together with orphans and foreigners, that is, those who do not have the support of a family, widows depended on people’s charity and, with a few rare exceptions, lived in wretched conditions and were charged with children, which made their situation even worse. In the New Testament the primitive community very soon began to take care of widows (cf. Acts 6:1; 39-40) and to help them in their hardship (cf. Jas 1:27).

We are especially interested in a fragment of the First Letter to Timothy (5:3-16), written between the 80s and 90s of the first century, probably by a disciple who was very familiar with the Apostle and his thought. The purpose of the Letter, addressed to Timothy, the young leader of the community of Ephesus, was to encourage him in the mission which had been entrusted to him. Timothy, together with Titus, is one of the disciples dearest to Paul, his faithful collaborator and the continuer of his work. Of an essentially exhortational character this Letter constitutes a sort of small manual for the pastor in which questions are addressed such as the organization of the community, the way of fighting enemies to the faith and the Christian life of the faithful, without any obvious structure or plan of composition emerging.

It is a significant passage not only because it is the longest New Testament text on widows but also because it testifies to the existence of an order of widows recognized in the Church in the first half of the second century. In 1 Timothy 5:9 we read: “Let a widow be enrolled [in the catalogue (katalegestho) of widows] if…”. The catalogue or register, Giuseppe Pulcinelli explains, was the list of the widows willing to help poor women, who had to fulfil certain conditions and to enjoy the esteem of other Christians. They were the so-called “listed” or “canonical” widows and formed a sort of association with charitable and apostolic aims. Today the order of widows (ordo viduarum) is regaining strength after its virtual disappearance in recent decades. Indeed the number of widows consecrated to the Lord on the European continent is constantly increasing. In Italy at least 15 dioceses have instituted the order of widows and it numbers about two hundred consecrated women. Having lost their husbands they have renounced new conjugal affections in order to live their widowhood united to Jesus Christ. They devote themselves to care of families and service to the Church, collaborating in parish pastoral activities. They are a precious gift that should be cherished and encouraged with gratitude and love. However let us return to Scripture, precisely in order to talk about widows in the early Church, about their situation in the family, about their function in communities and about their lifestyle.

Our text is part of a longer section (1 Tim 5:1-6, 2) which concerns behaviourial criteria regarding those categories of people who had special importance in the life of the Christian community: in the first place, widows (5:3-16), then priests (5:17-25) and lastly slaves (6:1-2). But before being concerned with widows, the author introduces a valid rule for all the faithful, for men and for women, for young people and for the elderly: to treat all people as though they were members of one’s own family. Moreover a lot of space is reserved for widows, who in the early Church were very numerous. It has been hypothesized, even if this is obviously an approximate calculation, that 40 per cent of women between the ages of 40 and 50 were widows. Such a large number of widows posed serious problems for the nascent Church, which did not have the necessary financial resources to help all of them in their needs. For this reason it was necessary to discern carefully which widows were truly in need before distributing aid. Eusebius of Caesarea recounts that in the year 250 the Church of Rome supported more than 1,500 widows (cf. History of the Church, 6:43).

Master of the Darmstadt Passion, “The Raising of the Son of the Widow of Nain” (detail)

“Honour widows who are real widows” (1 Tim5:3). Our passage begins with this exhortation. Widows were deemed worthy of honour and honour is expressed not only in moral and spiritual, but also in material help. However there is one condition that must be respected: they must be “real” widows, which implies that there were also non-authentic widows who were thus unworthy of being honoured. Of course the author does not refer to their civil status, on which doubt has never been cast, but rather on their financial situation after the loss of their husbands. He subsequently distinguishes between three categories of widows. In the first place, those who can be aided by their relatives: “If a widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn their religious duty to their own family and make some return to their parents; for this is acceptable in the light of God” (1 Tim5:4). This is an exhortation which re-echoes the fourth commandment. In the second place those who have no means of subsistence because they have been abandoned and have no family and consequently ask the Church for help. After the example of the Prophetess Anne who served God by “worshipping with fasting and prayer night and day” (Lk 2:37), these widows pray continuously and put their trust in the Lord alone. In accordance with the author’s words: “She who is a real widow, and is left all alone, has set her hope on God and continues in supplications and prayers night and day (1 Tim5:5). In the third place are those who receive a community task, having been recognized as fit for it through a series of conditions. In this way they acquire the right to be supported by the Church (1 Tim5:9-15).

Let us now speak of the criteria for admission to the order of widows. What are these criteria? First, widows must not be less than 60 years of age (1 Tim 5:9). Secondly, it is forbidden to enrol younger widows, that is, those who have not yet reached the menopause, because they might wish to marry again and if they do so “incur condemnation for having violated their first pledge” (1 Tim 5:12). The text implies that until that moment there was no restriction of age for the admission of widows, but from what follows it may be inferred that the experience did not produce good results. For the younger widows second marriages are warmly recommended, for they are idlers and become accustomed to gadding about from house to house, even if it is for their ministry, saying what they should not and sowing discord in the community (cf. 1 Tim 5:13). Thirdly, widows must make before the Church a sort of vow, a promise or an oath, both of chastity and of consecration, with a view to their service (cf. 1 Tim 5:12). Fourthly, widows must have had only one husband; the same is true for bishops and deacons: they may only be married once. Fifth, like bishops, widows must have been hospitable (cf. 1 Tim 3:2; 5:10; Tit 1:8), as well as having exercised other works of charity. For example, “washing the feet of the saints”, that is of Christians (cf. Jn 13:2-17), giving them hospitality in their homes, where it is highly likely that the Christian community met, going to the aid of the afflicted and in a particular way of other needy widows and orphans.

There are no doubts regarding these requirements. It is far from easy, however, to determine of what exactly the ministry of listed or canonical widows consisted. In any case, from the information drawn from 1 Timothy and from the other two pastoral Letters (2 Timothy and Titus), we can endeavour to describe their function in the Church. In the above-mentioned Letters the task of educating other women was assigned to women and probably also to widows, so that they might reproduce the ideal of the matres familiae, as well as the care of children. In this sense, they exercise a certain magisterial function in the Church, evidently not in an official capacity but at the level of the advice and wisdom which stem from the experience of a holy life. In fact, according to Titus 2:3-5, older women must teach young women “to love their husbands and children, to be sensible, chaste, domestic, kind, and submissive to their husbands, that the word of God may not be discredited”. Widows, therefore are models of behaviour for married women and also for young widows who must bring up their children until they marry again. That widows had an evangelizing function may be deduced from a fragment of the Didascalia apostolorum, an ancient Christian treatise that dates back to the first half of the third century. From one of the norms referred to in the text, we realize that at the meetings with pagans the widows and other lay people taught doctrinal questions, for example referring to God’s oneness. Other matters were in fact reserved to pastors of the Church; “But concerning punishment and reward, and the kingdom of the name of Christ, and his dispensation, neither a widow nor a layman ought to speak” (Chapter 14, 3.5).

“Paul Delivers the Letters to Timothy” (mosaic in the Cathedral of Monreale, detail);

Next to the widows of irreproachable conduct were also those who, forgetting the promise to live in chastity, behaved promiscuously: the widow “who is self-indulgent is dead even while she lives” (1 Tim 5:6). It is implied that she is dead from the point of view of faith, because her passions distance her from the Lord and lead her “after Satan” (1 Tim 5:15). In these conditions, it is better that she marry. This is what Paul thought: “It is better to marry than to be aflame with passion” (1 Cor 7:9). Logically, younger widows were more at risk than those who had reached a certain age. The author notes that they “grow wanton” (katastreniasosin) because they desire to remarry (cf. 1 Tim 5:11) and, abandoning their faith, adopt a lifestyle contrary to Christ’s doctrine. Idle, gossipy and inquisitive, these young widows did not do honour to the order of widows.

Our passage ends with the following recommendation: “If any believing woman has relatives [in her house] who are widows, let her assist them; let the church not be burdened, so that it may assist those who are real widows”. All this makes us think of the private initiative of some Christian woman, perhaps she too a widow, in favour of widows who are in need and have no one to care for them. This would be a way of helping the Church, which could not cope with supporting all the widows. May charity always come first.

Nuria Calduch-Benages

The author

Nuria Calduch-Benages was born in Barcelona in 1957. From 1985 she has lived in Rome. After obtaining a degree in Anglo-Germanic philology at the University of Barcelona, she studied at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, obtaining a doctorate in Sacred Scripture. She is currently professor of the Old Testament at the Faculty of Theology of the Gregorian University and Guest Professor at the Biblicum. She is Vice-President of the International Society for the Study of Deuterocanonical and Cognate Literature. Since 2014 she has been a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission and of the Commission desired by Pope Francis to study the diaconate of women. She recently wrote in Italian La Bibbia della domenica (Edizioni Dehoniane Bologna, 2016) while for Vita e Pensiero she edited Donne della Bibbia (2017), and Donne dei Vangeli (2018).

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