Widows in the Bible, 4: the ‘Order’ of Widows
The fullest New Testament description of widows is found in 1 Timothy. While this letter is attributed to Paul, a study of its contents shows more developed ministries in the communities than in Paul’s time and contradictions of material found in genuine Pauline letters. The letter, therefore, was probably written by a follower of Paul about AD 80 to 90. Addressed to Timothy in Ephesus, the letter deals with three issues facing that community: sound teaching, qualities of church leaders, and guarding the community’s reputation in the outside world.
Much can be said about the letter’s comments on women, but the focus here is widows, found in 5:3-16. The author addresses three groups: widows who should be cared for by others (vv. 4, 8, 16); younger widows who should remarry (vv. 11-15); and “true” widows who can be registered (vv. 5, 9-10, 14.)
Those who should be cared for by others upholds, without mentioning it, the scriptural command to care for widows. The younger widows should remarry to lessen the burden of care from the community and to reign in some unfavorable activities, both would save the reputation of the community among outsiders. Roman Law, the Lex Papia Poppaea, required that widows remarry within two years and divorcees within a year and a half; there were penalties for non-compliance.
Who was considered a “true” widow? She should be over 60 years of age, married only once, and promise not to remarry (although this is not explicit, vs. 12 speaks of a “first pledge” not honored by young widows who remarry). The true widow should be attested by good works in her family and the community. Her duties, other than constant prayer, are not given but there is no reason that her good works would not continue. She can then be “registered” as officially in a group. Some would call this group an “order” where the term is used in this sense of a class of persons sharing common characteristics, e.g. Order of Catechumens; it does not necessarily imply sacramental ordination.
After the fourth century, the order of widows disappeared as a recognized group of ministers. In 1990, St. John Paul II reestablished the ancient order by promulgating canon 570 of the Canon Law of the Eastern Catholic Churches. Although consecrated widows are not recognized as a public form of consecrated life in the Latin Catholic Church, widows have nonetheless been consecrated by their Latin diocesan bishops, including in the archdioceses of Rome and Milan.
Reflections on widows in the Bible, highlight the continuing need to care for widows and other marginalized poor; they also show persistent widowed women of faith as well as a recognized ministry of faithful widows. Recently, Pope Francis has opened the offices of acolyte and lector to lay women and men as a mandate on the part of the bishop; Francis has also established another ministry, that of catechist, again open to lay women and men. May they all be honored and accepted, especially the faithful women.