Today, September 5, the Episcopal Church commemorates Katharina Zell, a courageous Protestant reformer and writer during the continental Reformation.
Almighty God, we thank you for those women and men in our midst who, like Katharina Zell, work to build up your kingdom not only with words but with deeds—not only the work of the mind but also the work of the heart—not only with pens but with their presence. Fill us, like her, with the wisdom to speak out in defense of your truth. Fill us, like her, with love for you and for our neighbor, that we may serve you and welcome all your people with a mother’s heart. Amen.
Katharina Schutz Zell was born in 1497 in Strasbourg. Reform and protest against abuses in the church reached her part of the world early on, and the twelve-person Schutz family—artisans, not nobility—were convinced. Katharina was especially interested in the new thinking and teaching about the church. She was intent on seeking a holy life; for a long time, this meant a dedicated celibacy, but as a Protestant, she was convinced of the holiness of marriage as a vocation, and late in 1523 she married Matthew Zell, the most popular priest and preacher in Strasbourg.
For clergy to marry was truly a startling thing for Christians in this time; even some of the new Protestant Christians found it difficult, distasteful, or immoral. In response to the city’s reaction, Zell wrote a letter to the bishop building a Biblical defense of the marriage of priests, and describing the traits of a good pastor. Though she wanted to publish it, she accepted the city council’s demand to keep quiet. In September of 1524, however, she published a pamphlet addressed to her fellow (lay) Christians explaining the Biblical basis for clerical marriage and for her ability (as a woman) to speak on such things. She argues that when a Christian speaks out in this way, it is significant as an act of love to her neighbor.
That same year, 150 men and their families were driven out of Kentzingen because of their beliefs; Katharina and her husband purportedly welcomed 80 of these people in their home. She wrote a “Letter to the suffering women of the Community of Kentzingen, who believe in Christ, sisters with me in Jesus Christ,” in which she interpreted these women’s painful experiences in light of Scripture and the promises of Christ, in order to encourage them on their path.
Throughout her life she continued to welcome refugees and to visit those sick with plague, syphilis, and other feared diseases. Some of her guests were more well-known than others; she welcome Martin Bucer (who had performed her marriage) when he fled Weissenburg, and John Calvin when he fled France.
She also continued to write throughout her life—a funeral oration for her husband, pamphlets, letters (including a correspondence with Luther), and Scriptural commentary. Her last published work was a commentary on Psalm 50, Psalm 130, and the Lord’s Prayer.
When, later in life, she was accused by her husband’s successor of disturbing the peace of the city, she wrote,
“Do you call this disturbing the peace that instead of spending my time in frivolous amusements I have visited the plague infested and carried out the dead? I have visited those in prison and under sentence of death. Often for three days and nights I have neither eaten or slept. I have never mounted the pulpit, but I have done more than any minister in visiting those in ministry. Is this disturbing the peace of the church?”
Katharina Zell died on September 5, 1562.
(Hagiography adapted from Lesser Feasts & Fasts 2018, Church Publishing.)