Fair is fair. When my Church fumbles and betrays the Gospel of Jesus, I weep and speak. When my Church surprises by proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus in delightful new ways, I rejoice and must also speak. Yes, something surprising and delightful occurred on March 8 at the occasion of International Women’s Day. Last month’s conference on women (see “I must speak” earlier) was not only secretive (or so it appeared) but also painfully contributed to women’s sense of ecclesial invisibility and voiceless place in the household of God. The fact that the February conference at the Vatican was closed to the public, was attended mostly by ordained celibate men yet was entitled Women’s Cultures: Equality and Difference, merely added insult to injury — or again, so it seemed. It certainly fed suspicions for subsequent Vatican conversations about women.
But you just never know what’s cooking behind those ancient walls. The March 8 event entitled Voices of Faith presented the opposite: from the heart of the Vatican, online live-streaming technology enabled the world to see and hear powerful women sharing deeply moving accounts of their work with some of the most vulnerable and forgotten people on the planet (the video is now posted here). Moreover, conference organizers took some bold new steps, making me wonder if I was dreaming :). But the news reports in subsequent days told me no, I wasn’t dreaming. I cannot describe events more succinctly than Joshua McElwee and Sr. Christine Schenk did over at National Catholic Reporter, and Gerard O’Connell in America Magazine.
There were several “firsts” in the Vatican on March 8: one of these was that a woman, Kerry Robinson (photo above), shared the homily with Archbishop Anil Couto. British theologian Tina Beattie, herself one of the four-member panel which discussed women’s leadership roles in the church as part of the event, shared these words: (Kerry) spoke with eloquence and passion about Jesus turning over the tables of the moneylenders. He shows us, she said, that anger too can be holy, it can be of God. We are called to reverence those things that are precious to God — and what is more precious than human beings? — and to feel holy anger when human dignity is violated and people are exploited. Several people said it was one of the best homilies they had ever heard. The first part was a rich affirmation of women’s gifts and struggles by Archbishop Anil Couto, and again its content was unprecedented in its insight and inclusivity. The full text of Kerry’s homily can be found here.
To outsiders it must look ridiculous and even delusional to place so much hope and dreams on an itsy bitsy step like the Voices of Faith event. The world outside the Vatican moves at lightning speed with its social changes and technological advances, while inside the Vatican time and change is still measured and lived in centuries. So many times when I hear of others leaving the Church because it becomes too painful to stay, I too wonder if it will ever be my turn to pack the ecclesial bags. But something quite the opposite keeps happening: every time I consciously ground my life in Christ’s saving grace, new energy is released and surprising, life-giving ministry opportunities present themselves, making my spirit soar once again. Being a Catholic woman, exercising ministry in a non-ordained capacity, continues to be an intense, stirring dance between liberation and confinement.
This Catholic Church is my spiritual home, despite all its shortcomings and violations of the very Gospel message it keeps proclaiming. This Church is the keeper of a “dangerous” memory — the memory of God’s great Restorer and Equalizer Jesus of Nazareth who came to announce God’s reign of justice, peace and mercy. This Jesus, God in the flesh, who came to bring life to the full for all God’s people, came to us in a male body, yes. But the human qualities and characteristics God placed in him bear an uncanny resemblance to what recent Popes, Francis included, have been calling the “feminine genius” — generous and gentle, compassionate and passionate, merciful and meek, healing and serving, patient and peace-bringing, reconciling and uniting.
The Christian tradition, and the Catholic tradition within that, is so much more than what the world perceives it to be. The memory of Jesus as liberator, rejecting all forms of hierarchy and domination, continues to stir and challenge, even in the bosom of a highly patriarchal and institutional church that bears his name. This “dangerous” memory will not cease to disturb until all, both in and outside the Church, share equal respect, opportunities and freedom to grow into God’s image and likeness, our birthright: The glory of God is a human being fully alive (St. Irenaeus).
Every time the Church acts in ways that activate this “dangerous” memory of Jesus something new is born in the world. Scripture is clear, Jesus is clear: women occupy an equal place with men in God’s economy. Jesus’ life-death-resurrection redeemed us from sin and death, and restored the original unity between male and female, a unity lost through the Fall. While men have enjoyed leadership in the Church for most of history, the “dangerous” memory of women’s witness is being retrieved and reclaimed by women everywhere today. For a succinct overview of women’s role in early Christian history, visit The Junia Project website.
Women were the first evangelizers (Mary & Elizabeth), women were the first to learn Jesus’ true identity as Messiah (woman at the well, Mary and Martha), women were the first witnesses to the resurrection, women were the only faithful disciples to remain with Jesus at the cross (okay, along with John), women lead the first Christian communities in their homes.
Women, like Christ, bleed without dying; women, like Christ in the Eucharist, transform ordinary food and drink into new life through the biological process of pregnancy and childbirth. Women, like Christ, nurture life at great sacrifice. Women, like Christ, welcome home the wayward, bind up the wounded, advocate for the voiceless, heal the broken-hearted, bring liberty to captives. Whoever decided women could not act in persona Christi, it certainly wasn’t Jesus the Christ.
As far as I know, nowhere in the New Testament are the twelve disciples chosen by Jesus referred to as priests. I don’t think Jesus ordained anyone at the last supper; ordination as we know it today came much later in Christian history. I also see the last supper as a culmination of all the times he ate with sinners, women and tax collectors; “Do this in memory of me” was a command of our Lord given to remember him in the breaking of the bread with the entire Christian community.
As Jesus embodied so eloquently, qualities and virtues are not gender-bound. Gifts and charisms are not gender-bound: all gifts are distributed to serve the needs of the community. Subsequently, God calls according to gifts and charisms, not according to gender. As Kate Wallace expresses so well as she begins her reflection Life as a Woman in the Church:
And so I came to you, and you met me
You loved and cared for me
You grew me and taught me
You fashioned me and called me
And I took what you had given me
and went back to the place
I had first heard about you
I was filled with anticipation –
what would they have me do?
You had given me so many gifts …
Sadly, too many gifts of women have gone unused and untapped, undeveloped and unblessed. We are all the poorer for it. While the Voices of Faith event was going on inside the heart of the Vatican, Pope Francis was visiting a parish somewhere in Rome, a parish marked by poverty, unemployment and drugs. But that same morning, at his weekly Angelus, he had delivered his message for International Women’s Day: “A greeting to all women! To all the women who work every day to build a more human and welcoming society. And a fraternal thank you to those who in a thousand ways bear witness to the Gospel and work in the Church. This is for us an opportunity to reaffirm the importance and the necessity of their presence in life. A world where women are marginalized is a barren world, because women not only bring life, but they also give us the ability to see beyond – they see beyond themselves – and they transmit to us the ability to understand the world through different eyes, to hear things with more creative, more patient, more tender hearts.”
Thank you, Holy Father, for your kind words. It is regrettable that you were not present at this unique Voices of Faith event right in your own house. Your visit to the troubled parish was certainly equally important. Next year, though, please clear your calendar and make an effort to listen to the very women whose gifts you praised so eloquently on International Women’s Day. For a church where women are marginalized is a barren church.
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