Can Women Change the Church?

By Gardne of Roses
Virginia Jones
September 27, 2010

My son at the One Spirit, One Call event in Portland, Oregon. I am raising him the right way.

Rain beat a steady drum beat on my skylights on Sunday morning. I wondered if the rain would depress turn out at the One Spirit, On Call event here in Portland, Oregon -- the event inspired by the Vatican document released earlier this year that pronounced both the sexual abuse of children and the ordination of women grave sins against faith. If the rain affected attendance at all it was not evident. Hundreds of women and the men and children in their lives came to the event in the Park Blocks in downtown Portland.

I am a single issue person -- I want to work on ending abuse and healing the wounds in individuals, my Church, and society. I think advocacy on other issues would muddy my waters, but someone had to bring up the issue among such a large gathering of activist Catholics. So I did. I attended the One Spirit, One Call event a clergy abuse survivor and my son and handed out Sackcloth Penance Patches with a prayer for those abused in our Church.

Event organizers structured the program to resemble Mass with a choir, prayers by a nun, Sr. Kathleen Stupfel, Bible readings and even homily like speeches by lay women active in the Church.

I listened for the mention of clergy abuse but it was only mentioned briefly and vaguely. However, the remnants of Western Oregon Voice of the Faithful were involved in organizing the event. Sr.Kathleen was one of their most loyal members. Actually so was I, although I only joined as the organization was fading.

Although clergy abuse is my issue, not the role of women in the Church, I understand what these women are feeling. In his interview in the Oregonian, Archbishop Vlazny invited the reporter to see how many women were working at the Chancery office. Certainly in my parish, most the the staff is female. The Priest, Assistant Pastor and the Maintenance Supervisor are the only men on the staff. Everyone else, including the Pastoral Associate are female. Although the position of Pastoral Associate has much authority and responsibility, it does not compare in respect and authority with the roles of priests.

The problem of sexism is a societal issue and not merely a Church issue. Although I’ve met many lay people who fawn over all religious, the position of nun or Pastoral Associate isn’t nearly as revered as that of priest. And this is also true for female Protestant ministers.

Moreover, sex abuse isn’t confined to male clergy. I have met and worked with a small number of men who were abused by nuns and met a former nun whose convent was scandalized in the 1950s when a nun became pregnant through her relationship with a 13 year old boy.

Jesus definitely had a special place in his heart and ministry for women. The Gospels are supposed to be the infallible word of God. But I know something about this vision from God thing. We can all connect with God through prayer. The problem is for most of us mere mortals, well..... it is like it says in the Bible, we see as through a mirror or a glass darkly. Our human perceptions cloud things. If the position of women today remains second class in Church and society (women still make 77 cents on the dollar for work comparable to that of men), the position of women in first century Israel and Judea was much worse. Some people say that the men who wrote or transcribed the Bible probably white washed the role of women to being more minor that it really was. What is notable for Jesus is that he treats women with tremendous respect. He does not appear to view the woman with the issue of blood as unclean. Indeed he instructs his disciples to let the women and children approach him. He counted many women among his close friends and supporters at a time when women led fairly segregated lives and did not associate so publicly as men and women do today in 21st century America.

Both faith and healing are about changing the heart and mind to connect with God or the infinite source of all being. But anyone on the journey can tell you that the journey of faith and healing are life long. Surely the men of ancient times are like us in that respect. In the Bible Apostles are constantly misunderstanding what Jesus intended. They had just enough knowledge and faith to carry on when He was crucified. I am no scholar or theologian. Others, ore knowledgeable that me have written on these issues. But I tend to agree with the point of view that those who wrote the Bible, were inspired by God, but they still wrote through the filter of their human minds. They were struggling with this concept of treating women as equals.

What the Bible records is that there were many women served in the leadership of the early Church, that women served as deacons, which they do not do today in the Catholic Church. Gradually, as the church grew and became more Romanized, the relative position of women in the Church declined. I think that the treatment of women by Jesus is probably the best model we have to go on by what God intended for the role of women to be in the Church. It has been said many times by many others, but Mary of Magdala was the first person to see the risen Jesus. Why did God chose her to go to first?

But Jesus isn’t the only model we have to go on. The Church, itself, made saints Catherine of Sienna and Theresa of Avila, “Doctors of the Church.”

There are other models too. For example, Theresa of Avila mentored John of the Cross. And Saint Francis had this scandalous habit of hanging out with women and not just St. Clare, with whom he spent comparatively little time. He spent much more time with a Roman noblewoman named Giacomo de Settesoli, also known as Brother Jacoba. She was given this “honorary’ name so she could visit St. Francis at all male friaries.

So anyway, I always like talking about St. Francis, but I should get back to the One Spirit, One Call event. As I was able, I moved around and chatted with people, some about my own group, some about their feelings.

My sense is that people really love their church. They love the Mass, they love the saints, the love the traditions and the rituals of the Church. They often love their particular parish or faith community. They don’t want to leave the Catholic Church. At the same time they feel really wounded by how the leadership of the Catholic Church operates.

A clergy abuse clergy abuse survivor who has struggled to remain in the Church, told me that she felt that the leadership of the Church wanted a small, obedient Church, that way the people remaining in the Church would be really “holy”.

She felt that the comments of the Archbishop in Friday’s Oregonian newspaper showed that he didn’t understand what was hurting people at all.

I spoke to another woman on the fringes of the crowd about her reason for coming.

She said, “These last ten years have been so hard. There has been so much wrongdoing, so many lies, and so much cover-up.”

What people are longing for most of all is a church leadership that inspires. Constant changing of the liturgy and rules fails to inspire most people. People yearn to be inspired by what church leaders actually do rather than the rules they make or what they say.

But Church leaders are ordinary people like the rest of this. Insight and change are slow processes for them as for the rest of us. We are all in this for the long haul. One the One Spirt, One Call group showed is how many people you can bring together for change with six weeks and little press coverage, with just Catholics speaking and working together. The leaders of the One Spirit, One Call group intend for us to keep meeting in small Gatherings of women to share stories and to then come together again as a large group in late November.

And I plan to keep on attending One Spirit, One Call events and to keep on bringing up clergy abuse. What can we accomplish if we can direct some of this energy for

change towards my favorite issue?


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