‘Women aren’t the backbone of the Church, they’re the whole bloody skeleton’.
A friend of mine said that to me last year and I haven’t been able to shake the thought since. Women are the clear majority of bodies in the pews and they provide a vast reservoir of unpaid labour that helps the Church, from the smallest parish to the largest Cathedral, actually function. Yet until recently they got precious little say or influence over their Church.
Perhaps the most persistent theme in the synod reports across the world has been discomfort with the role and expectations placed on women in the Church. The new edition of the Synodal Times is out this week and gives full voice to that long quiet sense of injustice, with some of my favourite pieces below.
One of the surprising things about the global Church is that there are things we assume are immutable, unchanging traditions, only to discover in another country Catholics have been going about it totally differently. For example veteran journalist Lise Alves explains that in her native Brazil women have long been Church leaders.
Women have long served as lectors and catechists in places like the Amazon region, where many are de facto religious leaders in remote communities that suffer from a severe shortage of priests.
I’ve been blessed to travel across Africa and have seen similar patterns. One of the things that I found impressive about the Church there is a determination to stop repeating European mistakes. Dr Leonide Katunga is making the case for a different sort of Church, one not ruled by silence.
Being silent even when called to speak is common in the Church in Africa. Such negative silence exacerbates problems such as sexual abuse and violence against women and children. Victims opt for silence for fear that no one will listen to them. Religious women who have been used by the clergy to do work without remuneration or have been abused sexually are compelled to remain silent in the name of protecting the reputation of the Church.
Of course, that sort of courageous leadership required to speak up has long been found among the religious Sisters. Sr Dorothy Stang, murdered for her work with the poorest of the poor, is a classic example. I thought I knew her story, until I read this.
In the days preceding her murder on February 12, 2005, Sr Dorothy was attempting to halt illegal logging where land sharks had interests but no legal rights.
So models of women as religious leaders have long existed in the Church. How can they be better harnessed? Whatever the Church may do, activist Soline Humbert is in no doubt that the next step is women priests.
We, awkward women, remain living, breathing questions, persistent questions, disturbing questions to the Church. Our Christian vocations are too expansive to be confined to the rigid stereotypical gender roles assigned to us by churchmen.
These questions will continue to be at the heart of the Synod. But we like to end on a note of hope, and I was delighted to read this short reflection on Hope, by the great Irish journalist Orla Guerin.
The Troubles were brought to an end. The guns fell silent. And that silence echoed around the world, lending a measure of hope to those mired in conflicts elsewhere.
May hope echo around your world this week which promises to be a momentous one in the history of the Synod. The Continental Stage will begin in Prague and the Synodal Times will be there, and you’ll be able to read all about it in this newsletter next week.
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