Chapel of St Francis Borgia, Jesuit Curia, Rome

Voices of Faith, International Women’s Day, 8th March 2018

Ursula Halligan is former political editor of Irish television station TV3, and she campaigned for same-sex marriage during the Irish Referendum in 2015.

2018 Photo: Wolfgang Schmidt

Gospel reading: Luke 11:14-23

He was driving out a devil and it was dumb; and it happened that when the devil had gone out the dumb man spoke, and the people were amazed. But some of them said, ‘It is through Beelzebul, the prince of devils, that he drives devils out.’ Others asked him, as a test, for a sign from heaven; but, knowing what they were thinking, he said to them, ‘Any kingdom which is divided against itself is heading for ruin, and house collapses against house. So, too, with Satan: if he is divided against himself, how can his kingdom last? – since you claim that it is through Beelzebul that I drive devils out. Now if it is through Beelzebul that I drive devils out, through whom do your own sons drive them out? They shall be your judges, then. But if it is through the finger of God that I drive devils out, then the kingdom of God has indeed caught you unawares. So long as a strong man fully armed guards his own home, his goods are undisturbed; but when someone stronger than himself attacks and defeats him, the stronger man takes away all the weapons he relied on and shares out his spoil. ‘Anyone who is not with me is against me; and anyone who does not gather in with me throws away.

Today’s Gospel gives us a powerful image of a person demented by a demon and unable to speak. It suggests someone deeply oppressed. Two thousand years ago these demonic possessions were often attributed to evil spirits, but they can also be understood as “afflictions” arising from the social and political conditions of the time.

Life for Jewish people was hard. As a group they were oppressed by their Roman masters. They lived lives of fear. This had a dehumanising and demoralising effect on them and pushed some to psychological breaking point, even to insanity! Read in this light, the various exorcisms and healings performed by Jesus are seen as liberating people from the evil of oppressive social forces. Jesus was against everything that blocked the flourishing of human life. His mission was to empower people so they could have life and have it in abundance.

Today, as we celebrate International Women’s Day, women all over the world struggle to throw off deep-seated historical forces blocking the full expression of their humanity. Within the Catholic Church, women want their church to be on THEIR side. To SHARE power with them. This seems obvious to women, especially since they make up more than half of the church. Maybe, it’s less obvious to men. Privilege is often invisible to those who have it. And perhaps, that’s one of the aspects of this reading that may be missed: the need to listen to new voices.

On the face of it, the freeing by Jesus of the man silenced by his demon has to have been a positive thing. On the face of it, everyone present should have been delighted, and more than delighted! Everyone present should have been awed by the positive power demonstrated in the exorcism, and should have been eager to hear from the man, to learn what possession had been like and how wonderful his new freedom was.

But listening can be a problem. Listening can be a challenge. It can bring the listener right up against realities they don’t want to know about. So, some of the witnesses to this miracle didn’t listen at all. They went straight to “conspiracy theories”. “Beelzebul” (the prince of Devils) was behind this event”! Even though the outcome was clearly good for the man who had been possessed, they were reluctant to see it as a wholly good thing. They wanted to believe that there was more to this than met the eye, and that what lay behind it was EVIL. They went further. They demanded proof from Jesus. He was to produce a sign from heaven that would make them comfortable with what they had seen. Jesus refused to give this to them, instead making the point that a house divided against itself cannot stand.

Later in the reading Jesus likens Satan to a strong man, fully armed, guarding his possessions in a palace. This man is safe until “One Stronger” comes along. The clear implication is that the “One Stronger” is Jesus—who has come not only to do battle with evil spirits but to defeat and humiliate the Prince of Devils himself. Women within the church don’t see their church as a palace full of possessions to be guarded with weaponry. We wonder where is the simplicity, the radical inclusivity and generosity of Jesus, in many of the church’s dealings with half its flock? We wonder why so many men in powerful positions in our church cannot see that the onward progress of women is a wholly good thing—why instead they want to believe that what’s behind our progress is in some way evil. We wonder why they are unwilling to do that simple, challenging thing: listen to the voices that are increasingly being freed up to speak.

Women throughout history have been silenced by a world dominated by conflict where men wrote the records and prioritized—well—THEIR priorities. A few women, notably within the church, have raised their voices and been heard. Now, the women who make up more than half of the faithful are better educated in many countries, than ever they were. Better connected with other women too. They are finding a voice—their Voices of Faith—that they never knew they had. The danger is that their new voice will be met—as was the voice of the man freed from demons in today’s reading—with suspicion and resentment. That should not happen in a church founded by a man who clearly told us that a divided kingdom will fall as will a divided household.

What women in the church are saying is: we belong. We’re not the enemy. We want to contribute. To help shape the future of the institution we grew up in or joined. To speak up and to be heard, rather than to be silenced, controlled, censored or condemned. Each of us has ONE voice—and MANY voices. We whisper endearments to children. We shout out warnings of danger to people. Our voices shake when we speak through tears of loss. Just like men, we women in the church will never speak with only ONE voice, because we come from so many backgrounds, so many nations, ready to speak such a variety of truths.

The variety of our voices, our languages, our concerns can give strength to the church. And so we ask that our church brings us in and provides us with the context in which we can be heard. Heard. Listened to. Learned from.

For the Good of the Church.

For the Unity of the Church.

For the Future of the Church.