Speaking of Faith
This is the second collection of women’s writings published by Catholic Women Speak to coincide with a Synod of Bishops. Our first book, Catholic Women Speak: Bringing Our Gifts to the Table, was distributed by the Vatican publishers Libreria Editrice Vaticana in the Synod Hall during the October 2015 Synod on the Family, and we remain deeply grateful for their assistance. More than 300 copies of the book were given away, but not a single Synod participant ever acknowledged that he had received it, let alone read it and learned from it. Nevertheless, we persist, because we believe that ultimately the Church’s survival depends upon women – not only as bearers of children for the Church of the future (a role that is more than adequately recognized already), but as bearers of visions and vocations that have yet to find space to flourish and grow in the sacramental, ethical and social expressions of our Catholic faith.
Contributors to this book were invited to explore the 2018 Synod theme of “Young People, Faith and Vocational Discernment” from a wide range of perspectives, informed by their own cultural, theological and personal insights. Their stories show that women are a vibrant, varied and dynamic life force in the Church today – irreducibly diverse, united by faith in Christ and participation in the sacramental life of the Church, but representing a lavish fecundity of cultures, contexts and experiences.
All the women writing here remain deeply committed to and inspired by their Catholic faith, even those who, for various reasons, are no longer practicing Catholics. Catholicism is one expression of faith among many, but for the women in this book it is the interpretative lens through which they seek to understand and give meaning to their lives. Those whose vocations and identities are affirmed by the teachings and pastors of the Church express joy and fulfilment in their Catholic faith, even as they acknowledge the challenges they face. Those who feel that their vocations are denied or the insights and gifts they offer are rejected find it a more frustrating and dispiriting struggle.
Vocational discernment is a lifelong process, which is why contributors range from teenagers to women in their eighties, from young women just beginning to explore their vocations as they look to the future, to others who look back on a lifetime of learning and maturing. All are women who, like Mary of Nazareth, are willing to defy the conventions and expectations of those around them in order to hear and respond to God’s call, even when that means setting out upon a rocky path of faith that winds through unfamiliar and difficult terrain. Contributor Jeannine Pitas writes: “[L]ike those ancient Israelites who followed Moses through the wilderness for forty years, we humans traverse a wild landscape with unclear paths and no adequate map (and certainly no GPS). But as scary as this may seem, it is also a thrilling adventure.”
For many of the contributors, the life of faith is indeed a thrilling adventure, terrifying sometimes in its risks and challenges, ecstatic in its epiphanies of joy. For others, it is a determined struggle in the face of almost insurmountable obstacles and setbacks. Here, “feminine genius” is redefined as courage, persistence, humour, defiance, passion, hope, strength, heartbreak and dedication – a genius that is sometimes vibrant with the erotic intensity of life in all its fullness, and sometimes desolate in its forsakenness and sorrow. This is a genius for living that belongs not to the feminine but to the human who is fully alive with the glory of God, to paraphrase Irenaeus. Christ promises that he has come so that we “may have life, and have it abundantly” (Jn 10:10). The women writing here ask what it means to have abundant life in Christ, and tell of how, in their different contexts, the institutions and teachings of the Catholic faith have both helped and hindered them in their capacity to receive this gift.
Women in History and Culture
In a remarkable letter addressed to the world’s women on the occasion of the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, Pope John Paul II observed that women “have often been relegated to the margins of society and even reduced to servitude. … And if objective blame, especially in particular historical contexts, has belonged to not just a few members of the Church, for this I am truly sorry.” He went on to acknowledge that, while women have contributed to human history as much as men have, “[V]ery little of women’s achievements in history can be registered by the science of history. But even though time may have buried the documentary evidence of those achievements, their beneficent influence can be felt as a force which has shaped the lives of successive generations, right up to our own.”
This prophetic and visionary letter was written nearly a quarter of a century ago, but in the intervening decades the Church has become entrenched in the absolutism of some of its teachings, particularly with regard to issues of sexuality and procreation and, for some, the denial of any possibility of women’s ordination. This has led to the stifling of theological debate and a deficit in pastoral care around some of the issues that impact most profoundly upon women’s lives.
Pope Francis has brought hope and inspiration to millions with his call for a “revolution of tenderness,” and in his living witness to a bold, joyful and risk-taking faith. His Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia does much to break the stranglehold of a heartless and punitive doctrinal absolutism in favour of a more pastorally responsive and compassionate Church. Yet as the girls of the Ursuline High School point out in their letter to Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia still fails to give sufficient acknowledgement to the many ways in which young women today aspire to be more than mothers:
We aspire to be lawyers, nurses, teachers, musicians, athletes, engineers, doctors and some of us feel called to have a family as well. While motherhood is a really wonderful aspect of being a woman, it is just one aspect, not the only one. In a changing society, it is important to change the ways that we as a Church engage with young people and women.
We wonder how much time and attention will be given at the 2018 Synod to discussing the vocations of women and girls, and what pastoral responses might emerge in order to provide effective support and encouragement to the process of vocational discernment in the face of these young women’s aspirations and visions.
Pope Francis writes that “the different peoples among whom the Gospel has been inculturated are active collective subjects or agents of evangelization. This is because each people is the creator of their own culture and the protagonist of their own history” (EG 122). All cultures include cultures of women, yet women are only now being recognized as “active collective subjects” and “agents of evangelization.” Recent popes have acknowledged the need to involve women more fully as active subjects and agents of change in the Church, yet the Catholic Church lags far behind secular society in responding to this challenge. The papal rhetoric of inclusion has yet to be matched by effective action, so that Catholic women and girls face many conflicts as they seek to reconcile the rapidly changing opportunities and demands of modern life with traditional cultures and Catholic teachings. As Revai Elizabeth Mudzimu observes, referring to Zimbabwean culture: “Young Catholic women and girls experience a threefold ideological pressure from their culture, modernity and Catholic teaching.”
Women’s vocations belong within a vast array of cultural contexts with different concepts of gender, but few cultures retain shared meanings and values nurtured in the matrix of women’s experiences and capable of responding to the challenges of modernity. Women around the world are beginning to realize that the cultural and vocational resources available to them have not emerged from the acquired wisdom of women themselves. Rather, they are all too often masculine projections that cast the female in a shadowy realm of subordinate otherness, closed off from access to much that is essential for human freedom and flourishing. Gertrude Yema Jusufu’s story is still all too common for millions of girls and women born into cultures devastated by poverty, violence and patriarchy. Writing in the context of Sierra Leone, Jusufu observes that “My culture does not consider it important for girls to have educational opportunities, but I always had a deep desire to study.” Describing a life marked by traumatizing experiences of sexual abuse, war and starvation, Jusufu concludes: “I am a woman who has never given up. In some way, I know God is present in my life. To all that has been, I bid farewell. For the future, I can only hope for a path that leads to life.”
These essays and reflections offer an insight into the many ways in which women pursue this quest for “a path that leads to life” in different contexts. Carolina del Río Mena writes: “To promote liberating changes in the ways we view feminine subjectivity is not an easy task when there is a complex and patriarchal normative/symbolic system in place.” Gayatri Gajiwala asks her mother Astrid, “When you are taught your whole life that your identity does not matter, how do you expect women to fight for anything that they believe is important to them?” Like the strangers, the fatherless and the widows of ancient times, women must gather what has been forgotten and abandoned in the harvesting of history in order to discover stories of inspiration capable of nurturing their Christian vocation to fullness of life.
Sara Parvis’s essay shows that this is by no means a fruitless quest. Women today are discovering in the stories of biblical women and women saints, mystics and visionaries a rich source of inspiration. Many contributors express gratitude for the examples of mothers, grandmothers and aunts. Their stories affirm Pope Francis’s description in Evangelii Gaudium of the mutual enhancement that can result when Catholicism and cultures encounter one another and become incarnate in the lives of the faithful, even though this often entails “staying in and struggling on.”
Some contributors, however, expose the ways in which dysfunctional Catholic institutions can deform the cultures within which they operate. Colleen Hennessy describes how the “intertwined” relationship between the Catholic Church and the Irish state is unravelling as growing numbers of Irish people leave the Church because they feel betrayed by Catholic institutions. Cettina Militello draws on forty years of teaching theology to seminarians to offer an unflinching critique of seminary culture. Her essay is a reminder that cultures of men, including priestly cultures, are just as affected by the dramatic changes taking place in society as cultures of women, for men too are having to ask searching questions about their masculine identities and vocations.
Vocations and Relationships: Maternity, Sexuality and Difference
Whether as mothers or as daughters, for many women the maternal relationship is one of life’s most intense and complex challenges, shot through as it is with love and pain, hope and frustration, yearning and sorrow. The women who tell their stories here introduce a visceral reality into the abstract ideas that inform church teaching on motherhood. Eschewing romantic and often sanitizing stereotypes, they describe the vocation to mothering as a lifelong struggle to nurture hope and vitality in the face of the sometimes devastating demands of maternal love. Others write as daughters who remember their mothers as role models and sources of wisdom, or sometimes as obstacles on their path to life.
Yet as del Río points out, “Women do not satisfy their sexual needs and libido by being mothers; rather, they do so through sexual relationships and pleasure.” This means recognizing that the body is, in del Río’s words, “the epiphany of a person … a living word, open, explicit, inevitable. It is the word that reveals the deep, real, true ‘I am’ of each of us.” This is as true of those living celibate lives as it is of those who are sexually active. Madeleine Fredell, a Swedish Dominican sister, writes, “The vow of celibacy is of course about living a celibate life but equally about accepting our sexuality and sexual orientation. Each sister must come to grips with herself, with her body and how it functions.”
For many women, questions of sexual embodiment and desire are among the most challenging and elusive areas of personal discovery and growth. As Ruth Hunt observes, “female sexuality, whether it’s hetero or homo, is always passive, because we live in a patriarchal society. So for a woman in any context to assert her views, whether that’s about something to do with pleasure, or about whether she wants children, or whether she wants sex, is quite difficult.”
Along with changing paradigms of heterosexual love and identities, there is growing recognition of the capacity of same-sex relationships to express the mutuality, commitment and intimacy of sexual love. Church teaching has yet to fully acknowledge this, and the continuing refusal to accommodate faithful sexual love between same-sex partners can have a devastating impact on homosexual persons. Nontando Hadebe, writing in the context of African cultures within and outside of South Africa, argues that “the language of depravity and disorder” used by the Catechism to describe homosexual acts “is in itself violent” and risks contributing towards the idea that “being homosexual is not only ‘un-African’ but ‘un-Christian.’” In a conversation with Tina Beattie, Ruth Hunt and Jeannine Gramick describe how their Catholic faith inspires them to raise awareness and to campaign on LGBTQI issues.
The students of the Ursuline High School are evidence of the extent to which young Catholics have progressed far beyond official church teaching in their attitudes towards homosexuality. They tell Pope Francis that
many of us find it hard to conform to the teachings of the Catholic Church which, although strongly preaching equality of all, subtly encourages a divide among those of different sexualities and genders. LGBT Catholic teens feel trapped within the walls set by this divide, causing some of us … to feel disconnected from our faith.
These young Catholic women seek a Church that affirms and welcomes the full humanity of all, whatever their gender or sexual orientation. This includes women like Samantha Tillman who tells her story and shares what it means to say, “I am a Catholic transgender woman.”
Amidst these realities of incarnate life and the many different ways of being and belonging, questions of mental and physical disability are becoming increasingly significant with regard to theology and pastoral practice. As Cristina Gangemi argues, these also have a gendered aspect, for women who are intellectually disabled are often doubly marginalized in the Church. Gangemi points out that the Church’s emphasis on marriage and motherhood as vocations for which women are uniquely gifted can leave intellectually disabled women feeling “excluded, lonely and isolated.” The emerging field of disability theology addresses some of these issues, but it remains true that, if there are limited opportunities for some women in the Church, “there is no role for women who are intellectually disabled.” Giulia Galeotti also explores issues to do with disability and faith, when she describes how much she has benefited from working with the Faith and Light movement.
Johanna Greeve offers a deeply personal insight into the devastating effects of mental disability when she describes how a lifetime of mental illness and repeated bouts of severe depression almost led her to undergo voluntary euthanasia at the Swiss clinic, Dignitas. She tells of how the support of her parents, the pastoral care of her parish priest, and the ministrations of an attentive psychiatrist helped her to arrive at a place where “I dared to talk about ‘happiness’ for the first time.” For such women, the growing awareness of intellectual disability and mental illness being promoted by Gangemi, Galeotti and others is surely a sign of women responding to a vocation to hear and attend to some of the most marginalized people in the Church.
Women’s Vocations: The Backbone of the Church
Amidst these sometimes dramatic stories of vocation, conversion and transformation, this book includes many reflections on ordinary lives that together offer an insight into the extent to which women’s vocations are the backbone of the Church. In chaplaincies and parishes, Catholic women from all walks of life quietly minister to others, their presences often hidden, their efforts unnoticed. Time and again, contributors describe how their ability to fulfil these pastoral vocations is dependent upon the support of the hierarchy. While some receive positive support from church authorities, others have found their endeavours mocked or thwarted.
There are a number of contributions from women with vocations to religious life, and others who – notwithstanding the Church’s prohibition – experience a vocation to ordination. In a heartfelt piece on the nature of her vocation, Melissa Carnall writes of how she feels called to both religious life and priesthood:
I am called to be both Sister and priest, like my male friends in religious communities, who are called to be Brother and priest. The only difference is that I cannot answer my call in a straightforward way as they can because I am a woman. It hurts.
That is a refrain running through several of the stories in this book. “I cannot because I am a woman, and it hurts.”
Pope Francis has reiterated the teaching of his predecessors, that the question of women’s priesthood has been settled and the answer is no. “That is closed, that door,” he told a news conference. Yet in Evangelii Gaudium, he offers an image of a Church whose doors are always open:
The Church is called to be the house of the Father, with doors always wide open. One concrete sign of such openness is that our church doors should always be open, so that if someone, moved by the Spirit, comes there looking for God, he or she will not find a closed door (EG 47).
Despite his insistence that women cannot be ordained, Pope Francis has gone some way towards lifting the prohibition on discussing the issue which, under Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, became one of the litmus tests of Catholic orthodoxy. His decision to establish a commission to investigate the question of women deacons necessarily opens up the question of ordination, because the diaconate is an ordained ministry.
Called to Care for Creation
Finally, the theme of environmental awareness and respect for God’s creation is implicit in many of the contributions. Fredell writes of the centrality of wonder and the beauty of nature to religious life. Hadebe refers to the relationality of all created beings affirmed in Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’. Two contributors here – Mary Colwell and Melanie Newbould – tell of how they feel called to respond to the call to care for creation in their lifestyles and vocations. As the vision of that magnificent encyclical filters through the Church, we might hope that vast numbers of Catholics throughout the world will hear and respond to that call as an intrinsic dimension of what it means to be Catholic.
Laudato Si’ is an invitation not just to the universal Church but to all humankind to recognise that our vocation to become fully human calls us to a new relationship with one another and with all God’s creatures. Here too, women have much to offer, if we are invited into partnership and solidarity to respond to what might be God’s last and greatest call to humankind.
The lack of a gendered perspective in Laudato Si’ is another sign that the institutional Church has not yet begun to engage with the realities of women’s lives, nor to recognize the gifts they bring and the struggles they endure. It is disturbing that an encyclical that rightly shows deep concern for the suffering and abuse of Mother Earth and for the plight of the world’s threatened species and poorest communities, has nothing to say about the suffering of more than a quarter of a million of the world’s poorest women who die in causes relating to childbirth every year. There is much work to be done if “Mother Earth” is not to become yet another romantic fiction drawing women ever more deeply into ideas divorced from reality, and draining away the sacramental vitality and vision we need to be co-creators with God in the healing of the earth and its suffering species.
God speaks as a woman in labour in the Book of Isaiah:
For a long time I have held my peace,
I have kept still and restrained myself;
now I will cry out like a woman in labour,
I will gasp and pant. (Is. 42:14)
The women in this book are in labour with God as we struggle to bring to birth new vocations and visions – as mothers and/or daughters, as single, married, divorced, gay, trans, religious, young, old, in sickness and in health, from many cultures and communities and walks of life. We have stories to tell, visions to inspire and vocations to share.
 Bishop Timothy Doherty, “Book: Catholic Women Speak,” Catholic Moment, Diocese of Lafayette-in-Indiana, February 5, 2017, http://www.thecatholicmoment.org/bishop/2017/column020517.html
 Luke Hansen, SJ, “Bringing Doctrine to Life,” America: The Jesuit Review, November 28, 2016 issue at https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2016/11/17/bringing-doctrine-life.
 To read about the first book, see Tina Beattie, “A Place at the Table: The Story of ‘Catholic Women Speak’, Commonweal, March 29, 2016, at https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/place-table. To find out more about Catholic Women Speak, please visit our website: https://catholicwomenspeak.com/.
 Pope John Paul II, “Letter to Women,” 29 June 1995: 3, https://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/letters/1995/documents/hf_jp-ii_let_29061995_women.html.
 Pope Francis, TED2017, April 25, 2017, https://youtu.be/36zrJfAFcuc.
 See Deut 24: 19: “When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings.”
 Hannah Brockhaus, “Pope Francis reiterates a strong ‘no’ to women priests,” Catholic News Agency, November 1, 2016, https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/pope-francis-reiterates-a-strong-no-to-women-priests-71133.
 See Tim Reidy and Gerard O’Connell, “Vatican announces commission on women deacons,” America: The Jesuit Review, August 02, 2016, https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/pope-francis-reiterates-a-strong-no-to-women-priests-71133.