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mary of nazareth
Mary of Nazareth: Sign of God's Liberation

Whither Women of the Church?

The Easter cover of the Jesuit magazine America features an arresting portrait by Angel Rodriguez-Diaz depicting the “three Mary’s” at the tomb in Mark’s Gospel (16.1). Garbed in traditional Mexican dress, the women are bathed in soft light pouring from the tomb. Each face tells a slightly different story. A thirty-something Mary (the mother of James?) kneels, hands crossed reverently at her breast, gazing with steady eyes at a much-sought reality. Her lips are slightly parted as if in wonder or in prayer. A mature and regal Mary (of Magdala?) stands behind her. She is richly clad in royal blue with silver bracelets adorning strong arms folded resolutely across her chest. Her face is filled with strength, grief and determination. The third Mary (Salome?) is a young girl dressed in simple white peasant blouse, a red-fringed shawl around her waist, who seems on the verge of departing. She alone of the three is surrounded by an aura of light, yet her face is ambivalent, both sad and questioning as if peering into an uncertain future.

The stories reflected on the women’s faces could easily be echoed by contemporary Catholic women and men who find themselves alternately resolute, loving, grief stricken and confused by some Church leaders seemingly intent on diluting or extinguishing the compelling light of Jesus’ call to women.

A review of Catholic news reports in the past several months tells its own sad story.
Just in time for Holy Week, disputes break out in Boston, Atlanta and Peterboro, Ontario, about whether it is appropriate to wash women’s feet on Holy Thursday. Atlanta Bishop John F. Donoghue bans all female footwashing in all parishes. Thankfully, many Georgia parishes cancel the ritual rather than comply. FutureChurch member Lalor Cadley quickly organizes an inclusive footwashing ritual on cathedral steps attracting over 100 people who sing and pray with their towels and wash bowls.  “Its about serving one another in love,” Cadley said, “in some ways,[the Archbishop] has lost sight of the gospel message.”  

On March 9, Bishop Nicola De Angelis of Peterboro,Ontario, sends a letter to his priests saying he “had no choice” but to reverse the practice of his predecessor and order that only male feet could be washed.  A week later, apparently responding to widespread suggestions that he choose differently, he changes his mind and allows parishes to include women at their discretion.

Meanwhile, in a Holy Week address Boston Archbishop Sean O’Malley identifies “feminism” along with “the drug culture,” “the culture of death” and “hedonism” as one of the “secular evils” making the United States an “alien environment for Catholics.” O’Malley too, will wash only male feet, though he allows Boston pastors wider latitude.  After vigorous public criticism from Boston media and Catholic laity, including FutureChurch and Call to Action members, Massachusetts WomenChurch and Voice of the Faithful, O’Malley back pedals.  He defends his record on women, noting he appointed women chancellors in previous dioceses, but still maintains:  “...For the past 34 years I washed the feet of 12 men on Holy Thursday who represent the twelve apostles.The liturgy is a teacher of our doctrine and should not be tampered with.”  O’Malley is one of only a few U.S. bishops who refuse to wash female feet.  A 1987 statement by the U.S. Bishops said the “variation” of including women is permissible since, like Jesus, “all members of the church must serve one another in love.”

Even more disturbing than the footwashing fracas are indiscriminate mass
firings in early April of five high-ranking Catholic officials by Lexington Bishop Ronald Gainer. The terminations include the Chief Financial Officer, Stuart E. Duba, and four of the diocese’s top women leaders. They are Director of Education, Dr. Margaret Ralph who had been an employee of the Dioceses of Covington and Lexington for 30 years; Director of Parish Leadership, Sr.Liz Wendeln; Director of Lay Ministry Formation, Sr. Iris Ann Ledden; and Director of Pastoral Services and the Office of Religious, Sr. Helen Maher Garvy.  All the nuns had held respected leadership roles in their religious communities before taking positions with the Lexington diocese.

The purge was apparently carried out at the behest of a right wing wealthy group, the Association of Blue Grass Catholics (ABC). Gainer’s predecessor, Bishop J. Kendrick Williams, was a strong supporter of women in the Church. He was frequently harassed by the ABC who objected to his implementation of Vatican II. The group often tape recorded homilies of suspected priests and targeted the women leaders going so far as to offer Williams a million dollars to fire Dr. Ralph. These conservative Catholics objected to the women’s strong advocacy of greater lay involvement in Church leadership, particularly the New Faces of Ministry program designed to deal with the shortage of priests.  They accused them of exaggerating the priest shortage to shift pastoral control from priests to nuns or lay people.

Gainer announced that the five positions would be reorganized under the leadership of two deacons.  Severance pay was contingent upon signing an agreement negating the possibility of suing the Diocese. No evaluations and no communication about job performance were given. In a memo outlining the events, Sr. Helen Garvey asked: “What do these continuing unjust actions throughout our Church signal for the People of God?  How do we allow the dynamics of secrecy, misuse of power and arrogance, so evident in the sexual misconduct scandal, to persist in our church? The issue is one of a just process, which embodies the spirit of Vatican II and which respects the dignity of women.”

Meanwhile, back in Atlanta, Ann Price and Sally Horan were fired in early January, apparently for telling the archdiocese it wasn’t in compliance with new rules protecting children from sex abuse. Horan, a licensed counsellor, objected to the archdiocese’s policy of telling victims of alleged abuse to call church officials before calling police. Price was fired after the bishop’s advisory board told her a six-hour training workshop for clergy was too long. Both believe they were kept on just long enough for the archdiocese to pass the initial audit process.

With stories like these in the media is it any wonder that for the first time in eighteen years the number of people enrolled in lay ministry programs (66-80% of whom are women) has declined dramatically to only 25, 964 in 2003-2004?  This is a huge decrease from the 35,448 enrolled in 2002-2003, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. Another sobering fact is that few graduates from lay ministry programs find full time or even part time paid positions. Most work as volunteers in catechetics, youth ministry, liturgy or other parish ministerial positions, according to reports from programs that track their graduates.

Recent Vatican appointments of women to high level posts are welcome if long overdue. However they mean very little if local bishops do not respect and welcome women’s calls to serve equally with those of men.

In April, a Boston College “Church in the 21st Century” conference on “the Church Women Want” attracted more attendees from a wider geographic spectrum than other topics in the past year. Women and men of all ages came to hear Elizabeth Johnson speak about the history of patriarchal attitudes which provide the context for current Church policy denying women full participation. Bishop Matthew Clark shared his learnings from women enrolled in ministry programs in Rochester:  “Women want their experience to be heard, honored, integrated and absorbed; they want their church to be affirming to all and welcoming to all those currently excluded.”  Participants discussed strategies for changing an institution that they believe denies itself the full gifts and participation of all members. Foremost among these strategies said Sr. Jeannine Gramick, is to “speak up.”

Cadley and her Atlanta supporters as well as the Boston and Peterboro activists both priests and lay, and the Lexington and Atlanta women leaders who were fired unjustly, all deserve high praise for “speaking up.”

And where do the rest of us find the courage to speak?  Perhaps the faith reflected in the faces of our “three Mary’s” can both strengthen and summon contemporary women and men to once again “go and tell my brethren” the good news of Jesus’ life-giving, inclusive call. When will this liberating proclamation finally be heard, believed and welcomed by both leaders and laity in the Church?  Until it is, our future may well remain uncertain, an especially bleak prospect for younger Catholics who question Church practices so at odds with the ideals and practice of its founder.

Summer 2004



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