Take the punch: the Church and the abuse crisis

This piece was published in the Pastoral Review back in January.

I first saw the film Spotlight (Tom McCarthy), about the ground breaking Boston Globe investigation of the clerical sexual abuse crisis, shortly after it came out in 2015. As the audience left the cinema in silence and I walked home through the quiet evening streets, a single thought kept turning over in my mind: sometimes you just have to take the punch.Spotlight_(film)_poster

A couple of years earlier, my academic research had turned towards the abuse crisis, and I had spent months immersed in official reports and all the psychological and theological scholarly literature I could find. I knew the field pretty well, and my reaction on hearing some of the popular misconceptions about the crisis was usually to offer balance or a correction –pointing out, for example, that the percentage of priests in the Catholic Church who had abused children was roughly the same as the percentage of men in the population at large who had done so. But something about Spotlight left me uncomfortable with this habitual reaction, balanced and factual as it was: I felt that I had unintentionally aligned myself with those whose first instinct was to defend the reputation of the Church, and who had explained, minimised or excused to that end. I began to see that sometimes, even when the blows directed at the Church were unjust or untrue, there was something to be said for just taking the punch.

The same feeling has arisen in me again in recent months, in the wake of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report, but this time in relation to our own responses within the Church. Amid the assorted commentary on the crisis, from bishops, priests and journalists alike, and very frequently on Catholic Twitter, one hears calls for a ‘purge’ or ‘cleansing’ of the Church, variously directed towards rooting out abusers, or anyone perceived as being part of the problem, including a ‘gay subculture’ or gay priests tout court. Such calls go beyond the need to establish solid safeguarding procedures or pursue justice and accountability: in effect, they are saying, ‘These people do not belong in the Church and we must remove them.’ This kind of talk makes me deeply uneasy, for several reasons. Firstly, the ‘few bad apples’ narrative tends to forestall more searching questions about the way in which clerical sexual abuse and its concealment were bound up with enduring systemic and cultural factors. Secondly, a preoccupation with the purity and good name of the Church is what got us into this mess, and ramping it up a notch will not get us out of it: oxygen and honesty, not denial and repression, are the way forwards. My most profound unease, though, is ecclesiological. If in some way we are saying, ‘These people do not belong in the Church and we must remove them,’ then what are we saying about our own primary belonging? Who is the ‘we’ in this kind of call for action?

The fact is that sinners of every stripe do belong to the Church and cannot be removed from it. Priests can be laicised, people can be excommunicated, but nobody can be ‘debaptised’. This is what Paul is getting at when he says that one part of the body cannot say to another, ‘I do not need you.’ (1 Cor 12:21) This whole is an unavoidable fact, no more deniable than the integrity of our own bodies. So what happens when we divide ourselves into ‘we’ who do the purging and ‘they’ who must be removed? I managed a few months ago to cut my left thumb such that it needed stitches: the cut was sufficiently deep that the part of my thumb above the cut did not feel anything at all, and it was the rest of my body that registered the pain of what I had done. Just so with the Church: if we try to cut off a part that we do not like, we do so in defiance of its wholeness, and the part most wounded is the part that wields the knife. Why? Because if we wield a knife in this way, we are in effect saying that we belong not to the real Church, with its unavoidable sin, but to a group within it or above it, to ‘the pure’ or to ‘the innocent’. This becomes our primary identity, the ‘we’ we see when we look around us. So taunts against the Church do not fall on me, because I am not the sinners they are talking about, I have cut them off. But the wound I have inflicted is fatal, and fatal to me: I cannot cut ‘them’ off without cutting myself off from the real Church, and inhabiting instead a pure and painless fiction, which cannot bear my sin.

In this sense, to ‘take the punch’ means to admit the solidarity that can feel pain. Being whole is a precondition for feeling pain: I cannot feel a part that does not belong to me. If when I hear people criticising the Church, I say, ‘This doesn’t hurt me – after all, they are not talking about me,’ then perhaps I have withdrawn myself into belonging to ‘the innocent’. But if when I hear people railing against the Church, I can say, ‘This hurts because they are talking about me,’ then I have admitted my membership of this hurting body, which bears my sin as well as theirs. To take the punch is to refuse the temptation to occupy the seat of judgement, and to remain, steadfast and hurting, in the only place where I can hope to receive mercy.


A manger full of sh…


I once sang in a carol concert where the soloist in ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ managed to get his words mixed up to great comic effect. Instead of singing, ‘Enough for him whom cherubim worship night and day, a breastful of milk and a manger full of hay,’ he sang, ‘Enough for him whom cherubim worship day and night, a breastful of milk and a manger full of…’ Halfway through the line the rest of the choir cottoned on to the obvious rhyme and dissolved into fits of poorly-subdued laughter. Every year when I sing that carol I have to restrain myself from belting out, ‘Maaanger fuuuull of sh––…’ with an enormous grin on my face.

A manger full of shite. We all have one, and this is partly why the emphasis in Advent falls on preparation: ‘Prepare a way for the Lord’, ‘Stay awake’, ‘Make ready’, ‘Prepare him room’. Although we know Jesus will be born among animals, we want the stable of our lives to be as nice and fragrant as we can possibly make it. But the image of the place we so want to prepare for Jesus, and the stable we picture for ourselves on Christmas cards (complete with telltale warm glow, reverent and attentive beasts, quaintly rustic but not-too-authentic shepherds and so on) can mean that we miss the real thing, and the real birth that happens in the unsanitary conditions of our real lives.

Among the novels I read this year was Shusaku Endo’s Silence. I’ve heard many different reactions to the novel’s ending, some understanding, some bewildered and some disappointed. But as the final pages unfolded –the scene with Rodrigues and the fumi-e, the discovery of the fate of Ferreira– one thought emerged, and stayed with me: ‘How small God makes himself.’ God, it turns out, is small enough to conceal himself in the ruins of heroism, small enough to conceal himself in shame, and in very ordinary humiliation.

I found myself thinking about that again this morning: how small God makes himself, and how much humility God has, to be born in our humiliation. Faced with our failure to make much progress in tidying ourselves up, our response is usually to shut the door on God, rather than to accept our own humiliation and God’s unbearably merciful presence in it. We all have an inner innkeeper, who would rather say, ‘No room!’ than invite God in to our manger full of shite.

We easily lose sight of the fact that Jesus chooses to be born not in the palace of our strength, but in the stable of our weakness. So what if, faced with suffering, humiliation, pain, our own sinful mess, we allowed that to be the stable? What if these ‘mangers full of shite’ became places in ourselves that we approached with tenderness? God is a lot humbler than we are, and makes himself small enough to be born there, if we are humble enough to let him.






Little Cactus and the Big Hope

Desert Cactus HD Wallpapers 3

This week I have been reading a book about St Thérèse of Lisieux, and I have come to the conclusion that I am never going to be a saint. Increasingly, I realise that the lineaments of my character are more or less fixed, as though the wind changed somewhere in my late twenties and I am stuck, less Little Flower, more Little Cactus.

One thing I share with St Thérèse, however, is great desires: I want to be a saint. The realisation that I am unlikely ever to overcome the pricklier parts of my character does not undermine the desire at all. Yes, I am acerbic, prickly, inwardly turbulent, scarcely selfless, and however much I might want to die to self, my terrier-like ego has other ideas. It may be only on my deathbed that the Lord will finally, and with infinite gentleness, manage to take from me all that I have not been able to hand over. But I will not cut my desires down to the size of my abilities. Give me honesty, give me failure, give me grace to change, give me mercy when I fall short, but do not give me a lesser hope. I want to be a saint.

This is why I think that perhaps the worst manifestation of increasing secularism in this country are the miserable little framed quotations you see in home decorating shops, offering folksy motivational advice: ‘Work hard and be nice to people’, ‘Think positive and things will happen’, ‘All good things are wild and free.’ (All these are genuine examples –presumably the last does not include viruses and serial killers.) Hey, we’re postmodern, these signs say. We don’t subscribe to the grand old metanarratives. We just want to be nice, be liked, have fun, do whatever we want as long as it doesn’t harm anyone, and avoid too much damage if things don’t go as planned. We want dreams within reach.

This week I took part in a Q&A session with Confirmation candidates, and for an hour and a half three other women and I fielded any question they wanted to ask. The difficult topics, of course, came up: the role of women in the Church, the Church’s teaching on homosexuality, the problem of believing in a world of great suffering. Sometimes, after giving our answers, we straw-polled the room to find out what the candidates themselves thought. What saddened me was the reaction to the Church’s teaching on marriage and family life. It wasn’t angry rejection or critical interaction, just blank incomprehension. Why not have divorce? Why not have abortion? There was just no sense that these were even questions. What I found sad was that these children had not heard –at least not in a way that got through to them– about marriage and family life as a vocation, as an ideal, as a kind of sanctity to be desired, even if you might always fall short of it. They hadn’t heard about grace and mercy as the life and breath of this kind of vocation, the expansive love of God that fills the space between the beautiful, terrifying vocation we have embraced, and our honest and struggling efforts to live it. The Church’s teaching wasn’t perceived as a call to holiness, just as arbitrary and needlessly difficult rules. And saddest thing was that the vision these young people had instead didn’t seem more humane or more realistic – it just seemed smaller. Somehow, somewhere along the line, we have failed to reach these young people, and the beautiful teaching of the Church on marriage and family life has been traded in for the vague motivational slogan version: love, laugh, live, no harm, no foul. It’s not that it’s bad. It’s just that it’s less.

I came away thinking that evangelisation is not just about bringing people to an encounter with God. It’s also about bringing people to an encounter with the depth and beauty of their own human vocation. They deserve no less.

The User’s Guide to Verity

One of the things I love about Mary Ward was her remarkable ability to hang on to the truth of her vocation amid a firestorm of opposition, and to do so with great grace, mw statue pilgrimfreedom and humility. From the beginning of her religious vocation, right until the end of her life, she faced significant opposition: first, as a young woman, from her parents and her spiritual director, and then from Jesuits who opposed her vision for women’s religious life, from assorted bystanders -the English clergy chief among them- and from the Holy Office and the Pope himself. The opposition varied from pressure from those who loved her, and considered opposition from her spiritual director, to stonewalling and obstruction, to slander and rumour: opposition from properly constituted sources of authority, as well as just ‘haters’. And all of this happened against a background of societal opposition, in the sense of a weight of assumptions about what women could and could not, should and should not do – which Mary Ward, to some extent, internalised in her early years and subsequently resisted.

What’s remarkable is her capacity to resist in the face of this opposition, and to hold on to the truth that she has discerned. She doesn’t get broken by the constant opposition, and nor does she become hardened by it.

The question I’ve been asking myself over the last few months is: what can we learn from Mary Ward about how to discern, with freedom and humility, in the face of opposition and difficulty? So here, in five steps, is the User’s Guide to Verity…

1. Seek space and preserve it.

‘after businesses, I go (with fear to have assumed something) to find myself in God, without any will, or private interest, and with a will only to have his will; which I cease not until I find, especially in that particular wherein I feared to have lost it.’

                                          Spiritual notebook, Liege, October 1619

The Painted Life series doesn’t show much of the opposition Mary faced. We see her parents talking over her head, trying to arrange a marriage, but we don’t see Mary dealing with the Cardinals of the Holy Office, or in prison in Munich. What we do see depicted very often is Mary in solitary prayer, or alone with Christ. Her ability to keep Painted_Life_of_Mary_Ward_49that space of prayer open is key to her freedom. Whatever is happening, she finds a way to be alone with Christ, the ‘friend of friends’: she allows him to clear out, like the Temple, all of the people who are trying to sell her versions of what she should be and do. She makes space to rest, to listen. And she’s not just checking in to inform the Lord of her decisions: it’s clearly a conversation, and Jesus is often depicted speaking and gesturing.

The solitude she seeks before God is not just an echo chamber for her own ideas and feelings. Mary remains clear that the truth she seeks is not ‘her truth’ but God’s truth:

Veritas Domini manet in aeternum, the verity of our Lord remains forever. It is not veritas hominum, verity of men, nor verity of women, but veritas Domini, and this verity women may have as well as men: if we fail, it is for want of this verity, and not because we are women.’

                                                Three speeches, St Omer December 1617

 2. Live hand-to-mouth, even when it’s costly

Faced with opposition, there is a temptation to ‘go beyond the leading’ – to make ourselves more certain than we are, present ourselves to others as more sure than we are, and tidy up the loose ends of our discernments. Mary Ward showed herself remarkably able to live hand-to-mouth out of what she was given by God, preferring to move step by step, even when this brought further difficulty and ridicule, than reach for a complete solution before it was shown her.

This was a self-conscious attitude, and in a few places in her writings we see her contrasting this hand-to-mouth dependence on verity, which she felt was so crucial for her and her sisters, with the Jesuits, who had more learning on which to depend.

A letter to the Papal Nuncio in 1621 gives three good examples. All of them relate to her decision to leave the Poor Clares, and the subsequent years of discerning a way forward:

‘[there] came suddenly upon me such an alteration and disposition, as only the operation of an inexpressible power could cause, with a sight and certainty that I was not to remain there [in the monastery], and that I was to do some other thing – but what in particular I was not shown…’

‘I had a second infused light in the same manner, but much more distinctly, showing that the work to be done was not a Carmelite monastery, but something greater for God, and so great an augmentation of his glory as I cannot declare, but not any directparticulars, what, how and in what manner such a work should be. After this light was past, I reflected on it with some sadness… to have still all denied me, and nothing proposed in particular seemed somewhat hard, and besides, I was anxious about how to govern my affection in these two contraries for the time being.’

‘A great fuss was made by diverse spiritual and learned men, that we should take upon us some rule of life that was already confirmed; several rules were procured by our friends, both from Italy and from France, and we were earnestly urged to choose one of them. But they seemed not what God would have done, and the refusal of them caused much persecution, and all the more because I refused all of them, but could not say in particular what I desired or found myself called unto.’

                                    Letter to Nuncio Albergati, Köln or Trier, May/June 1621

3. Be clear-sighted about self and others

Facing opposition can make discernment very difficult. It can make us question our own motives more than we should, or doubt our instincts: critics can have a ‘gaslighting’ effect. It can also make us less willing to question our own motives. Where we are bound up with a particular cause or work, opposition can erode our freedom in relation to it. We begin to be identified with a work, with no remainder, discerning our role in it becomes much more difficult.

Mary Ward’s spiritual notes and correspondence show us just how self-aware she is: sure of what she has received, and strongly connected to the work, but aware that God can do what he wills through whom he will. At the same time, she’s not forever questioning herself: her trust that this God’s work extends to a sense that this is God’s work in and through her, with all her imperfections.

We can see this in some retreat notes written during the ‘Praxedis affair’, where a Sr Praxedis caused significant disruption in the Saint Omer community, with another vision of the way forward (backed by some of the English Jesuits):

‘somewhat troubled, I repeated often that he [God] could do what he would, and by whom he would, asking myself, ‘Why not by any other, as well as by me?’ Looking back to the beginning of my call to this course of life, I saw in particular how hardly, and with much ado, I was brought by God to do the little I had done… That with those graces, anyone else would have been moved as soon, and many far sooner, and that this good had no being or place in me, except by the working of his grace… Then, turning with God with intent to confess my own nothingness, I found (by force of will, against my knowledge), I would still be of importance, and a necessary person. Then sad, I said, ‘What, still something in my own sight, notwithstanding all these reasons and truths to the contrary? Well, my Lord, I am content with this want, pardon it and punish it as you please.’ Coming to conclude, and offering myself to God, I saw myself little and of less importance for this work. God’s will and wisdom seemed great, and his power such, and of such force, as strongly to affect in an instant, or with a look, whatever he would.

                        Meditation on the calling of the apostles, Liege October 1619

4. Resist pressure, not people

 Mary Ward had an amazing ability to keep relationships and friendships going, in spite of serious differences of opinion.

We can see this in the way she deals with friends and allies, for example her spiritual director Roger Lee SJ, to whom she made a vow of obedience. Although she increasingly disagreed with the way that he was proposing as her own sense of her vocation became clearer, she never just ‘humoured’ him or obeyed him outwardly while doing her own thing inwardly. We can see in her spiritual notebook how much she tried to submit her will to his. This is important because the temptation to become a ‘lone ranger’ in the face of opposition is significant, as is the temptation to spiritually disinvest in relationships of obedience.

We see it, too, in the way Mary Ward deals with her enemies. She is incredibly straightforward, to the point of naivety, with the people in the Vatican with whom she has to deal. (I mean, she meets the Pope about her request for approbation, and tells him to pray about it, which takes some nerve!) Her companions also talk about her willingness to forgive:

‘When she had received any injury, it was her special care first to find within herself an entire pardon, deep and heartfelt, not formal and verbal, then to pray for them and seek out occasion to render them service, and this with efficacy but not without prudence, knowing and avoiding the effect of their ill-will and malice, as also to discern what in them was good and what bad.’

                                                                        Vita E 194

 Interestingly, the codeword that the first companions use for their enemies in their correspondence is ‘Jerusalems’. It’s a telling choice, I think: these enemies and trials are painful, but they are not outside of God’s purposes.

5. Friendship

Lastly, I think the key is friendship. I mean this first in the sense of friendship with God, and ‘friend’ is perhaps the most important way that Mary Ward experienced and talked about God: she calls God ‘friend of friends’.

As a young woman, Mary Ward was very ardent, and had great desires to be a martyr – she spent a lot of time thinking about how and when it would happen. (Two of her uncles were Gunpowder Plotters, btw, so this wasn’t totally weird.) But as she grows up, we see her distancing herself from this self-immolation kind of devotion, and from devotional practices ‘made by constraint’ rather than out of love. For Mary Ward, Christ is not so much a lover, who demands proof of her love or constant suffering, and she certainly icrdoesn’t have a ‘Jesus, it’s you and me against the world’ mentality. What she has is a very steady friendship.

Mary Ward did not make a habit of being misunderstood or lonely, either. Her correspondence with the early companions shows her not in the least self-absorbed, but not a burning martyr either. She’s also obviously capable of being a friend to herself, and I like this rather more than self-love or self-acceptance. She has a capacity to take care of herself sensibly, to bear with her faults even as she sees them.

Finally, here’s Mary Ward herself on freedom:

‘Freedom: that things desired were still desired, and with an efficacy and readiness to do them, but without solicitude; things contrary disliked, but without anxiety, the mind equally satisfied whichever of these contraries should happen. The chief effect: one loves, or avoids, according to knowledge [already discerned], one is ready to do, or not do, yet indifferently resigned whatsoever happens; one sees the danger of averse things, but without fear, anxiety or trouble, only a quiet confidence that God will do his will. In conclusion, one is free from all, and desires only one thing, which is to love God, and here one remains free and contented… This disposition gives no new insight as to what things should be done or how, but only the truth of things present and already known and understood, loving and rejecting as there is cause to do so, and equally resigned with what God shall permit.’

Spiritual Notes, Spa July 1616



Good with a good spirit


Paval Hadzinski @Flickr

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about women in the Church called ‘Great Things’. It was about two things: the need for change, so that the light that women bring to the Church can be on the lampstand, not under a tub, and the need to remain always in the way of Jesus, who tells us that ‘anyone who wants to be first among you must be your servant’.

Although the post was about the position of women in the Church, it sprang in part from a deeper journey. Over the last two years, I have come to realise that I am not just writing about peacebuilding, but being called by the Lord to become more and more nonviolent. Through being accompanied and changed by those without power, I have sensed the Lord calling me to share in his powerlessness, his refusal to retaliate. Somewhere in that bearing and hoping, that nonviolence and absolute trust in God, is the passage from death to resurrection that is at the heart of the paschal mystery. As the children’s classic We’re Going on a Bear Hunt puts it: ‘We can’t go over it… we can’t go under it… oh no! We’ve got to go through it!’

This growing sense that I am called to nonviolence, as well as my experience in Guyana struggling against embedded injustice, has led me to reflect often on Pierre Favre’s maxim about ‘doing good with a good spirit’.

This is Pope Francis on the subject:

‘We can also take a step forward in doing good with a good spirit: “thinking with the Church”, as St Ignatius says. It is also a distinctive service of the Society [of Jesus] to


St Pierre Favre SJ

facilitate the discernment of how we do things. Faber formulated it by asking for the grace that “all the good that can be realized, thought, and organized, be done with a good spirit, not a bad spirit”. This grace of discerning, which is not limited to thinking, doing, and organizing the good, but also doing these things with a good spirit, is what roots us in the Church in which the Spirit works and distributes his various gifts for the common good. Faber used to say that in many cases those who wanted to reform the Church were right, but God did not wish to correct the Church using their methods, the methods they proposed.’

(Pope Francis, Address to GC36, 24th October 2016)

‘Doing good with a good spirit’ has come back to me often over the past few weeks, when there has been so much written and said about women in the Church, from the Osservatore Romano article on women religious in the Vatican, to the Voices of Faith conference, at which Mary McAleese described the Church as ‘a primary global carrier of the virus of misogyny,’ a ‘male bastion of patronising platitudes’, confined ‘to recycled thinking among a hermetically sealed cosy male clerical elite flattered and rarely challenged by those tapped for jobs in secret and closed processes.’

I found those words painful. Yes, we need change in order to have the ‘more incisive presence’ of women in the Church that Pope Francis has spoken about – change that is by no means confined to the hierarchy, as I’ve said elsewhere. But I also believe that we must have ‘good with a good spirit’. This is not about ‘play nice and you’ll get what you want’, which women hear so often. It is a sort of active Gamaliel principle: if it is of God, it will happen, but God’s work must be done in God’s way. That means with mercy, with charity, with patience, with understanding for the sheer humanness of others – whether or not those attitudes are ever reciprocated or even recognised. It’s true that frustration and anger are not always of the bad spirit, but we have to be –I have to be– sensitive and humble enough to spot when the bad spirit is using our frustration and anger for his own ends, rather than God’s. We must do good with a good spirit.

Mary Ward wanted change, and she challenged the Church of her day to recognise that ‘there is no such difference between men and women, that women may not do great things’. She pushed the limits –and ended up in prison– but was also deeply obedient, all her life, trusting that the God who gave her her vocation, who ‘would not deceive me, nor could he be deceived’, also spoke in the Church, even in ways that were hard to understand or accept. She always strove to ‘do good with a good spirit’ and lived, I think, in that bearing and hoping which is at the heart of the paschal mystery. She died in failure, in trust, in hope. We live.

The Church needs all of us if it is to remain faithful to the Lord: instinctive conservatives and instinctive innovators, people who will push and people who will hold back. Sometimes it also needs conflict, as the Lord struggles through us to show us the way forward. I do not wish to accuse anyone of bad faith, and perhaps this path of nonviolent change is my particular vocation only. But whatever we do, please – let us ‘do good with a good spirit’.



When I told some of my community that I was running the London marathon this year, one of them said, ‘Do you want to do it in a veil?’ She was only half kidding. Cue some consideration from me, and much discussion with others. The ‘ayes’ thought it would amazing publicity for religious life (always assuming people didn’t think you were on a hen do and had somehow got caught up in the race by accident), along the lines of ‘Lo, sisters still exist, and some are young and run marathons!’ The ‘nays’ said that, as I didn’t wear a habit normally, and nor did any of the other CJ sisters in the UK, it didn’t make much sense.

The visibility discussion is one I have pretty regularly with all kinds of people, from laypeople or bystanders interested in religious life -and interested in why I’m not wearing a habit- to other priests and religious, particularly of the post-Vatican II generations.

In my own community, the Congregation of Jesus, we don’t wear religious dress in this province. We used to wear a pretty full-on habit, which changed in the 80s to something simpler, along the lines of a long skirt and a veil. Many of our sisters worldwide still wear religious dress of this kind: not a defined ‘habit’ as such, but a recognisably-a-religious assemblage. Nowadays in the English province, we all wear secular dress. Talking to our older sisters about their decision to come out of religious dress is interesting. Some of them talk of experiencing religious dress as a barrier, which prevented genuine encounters with people. Instead of seeing and encountering you, they would see and encounter their prejudices and preconceptions about religious life, or just dismiss you as ‘good sister so-and-so’ and pay no attention at all. Coming out of religious dress meant being really able to meet people where they were. Some sisters have also spoken to me about having no privacy when they wore religious dress, in the sense of the privacy that comes from just being able to blend in. One priest I know speaks of his positive decision not to wear a clerical shirt all the time: he wants his appearance to communicate to people, ‘I’m not on some special, holy, higher journey – I’m on the same journey as you.’ That last remark, in particular, resonates with me.

We are fortunate as a congregation, insofar as Mary Ward’s attitude to religious dress seems to have been practical: mission comes first, and you wear what you need to to get the job done. Thus, our sisters wore religious dress when they were on the Continent (kind of a mucked-about Jesuit cassock type thing…), and disguise when they were in England, where Catholicism was illegal, and wearing religious dress would have meant pretty swift arrest. ‘Mission first, and clothing serves the mission’ is still my preferred way of approaching a question that can carry huge ideological freight. The question is: what is our mission now, in a culture very different to the 1960s? Do we need to revisit the issue of visibility?

The question is a neuralgic one, and can easily get bound up in the Catholic ‘culture wars’, or in intergenerational misunderstandings or miscommunication. Younger religious for whom recognisable religious dress is important can hurt older religious, for whom shedding the habit was a careful discernment and not a mere matter of convenience or a personal whim. At the same time, older religious can perceive younger religious who do want to wear a habit as ‘conservative’, ‘immature’, ‘tied to the externals’, or simply assume that they will ‘grow out of’ their need for outer religious symbols. Neither is helpful, and I suspect neither is true.

I respect absolutely the discernment made by the older generations of my province to come out of the habit, and if we’re going by Mary Ward’s own rule of ‘mission first, outfit later,’ then I think it was the right decision for their time. But the question remains for me, as for many others of my generation in religious life: do we need to revisit the issue of visibility?

Why is this a question for my generation? (I should add that ‘generation’ here is loose. I mean people of my age as well as my stage, so I’m including people who entered religious life aged 45+ but are still in formation.) Most of us grew up without knowing religious, and without seeing them: they were not in our parishes or in our schools. The religious life option simply wasn’t visible. That might seem superficial, but think on it: we know that people who grow up in deprived communities are much less likely to become doctors, lawyers etc., and part of the problem is that there are fewer role models for them. What we don’t know and can’t see we don’t think of as a possibility. I think for people in my generation, there’s often a desire for religious to be more visible not just to ‘the world’ or culture at large, but specifically to the Church. We need the sign that is religious life -a sign of a different way of being in a world more stiflingly obsessed than ever with money, sex and power- but we can’t see it.

I think, too, that my generation want to revisit the questions of mission and privacy. For sure, a habit is going to be a barrier for some people. One of our sisters told me that, when you were wearing a habit, you never knew how many people didn’t talk to you for that reason – people who looked at you and thought you might judge them, or that you were too other-worldly to talk to. But, talking to priests especially, I’m often struck by the opposite: we don’t know how many people don’t talk to us because they can’t see us. A Jesuit friend, who rarely wears a collar, has told me of many encounters that happened on the occasions he was wearing one: hearing confession on a station platform, being asked to pray for people, conversations on trains. Our society is increasingly secularised, but there is still a thirst in people for encountering God, and a thirst for encountering people whose lives are all about God. Forty years ago, a habit got in the way of those kind of encounters. But now, in a changed world, might religious dress enable encounters like these, too – even at the cost of a privacy which, quite honestly, I’d prefer to preserve?

Our sisters came out of religious dress because, symbolically, it had become too heavy to move in easily: it bore the weight of a theology that said religious life was a ‘more perfect way’, set apart from the world and superior to it. Does it say that today? To an older generation who remember the pre-Vatican II years, possibly, but for my generation, definitely not. The symbol of a ‘nun’s outfit’ -people don’t even know the word ‘habit’ anymore- means practically nothing except hen dos, fancy dress and kitsch: it has been evacuated of meaning. The problem is that nothing has taken its place. One of our sisters, disapproving of the idea of running a marathon in a habit said, ‘Couldn’t you wear something else that showed you were a sister?’ But a CJ t-shirt (much as I like our ‘Brownie uniform’!) and the cross of my order communicate precisely nothing to most people. Very observant Catholics would be lucky to spot it if I was three feet away. There just isn’t anything that says ‘I’m a sister’ in the same way as a habit does, if immediate visual recognition is what you’re after. I think this is partly key to understanding the attitudes of younger religious who do wear religious dress. It’s often perceived by older religious and laypeople alike as ‘going back to the past’, but I think this is not entirely accurate. At least in part, it’s the pragmatic use of a symbol that has largely lost its content, and which -to an extent- we can re-populate with different content. The generation of bricolage away are using that symbol to say a range of things, from communicating that members of the religious life are ‘not of the world’ and reject its values (perhaps especially those to do with women’s appearance) to communicating that religious are ‘for others’, and therefore recognisable in the same way that public servants like police officers are. The symbol can also have less positive content. Habits don’t mean one thing.

What do I think about the issue of visibility, personally? I don’t know. I don’t like the way that the question has become so ideologically freighted, especially for women. I know that for some apostolic congregations it’s an all-or-nothing issue, either habit all the time or not at all, but I don’t think it necessarily needs to be approached in this way. I think it should be discerned on the basis of mission, not as a one-off, but continually. I think that I need to have the spiritual freedom to consider wearing something recognisable, as well as free not to do so. Personally, 99% of the time I don’t like the idea of wearing religious dress. I also recognise, very honestly, that a lot of that is to do with wanting to defend my privacy and anonymity, so I can go where I want and do what I want without people always looking weirdly at me or taking photos. (One of our young German sisters who wears religious dress was once asked by a waitress, ‘Are you real?’) Yet, if I am to be searingly honest, I suspect that kind of reticence is selfishness, and that is not a good reason. So I don’t know, and I suspect the visibility issue will be an ongoing question for me. What I do know is that, ultimately, I want to be free to do whatever helps me to encounter others, and helps them to encounter God.

And you’ll just have to watch the marathon to find out what I decided…


Great things

Recently, I was asked if I wanted to contribute to a panel event on the place of women in the Catholic Church. The organisation wanted someone who would be able to put across their message – that the Catholic Church needs to put more women in positions of El_Greco,_Annunciationleadership. Eventually, it became clear that I was not able to put across their message in the way they hoped. What I wanted to say was, ‘Well, yes – but not for the reasons you give.’ It gave me an opportunity to think through, very seriously, what I think about power in the Church, and what I think about women in the Church and -because it’s how I clarify my thought– I ended up writing something about it. Below is that something. In a debate where there are strong views on both sides, and not much in the middle, it seemed important to put it out there, because it’s very hard for anything other than the entrenched positions of ‘right’ and ‘left’ to gain a hearing.

I speak for nobody but myself. It may not be what I always think on the issue, nor how I always feel, but for now, this is it. And I will say this once only: I am not talking about ordination, in my own or any other denomination.

Great Things

There is no such difference between men and women that women may not do great things.’

Mary Ward, 1617

There have been times in my life when I have felt deeply frustrated, even angry, with the Church: times when I have felt trapped, unable to fully flourish or find a place in the Church, but unable to walk away. There have been times when I have felt that I cannot serve the Lord in the way I want to within the Church, and wondered whether I should leave.

It is obvious to me now that these were periods of deep desolation. ‘You can’t flourish here,’ ‘You can’t serve the Lord here,’ ‘You should give up,’– these are thoughts that come from the dark spirit, who wants nothing more than to discourage us and draw us away from the Lord. But, as I look back, it is also clear that these periods of desolation were part of the ‘growing pains’ of an ecclesial vocation. From a young age, I had desired religious life, and as a young woman in my twenties pursuing theological study, I had a growing sense that I wanted all my gifts to be placed in the hands of the Lord. Even as a successful career in academia beckoned, I knew that I wanted something different. I wanted to live my life explicitly for the greater glory of God, and to be more generously at his disposal.

Eventually this desire brought me into religious life in the Congregation of Jesus. There I was blessed with a deeply wise and humane novice director, from whom I learned a good deal about discernment, and about desolation. In desolation, she would say, there is usually a grain of truth, because otherwise it wouldn’t get under the radar. As I reflect on those periods of desolation, this strikes me: in my desolation, my feelings of frustration and pain with the Church, my feeling unable to find a place where I could give of myself, there was a grain of truth.

What was it?

Before I answer, let me tell you something about the journey into religious life. I have already said something about my growing desire to live for God, and to place my gifts in his service. As a theologian, I also had a growing sense of a vocation to serving the Church, rather than the ends of the secular academy.  During those years of discernment, I remember coming across a book in the university library, Karl Rahner’s Ignatius of Loyola: Letters to a Young Jesuit. I remember exactly where I was when I read this sentence, about the Jesuit vow not to seek office in the Church: ‘[T]he motive,’ Rahner says,

‘…is Jesus, dying unto death, Jesus himself and not a socio-political calculation. He alone can preserve you from the fascination of power which exists in a thousand forms in the Church and which will always remain there; he alone can rescue you from the only too plausible thought that basically you can only serve mankind by having power; he alone can make the Holy Cross of his powerlessness understandable and acceptable.’

It struck me so much I committed it to memory. The only too plausible thought that basically you can only serve others by having power over them, the fascination of power and, standing apart from these two on the cross of powerlessness, Jesus, dying unto death, Jesus himself.

The journey of my formation in the Congregation of Jesus has meant coming closer to Jesus himself, dying unto death, and knowing him better. It has also been a painful process of realizing just how deeply rooted that ‘fascination with power’ is in me, and in all of us, because we are human.

Let me explain. In the Spiritual Exercises, just before we begin contemplating the public ministry of Jesus, Ignatius places before us the Meditation on the Two Standards. In one scene we see Satan, on a throne of flame, scattering his demons to tempt people in all walks of life to riches, position and pride. In the other scene we see Jesus, on a low plain, not compelling us but attracting us to him, and sending us out to call people to poverty, and to humility. At the end of this meditation we pray earnestly for poverty, we pray to be belittled and humiliated. This is not some pious gesture. Ignatius was someone who knew just how deep the desire for glory went in his own soul, and just how completely opposite is the way of Christ.

At the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, Ignatius gives us a very clear picture: this is how God does things. God becomes flesh, a provincial peasant in an oppressed nation. God spends his life among the poor and rejected, among those at the bottom of the pile, and it is here, among the lowest and least noticed, that the Kingdom comes and grows, quietly, like dough rising. Jesus himself never held a position of power; he could not compel others to listen to him, only attract. In the end, Jesus dies, crucified by those in power, like a lamb never opening its mouth. This is how God does things. This is God’s way of having influence, God’s way of exercising power, and it goes against everything in us.

But if we want to follow him, this is how we must be. This is why Ignatius gives us this picture before he asks us to make a decision about whose side we are on, about who we want to follow. He knew how deep the roots of that fascination with power go, and they go deep in me, and in every person. It’s easy to read Ignatius’ description with a sense of relief: ‘Temptation to riches, position and pride? Oh, that’s not me, I don’t want riches or a great position.’ Don’t you? Don’t you shrink from humiliation, defend yourself, and strike out against those who belittle you? Don’t you want recognition, success, praise? How easily these things slip in, under the appearance of good! How often during my noviceship I wanted my small congregation to be a bit bigger, a bit younger, a bit more dynamic, a bit more successful – something to take a bit of worldly pride in! And how often I learned that God was glorified, not in what was strong, but in our weakness, our frailty, in lives of quiet and ordinary faithfulness.

Christ is the power and the wisdom of God, and that power seems to us to be weakness and foolishness. This is how God works. And this is why we cannot, must not ambition for power, whether we are women or whether we are men. We must not look at the Church with the eyes of the world, and say, ‘Where are the top positions?’, and then aim for them for that reason, because they are ‘top’. Jesus saw his disciples doing this, and he said ‘It shall not be so among you.’ If we ambition for power in the Church, we part company with Jesus: we go our way, and he goes his, carrying the cross. Please note that I am not saying that to find oneself in a position of power or leadership in the Church is leaving Jesus behind! But if we ambition for office, for leadership, just because it is ‘being top’, and we think ‘being top’ is what counts, then all is lost. This is not the way of Jesus.

During my formation, prayer, community life, and accompanying those who are poor and marginalized has brought me closer to Jesus himself. It has shown me just how much I need to be converted to the way of Jesus, and just how deeply the fascination of power goes in me. Especially in working with the destitute, and with indigenous peoples, I have experienced Jesus calling me to come closer to the Holy Cross of his powerlessness.

This is where I am now, but what of the beginning? I spoke at the beginning about times of desolation when I felt unable to flourish, unable to find a place in the Church. Yes, some of that was the fascination with power, the dark spirit masquerading as an angel of light. But there was a grain of truth in it.

The grain of truth is this:

It is not wrong to want to be a lamp, alight and shining.

As well as insisting that his men should not ambition for office, Ignatius gave his Society the phrase ad majorem Dei gloriam. It is repeated over and over in his writings, it is the keystone of discernment: we decide whatever is for the greater glory of God. The desire for glory in the old Ignatius becomes the desire for God’s glory, the straining always for the magis, for what is greater.

For the foundress of my own congregation, Mary Ward, that meant a vision that women could do great things for the glory of God. She saw the pressing needs of her age, in the Church and in the world, and she saw how much women could do for the greater glory of God – apostolic work, teaching, catechesis, pastoral work. She spent her life trying to establish apostolic religious life for women, modeled on the Society of Jesus. But the Council of Trent had insisted on enclosure for women, and the Vatican hierarchy of the day was not ready for Mary’s vision of the magis. Mary Ward faced profound interior struggle, ridicule, accusations of disobedience, even –at one stage- imprisonment and excommunication by the Holy Office. She burned for the greater glory of God, and she could not let go of the truth that God had given her:

‘there is no such difference between men and women, that women may not do great things… I hope in God it will be seen that women in time to come will do much’

                                                Mary Ward, 1617

It is not wrong to want to be a lamp, alight and shining. It is not wrong to want my life to blaze for the greater glory of God.

If we look at the Church in our day, there are, as there were in Mary Ward’s day, many things that prevent the light that women carry from shining out. Women in our time are doing much, but they can do greater things yet for the glory of God. But seeking these ‘great things’ is not about looking at where the positions of power and influence are, and asking why women are not represented. It shall not be so among you! It is about lifting up the bushel basket, taking the light that women are bringing to the Church, and putting it on the lampstand.

Let me give some examples.

  • When women religious whose charism is pastoral work among the poor are treated by the parish priest as domestic servants, so that they are not free to pursue their work. Their light shines, but under a tub.
  • When young, gifted laywomen cannot find scope for exercising their gifts, and the only roles open to them are ‘assistant’ roles in which they can exercise only limited initiative, leadership and vision. Their light shines, but under a tub.
  • When women who have been engaged in the frontline struggle for justice and peace for years are forgotten when it comes to finding an advisor to a Bishop’s Conference, because that role has always been filled by a priest before. Their light shines, but not on the lampstand.
  • When women’s religious congregations do not educate their members, or do so only to the minimal extent necessary, so that the richness of their formation is constrained by the paucity of roles traditionally open to women in the Church, or in their society. The light of those women continues to shine, but not on the lampstand.
  • When women religious rarely end up in positions of leadership, in spite of their gifts, because their congregations are small and do not run their own institutions. Their light shines, but not on the lampstand.

Let me note three things: first, this is not just about women. In most cases it applies to laypeople, both men and women. Second, it is not just about the Church. The world puts women’s light under a bushel as well, and in many cases the ‘bushel basket’ is as much to do with a local culture, or local expectations of women, as it is to do with ecclesial culture. Third, it is only partly about the hierarchy. If we want to put women’s light on the lampstand, it means we need to change at the personal level, at the parish level, at the diocesan level, at the level of religious congregations.

Change how? Change what? This is not about bringing the Church up to date with the world. Nor is it about giving women ‘power’, because that is what the world tells us we should want. This is about having the vision and the courage to respond to God’s gifts. It is about all of us taking care that our ecclesial culture, our limited imagination, our societal norms, our age-old habits or our unexamined prejudices do not put women’s light under a bushel. It is about putting the light of the gospel, carried by women in so many ways, where it can shine out to the greater glory of God.

Every day, I pray the Examen. It is a prayer in which I look at my experience during the day, and see where and how God has moved me, where and how he has led me, even in surprising ways. The premise of the prayer is that God is concretely present in my everyday experience, that he always makes the first move, and that it is my task to notice his graces, to respond with gratitude, and to allow them to concretely shape my life.

Pope Francis has asked us to become a ‘discerning Church’. Let us look at the Church with the eyes of the Examen, then. Let us each ask God to show us the concrete graces he is giving to the Church through the presence, the witness, the ministry of women. Do not just look in the places you expect to find them, but day by day, remain open and allow the Lord to show you. Then, in a spirit of gratitude, ask how you can respond to this grace, and ask what you can do to put this light on the lampstand.