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 leadership. 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.
‘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.