We sit at the kitchen table in our pajamas, the late morning sun filtering through the windows. The Washington Post lies untouched on the table, along with bagel crumbs and big mugs of tepid, strong coffee. It is New Year’s Eve day, and four of us, our college friendships eight years young now, have traveled to Washington, D.C., to spend the long weekend together. A coterie of Catholic-educated Generation Xers, we discuss our burgeoning careers and our emergence into the real world as young adults. Sitting around the table are a medical student, a nascent theologian, a nonprofit worker and an engineerall strong women with strong opinions. We chat sleepily until our conversation shifts to politics and religion.
My college roommate says to me, I don’t see how you can be satisfied with life in the church. The church has so many problems, and it is hardly a bastion of opportunity for women. I take a deep breath. Here comes a debate I have had with many a friend in recent years. I search for the right words. Well, people often point out that we didn’t give up on democracy just because of Watergate or think about being an American, I try. There are lots of things that are disquieting about being an American, but most of us work within the system to uphold things that we like and change things that we don’t. My dubious friend shakes her head and laughs, If it were easier to start a life in Canada, I’d be there by now.
We eventually moved on to other topics, having glossed over our disagreements. Upon my return home, however, questions and issues floated about in my mind. I wish I had responded to my friend’s blunt question more thoroughly and thoughtfully. I have been thinking a lot about it since then. How would I describe my relationship with the church as a young Catholic woman? My love of the church abounds, as do my frustrations with it. In general, my relationship with the church is characterized by love and aversion, joy and anger, quiet complacence and fierce determination. More specifically, I can say that I am challenged because of my gender and given opportunity because of my age.
The Issue of Gender
My experiences and opinions of the church in the United States are inextricably tied to my gender. I find more than a little discomfort in the lack of leadership opportunities available to American Catholic women. Yet there are indeed more opportunities for women in the church today than there have ever been, something of which I am constantly being reminded by those whom I affectionately call my elders, people in both the pews and the pulpit. A priest friend recently pointed out to me that when he was a youngster, the women did almost nothing in the church except clean the sacristy and launder the liturgical vestments. Still, I find it difficult to appreciate the advances because I did not experience the way things were before the council or in the old church. I expect more because I am coming of age during a different time. Some might say I am ungrateful to the strong females who worked to establish more prominent roles for American Catholic women, and they may be right.
As I try to understand the events of the past, I look to the future of women in the church with some trepidation. Women are still viewed in some papal documents as mere objects of passion, rather than as active and contributing members of the church. These documents embrace what is characterized as a theology of complementarity rather than of mutualitythat is, there is a woman’s way of being and a man’s way of being. I am uncomfortable with these bounds and the fact that the institutional church reinforces them. A theology of complementarity has the potential danger of dictating what women’s roles in the church will be: educating the children, organizing the bake sales, leading the moms’ group. These are important ministries, but women’s gifts spill over and beyond these bounds, something yet to be recognized in documents from the current pope. Other recently issued documents, though not from Rome, offer a sense of hope to Catholic women. For example, the Madeleva Manifesto, issued in April 2000, confirms that women must be respected as leaders and given public roles in the church.
The New E-vangelization
As a Gen-Xer I am the product of a generation raised on Jesus Loves Me Catholicism. I made lots of collages in religion classes while growing up. I watched Jesus Christ Superstar in seventh grade. I earnestly sang the music of the St. Louis Jesuits at all school Masses. I was never taught that I needed to fear the Lord. I have never laid eyes on the Baltimore Catechism. I do not know any Latin other than what appears in the popular press.
Growing up as a Gen-X American Catholic, I have had the tremendous opportunity to come of age in the period often dubbed the information age. Because of this, I often feel that as a member of the church in the modern world, I have my feet in two different centuries. Take, for example, the recent explosion of Catholic Web sites. The church’s use of the Internet demonstrates the sometimes strange yet wonderful juxtapositions that are present in cyberspace. Thanks to the Irish Province Jesuits www.jesuit.ie/prayer/index.htm, I can now pray a 10-minute Ignatian exercise every day. (To end the prayer I just click my mouse on the hypertext Amen.) I can submit prayer requests to religious orders and even participate in an online 34-week Ignatian retreat. I can have a spiritual meditation sent to me by e-mail every Mondaya bit of grace at the beginning of a long week. I can easily access Salvador Dali’s modern painting Crucifixion, or Andrei Rublev’s icon Trinity. I can search the back issues of just about any Catholic periodical. The World Wide Web gives the faithful unprecedented access to information that both informs and inspires. Timeless truths and ancient spiritual practices are juxtaposed with lightning-fast technology and contemporary images.
I feel truly fortunate to have grown up with access to all the major media tools: computers, televisions, films and compact disc players. If there is one characteristic gift of Generation Xers, it is that they are quite media savvy. They need only to be asked, and are glad to help other generations, to assist the church in learning to use these wonderful means of communication to further preach the Gospel, to evangelize in innovative ways.
Catholic Social Teaching
My affinity for modern media is no doubt characteristic of my generation, as is my fierce pride in Catholic social teaching and those who preach and live it. When I struggle (and often fail miserably) to live a life in accordance with Gospel values, I turn to the example of people like the late Archbishop Oscar Romero, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin and Dorothy Day. These modern-day saints struggled to model their own lives after Jesus, performed the works of mercy and never shied away from positioning themselves at the vanguard of political change. St. Augustine captured the way these pioneers lived: By passing along the narrow road they widened it, and while they went along, tramping on the rough ways, they went ahead of us. I am grateful that these leaders have widened the road of Christian discipleship, making it a bit easier for one to follow.
Through the example of Archbishop Oscar Romero I have witnessed the reality of resurrection. When he was asked about the many death threats he received, he responded simply, I shall rise again in the Salvadoran people. And indeed he has; the battles to end injustice are still very much alive.
From Cardinal Bernardin I have learned the importance of prayer. I often picture him in his study, awake at five o’clock in the morning, devoting the first hour of his day to private prayer, a practice that he shared in his book The Gift of Peace. He has both challenged me in my prayer life and given me permission to be imperfect.
It is the example of Dorothy Day that keeps me uncomfortable when I am lured by the many material temptations that come my way daily. Magazines that are geared toward women my age tell me that these are my me years and that there is nothing I should deny myself, whether it be extensive travel, cutting-edge fashions or premarital sex. There are not many voices that tell me that there is something wrong with this picture. Dorothy Day’s life story and writings serve me well here, and I continue to be challenged by this articulate, determined woman, an ardent defender of the poor and an outspoken critic of material wealth.
I hold fast to the example of people such as these, overwhelmed yet inspired by their radical stances. The social teachings of the church and the life stories of those who have lived them in radical ways have enlarged my vision of the bounds of church.
And my life has been graced with very fine mentors. I think in particular of an internship I recently completed at a Midwestern parish, where my supervisor modeled how to allocate resources to the poor on a parish level. He was part social worker, part spiritual director, part community organizer. He lived simply, prayed often and wrote eloquent thank-you notes to donors. His ministry was firmly rooted in Scripture without being too literalist. He encouraged me to write in a journal regularly and constantly challenged my assumptions about the poor.
At a local homeless shelter, my mentors were single, itinerant women. These women, some battered, some timeworn, some fighting substance abuse, taught me how to be tenacious. They taught me that if I am having a bad day I should wear purple because, according to them, it is the color of strength. They taught me that people need one another; they seek connectionboth with others and with spiritual truths.
The Catholic Imagination
The Rev. Andrew Greeley claims that Catholics are more likely than most to find the good, the sacred and the holy, smack-dab in the center of the world. Such an imagination, a way of perceiving the world, is characteristically if not uniquely Catholic.
One of the benefits of this imagination unique to Catholics is that in the church there seems to be a spirituality for everything, even for running! For 12 years I have been a runner. I’ve pounded the pavement on the Chicago lakefront, run the hills at dawn at the Abbey of Gethsemani, pursued a gorgeous sunset in Key West and dodged cars during rush hour in downtown Dublin. I have finished many a marathon. I initially began running for physical reasonsto stay in shape and keep a healthy heart. But I kept running for spiritual reasons, which I just recently have begun to express clearly. An article in a Catholic publication written by a Chicago priest provides a spiritual framework for running that articulated what I have been feeling for all of these years. He framed a spirituality of runningsomething of which I had never previously been awareall in terms of devotion and endurance through pain, in terms of discipline and discipleship. This new spirituality has allowed me to view my long runs as a time of prayer, a time of discipline, an exercise in discipleship.
Music, too, has held equal importance in my life. Playing the flute started out as a hobby, something learned since childhood, a way to become acquainted with classical music. Everything changed when I started to play the flute at Mass in college. I committed the psalms to memory. I learned that there was a patron saint of music, St. Cecilia. I came to recognize the text of the Lorica of St. Patrick, the Liber Usualis, experienced the feasts of Candlemas and Our Lady of Guadalupe. It was through playing the flute that I began truly to live in the cycles of the church, that I began to look for the changes in the colors of vestments. I began to learn how the church keeps time. I started to notice the different Mass parts, the different eucharistic prayers. I learned what it means to use one’s talents to minister. I saw a metaphorical connection between the flute and an instrument of God. My spiritual life is now infused with meaning. I see my everyday interests as intimately linked with my faith.
If there is one thing that running marathons has taught me, it is endurance in the face of difficulty and adversity. It has taught me a certain level of mental toughness that spills over into other walks of life. It is often difficult to live as a young woman in the church, and there is no shortage of challenges. But when one perseveres in pursuit of truth, in exploration of issues and questions, and when one is open to the Holy Spirit, ultimately a great love for the church prevails.
And that is what keeps me in the race.