In his foreword to Finding the Treasure Within: A Woman’s Journey into Preaching, the spiritual author Ronald Rolheiser, O.M.I., writes: We are forever caught up in situations that are less than ideal, full of tension, and fraught with potential for self-pity and bitterness.... So what can we do when we find ourselves living in a family, a church or a community that is less than ideal? We are invited to help carry that situation and transform it.
Marie-Louise Ternier-Gommers is a Catholic woman preacher, who lives in North Battleford, Saskatchewan. She was at one time the editor of Our Family, a Catholic magazine. Firmly grounded in the church she loves, the author is also quite frustrated with the current ministry limitations placed upon Catholic women. Throughout this book she shares the deep, developing conviction that she has been called to preach. At the same time she shares her struggle with another challenge that confronts her in various ways: the church is really not a welcome place for women preachers.
Most modern Catholics are unaccustomed to homilies from a woman. They have been taught that the role of preacher is reserved for the ordained prieststrange, really, in a faith community that celebrates the classic giftedness of Hildegarde of Bingen, Catherine of Siena and Teresa of Avila, all well-known and effective preachers. And they are representative of a long tradition of women with a vocation to proclaim the Gospel. Ternier-Gommers believes the church needs to rediscover and reactivate that tradition.
That is especially true at a time when a shortage of priests threatens to rob many Catholic churchgoers of the nurturing sustenance of the Liturgy of the Word. The author wants the preaching of women to be reclaimed and celebrated in the contemporary church, even though many of the faithful may find this strange, or unorthodox.
Ternier-Gommers received theological training at Lutheran Theological Seminary, Saskatoon, Saskatchewanone of two seminaries of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada. As her studies progressed, a clear sense of call from God to preach left her with a challenging contradiction. Official Roman Catholic teaching prohibits the ordination of women and does not allow a woman to claim a call to preach in any formal way apart from ordination.
The choices Ternier-Gommers faced after completing her theological degree seemed limited: either deny God’s call to her ministry or reject the church’s teaching. She refused to be defined by those options. She did not intend to precipitate a change in official church teaching regarding the ordination of women. At the same time she strongly claimed her call, training and practice as a Catholic woman preacher. She has chosen to remain within her beloved church and continue to preach. In recounting the basis for her conviction, she recalls the advice she was once given by a respected priest: Do not worry about doors that are closedmerely walk through the ones that are open. So she decided to respond to opportunities as they presented themselves.
Ternier-Gommers has preached non-sacramental liturgies in her home parish when the priest was away on vacation. She was given the special honor of preaching the sermon at the graduation exercises of her seminary class. She has been invited to address worshippers in Catholic college chapels and to give homilies at various regional Catholic Women’s League conventions. She gives retreats, where her messages are integrated with spiritual direction. She has also been the guest preacher in numerous local Protestant congregations, where she elicits admiration and support.
Finding the Treasure Within is a multilayered narrative, but preaching is its underlying motif. The autobiographical sketch that also weaves its way captures effectively one woman’s struggle to discern and grow with her call. This is a refreshing primer on preaching as a ministry of the church that prompts reflection on many other lay ministry issues at the local parish level. The book includes a number of sermons, as well as topical journal entries and poetic reflections at the end of each chapter.
Readers may be inclined to stop at various places along the way to ponder new insights, or to revisit old ones. For all her passion, the author writes with authentic humility without any edge of bitterness or resentment.
She investigates exemplary saints as role models in her quest. Especially influential was The Story of a Soul by Thérèse of Lisieux. This saint and doctor of the church longed to engage her mission more fully than the ecclesiastical system allowed. The witness of Thérèse inspired the author and provided insight into the ways God can use any woman’s gifts to help move the church forward, so long as her driving motivation is love.
At a time when some factions within the Catholic Church threaten to exacerbate pain and alienation, Ternier-Gommers serves as a helpful bellwether and bridge-builder. Her special contribution is that she represents a hopeful sign in the midst of a contradiction. Her gift is that she is both passionately committed to change yet faithfully accepting of the way things are. Hers is indeed a refreshing, generative witness.