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Michael J. O’LoughlinOctober 27, 2016
Sister Jamie Phelps delivered the University of Dayton Speaker Series annual Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. address, titled "The MLK Legacy and Its Contemporary Implications for the Social Justice Mission of the Local and Global Church," in 2015. (Image from University of Dayton Youtube video)

One of the more intriguing questions Pope Francis prompted earlier this year when he announced that a Vatican commission would study whether the early church had women deacons was: How would Catholics react to women preaching?

Some Catholic women hope to find out.

A new website called Catholic Women Preach will publish videos showing just that, Catholic women preaching. The reflections will draw from the church’s weekly readings. The women backing the project say they hope the videos will help Catholics deepen their faith and become more comfortable with the idea of women preaching.

“The kinds of things that women preach about are qualitatively different and touch us in ways that other topics don’t touch us,” Deborah Rose-Milavec, executive director of Future Church and a founder of Catholic Women Preach, told America.

“Even if it’s a bit of a foreign experience to them,” she continued, “once people begin to listen deeply to the wisdom and the words of these Catholic women preaching it also will touch them in brand new ways.”

Church law allows lay people, including women, to preach only in extraordinary circumstances when an ordained minister is not available. Though rare, women have preached in some American churches.

In the Diocese of Rochester, for example, lay people were permitted to preach by the local bishop beginning in 1979, but the practice was ended in 2014.

And even if the women are ordained deacons someday, there is no guarantee that they will be allowed to preach—at least not in the way Catholics are accustomed to today. In comments earlier this year, the pope suggested that priests, acting in persona Christi during the Mass, should give the homily. But there would be “no problem,” he said, with women preaching scriptural reflections in other settings, such as prayer services.  

America’s Editors: Why women deacons could enrich the church

One of the backers of the project is FutureChurch, which says on its website that “local Churches should be empowered to call forth women for the ordained diaconia of liturgy, word and charity.”

According to its website, Catholic Women Preach is advised by theologians and church practitioners with backgrounds in various fields, including womanist and feminist theology, global theology and the role of Catholic laity. One of the founders of the project said women of various perspectives are being sought to preach.

“We’ll have the most fabulous, theologically-educated and faith-filled Catholic women from around the world offering five to seven minute reflections on the Catholic lectionary,” Elizabeth Donnelly, another founder of the project and part of a team that meets annually with church officials in Rome to talk about women in the church, told America.

The project launches on Nov. 1, in time for Advent, and the first half-dozen videos include reflections from a mix of Catholic sisters and laywomen.

Kicking off the series is Jamie Phelps, O.P., a retired Catholic theologian who lives in Chicago.

She said she accepted an invitation to be part of the series because she thinks the videos will “make plain the fact that some women are called and gifted as preachers.”

“Since there’s a diversity of perspectives and experiences out there,” she told America, “the more diversity of preachers we have who can tune into the felt needs of the community and of the people, the further along the mission of Jesus Christ is carried.”

Kerry Robinson, the founding executive director of the Leadership Roundtable, will preach about joy on the third Sunday of Advent.

Ms. Rose-Milavec said a reflection from Ms. Robinson at the Vatican last year about “holy anger” helped convince her that the church as a whole will benefit from hearing women preach.

“For instance, in 61 years as a mother, grandmother, woman in the church, I have never heard a priest preach about domestic violence,” she said. “I ran a domestic violence agency for a very long time in a shelter, and this is a topic and an issue that touches every single woman and man in the Catholic Church, because everybody knows somebody who’s been abused.”

Organizers stress that the reflections are meant to be used by Catholics as resources for faith reflections, not as substitutes for the Mass.

“They should serve as a nourishing resource for the larger Catholic community, whether for Bible study, R.C.I.A., homily helps or just for individuals seeking spiritual nourishment,” Ms. Donnelly said.

The goal is to have videos for every Sunday and certain feast days, with transcripts in English and Spanish. Organizers said that women from all over the world will take part.

For instance, Astrid Lobo Gajiwala, a medical doctor from Mumbai who helped Indian bishops draft guidelines for how to better include women in the church, will preach on the second Sunday of Advent. Other reflections will come from women in Asia, Latin America and Africa.

Sister Phelps, who is African-American and who will preach about overcoming class, race and ethnic divisions, said that in an increasingly secular society, the church would benefit from expanding opportunities for women to preach.

“I’m not saying that everybody needs to preach,” she said. “But there are gifts out there that are not being recognized, not being nurtured, not being used to continue the mission of Jesus Christ.”

She is “hopeful” about the pope’s plans to study the possibility of women serving as deacons, a development that could “enable women called to ordained ministry to participate more fully in church ministries.”

“The more laborers we have in the field, the more effective we will be,” she continued. “So why do we relegate women to the sidelines of full ministry in the church?”

Michael O’Loughlin is the national correspondent for America and author of The Tweetable Pope: A Spiritual Revolution in 140 Characters. Follow him on Twitter at @mikeoloughlin.

Correction: Oct. 28, 2016
The article has been amended to remove the phrase "left leaning" and include a more specific description of the project's supporting members.
Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Crystal Watson
7 years 6 months ago
It's depressing that treating women and men equally in the church has been made so impossible by Pope Francis that videos from Future Church are considered a kind of progress. It's not lay Catholics that are uncomfortable with the idea of women priests - the Vatican's pre-synod survey showed that a majority of Catholics want women to be priests. It is the Pope who stands in the way with his continued decision that the door to women's ordination is and shall remain closed ... "It's time to be honest about Pope Francis and women" ... https://www.ncronline.org/blogs/grace-margins/its-time-be-honest-about-pope-francis-and-women
Tracy M.
7 years 6 months ago
If there is one thing we can learn after decades of preaching by women in Protestant churches, it is that this is not true: “The kinds of things that women preach about are qualitatively different and touch us in ways that other topics don’t touch us,” Women can and should talk about many different things. They should not just talk about "lady topics," in "lady ways." And it should not be only women who talk about domestic violence.
Jim McCrea
7 years 6 months ago
There are many parishes that "allow" this already. Adults don't need permission to act like adults.
alan macdonald
7 years 6 months ago
I know that American Jesuits want to see women preach. In fact, they want women ordained to the priesthood but will never come right out and say it. This article tangentially supports their goal.
Crystal Watson
7 years 6 months ago
I agree with Tracy below about the idea that women and men would preach about different things. This is complementarianism that seeks to always define differences between the sexes instead of observing the greater common ground.
Lisa Weber
7 years 6 months ago
Women need to be able to preach at Mass. It is the principal liturgy, the one that all Catholics attend. Women may not preach about different subjects, but they are able to comment on things that men cannot. I have never heard a homily that addresses the most obvious fact of the story about Martha and Mary - that it is about a disagreement between two sisters. Jesus' response to Martha illustrates that a woman has to leave the rule of her sisters (and mother) in order to follow the path that God invites her to. The Martha and Mary story is only one of the Gospel stories that is never seen through the eyes of a woman. The church is impoverished by its self-imposed blindness that is a result of banning all women from preaching.
Monica Medina McCurdy
7 years 6 months ago
I'll get excited about these videos showimg what is obvious in the rest of American culture (that women have brains not unlike men, that women have wisdom, that women can put thoughts together in interesting sentences that can edify others) only if the church hierarchy can confess its grave sin of oppressing women and twisting the Gospel message in self serving ways for centuries. Without this truth being acknowledged and without repentance, a video making Catholics more comfortable with women preaching is incrementalism at its worst. And gives the illusion of progress.
Deborah Rose-Milavec
7 years 6 months ago
Many thanks for informing your readers about the upcoming Catholic Women Preach project. We hope that it will serve as a nourishing resource for the whole Church. One thing with which I disagree is the characterization of most of those behind the initiative as being “left leaning” -- it's an unhelpful, dismissive label in describing pro-Vatican II, mainstream Catholics concerned with the future of our Church. The advisory board is well rounded with highly respected Catholics from the U.S. and abroad. The editorial board is composed of Dominican sisters and a Sister of St. Joseph. Elizabeth Donnelly is the person coordinating all the preachers, and the women who are preaching are from some of the most well respected institutions and organizations around the world. I urge your readers to explore the website when it launches on All Saints Day.
Bruce Snowden
7 years 6 months ago
As best as I can see, Blessed Mother Mary is the prototypical woman homilist in the Church. In her mid-forties, assuming she was about fifteen and Jesus about thirty at the Cana wedding, when after making sure the celebrating wouldn't end because the wine ran out, she said "Do whatever He tells you.." Isn't that the perfect homily, the what, how and why of preaching? The "Doing" of whatever God asks. Actually, it began years earlier when she said "Yes, I accept" to the Messenger bringing a request from God and God's Word, indeed HER word became flesh. Isn't that what all homilies, are about - to say "Yes" to God, accepting what He offers, allowing it to "become flesh" tangible in our lives? Also, although rooted in Revelation lots of Blessed Mary's preaching is post-Revelation , evident in her many apparitions world-wide, in effect all focusing on what she said at that Wedding, "Do whatever He says." I see nothing wrong with women preaching that message in Church to God's people as Blessed Mary did, remembering that in God there is "neither male, or female." As a result don't let the "feminine mystique" be central in women preaching. It's not about "woman" it's about Salvation, about Jesus Christ, God! That's how I see it, but because human endeavor is always incomplete, this no doubt, is too!
Elizabeth Donnelly
7 years 6 months ago
Warm thanks for covering the Catholic Women Preach project. I wholeheartedly agree with Deborah's comments and hope that your readers will find the women's voices featured on the website to be both nourishing and challenging. Our intention is to raise the voices of Catholic women from around the world, promoting greater awareness of their gifts and ministries. As Pope Francis likes to say: "Avanti!"
Crystal Watson
7 years 6 months ago
I don't think we should be asking what it's like to see women preach, but we should be asking what is it like to see women celebrate mass (and preach). Stephen Colbert on a Witness interview said this about seeing a woman priest (Episcopal) celebrate mass ... "When I heard a woman say 'this is my body' ... the freshness of hearing a woman say that gave the message a universality that it always should have" ... https://youtu.be/lF5tudIqN7w
Tim O'Leary
7 years 6 months ago
Crystal - I listened to the interview. Colbert was making the point that hearing a non-priest, male or female, use the words "this is my body" seemed to universalize it for him, since it came from a non-priest like himself (the exchange occurs at the 35th min into the interview). He was careful to indicate he was expressing his own opinion and not clamoring for a doctrinal change, though he joked about people writing emails to him about what he said. Note that, according to Catholic teaching, it is not only Episcopalian women who are not priests, but men as well, and their ceremony is purely symbolic, since the Holy Orders are invalid :)
Tim O'Leary
7 years 6 months ago
Two of the most influential preachers in recent years were women - St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who founded the Missionaries of Charity, and Mother Angelica, who founded EWTN, the largest religious media network in the world. Mother Angelica's influence is even more influential than Venerable Bishop Fulton Sheen.

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