Why the Catholic Church needs modern-day female prophets

Photo by Ahmet Sali on Unsplash

Our women’s spirituality group has been meeting twice a month for close to 15 years. The six of us women first got together at a time of crisis: A problematic pastor had dampened the spirit of our parish and alienated many parishioners, and so we disheartened soul sisters turned to each other for sustenance. We began as much as a protest group as a book group. Our informal structure is that we select a book by consensus, usually by a Catholic author, and meet at each other’s homes to discuss the readings we have done and to enjoy what my mother used to call “coffee and.”

Our first book was Dancing on the Margins, by Kathy Coffey, which expressed how many of us parishioners were feeling at the time. Our group represented various parish ministries: Among us were lectors, eucharistic ministers, catechists, detention ministry volunteers, two Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults directors, a sacristan, a youth group leader, a pastoral associate and even a deacon’s wife. Yet our parish’s dysfunctional leadership was pushing us all to the margins. Reading, praying and commiserating together was a balm to our souls as we kept dancing on those margins.

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We have since seen each other through new pastors, job changes, retirements, illnesses, moves, menopause, faith crises, legal troubles (of children) and deaths (of parents and other loved ones, including a beloved member of the group, who died from a cancer that wouldn’t quit). We have stayed pretty consistently a gathering of six. Most of our turnover has resulted from people moving out of state, but four of us remain from our earliest meetings.

Reading, praying and commiserating together was a balm to our souls as we kept dancing on those margins.

Over the years we have read works by Pope Francis, William Barry, Karen Armstrong, James Martin, S.J., Gregory Boyle, S.J., Sue Monk Kidd, Joan Chittister, O.S.B., Ronald Rolheiser, O.M.I., Susan Muto and Richard Rohr, O.F.M. Sister Joan is one of our favorites, as we are currently reading a third Chittister book.

And that book has made us uncomfortable: It is called The Time Is Now, and as we read deeper into its chapters, we grasp that it is challenging each one of us personally to rise to the role of local prophet. The jacket blurb warned us: “For the weary, the cranky, and the fearful, this energizing message invites us to participate in a vision for a world greater than the one we find ourselves in today.” Well, I know I am weary, cranky and fearful when I read the morning paper. But I find it easier to throw my hands up in despair than to take concrete stands for a better world, perhaps because, as Sister Joan notes, we women are more conditioned to be nice than to be assertive. We do not want to make waves; we do not want to upset people.

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For example: We all have those friends who make sexist remarks or are so very certain that your beliefs are undermining our country or our church. We suffer them in silence because we are polite. Also, we do not want to make a scene. Also, we are uncomfortable with confrontation. Also, also, also: We can find so many valid reasons to swallow our words and sit on our hands, to hope someone else will say what is on our mind, to let the teachable moment pass. We are reluctant prophets. At least, I am.

We women are more conditioned to be nice than to be assertive. We do not want to make waves; we do not want to upset people.

As I read further into The Time Is Now, I get more uneasy. Do I really have to speak up? I avoid speaking up. I dread speaking up. I get nervous and lose my grip on the salient points I should make. I am much better at stewing in solitude.

But the book blurb’s admonition never lets up: “This is spirituality in action; this is practical and powerful activism for our times.” Over the years we group members have been active in ministries and marches, projects and protests, in our community and beyond. We have good hearts. We want to be of service to others. But we have all voiced the sense that when we look at the magnitude of changes we need to see in the world, we feel powerless. Sure, we can convert our homes to solar and drive fewer miles, we can register new voters and attend vigils at immigrant detention centers, we can write op-eds and adopt families at Christmastime, and we have done all of these good deeds.

Still, the feeling creeps up on us, tapping on our shoulders: Do any of these things matter in the massive scheme of now? We are sometimes not only reluctant but despondent prophets.

But the moment for all of us to act is decidedly now. Our group has not yet finished discussing Sister Joan’s book, but my focus is on the end, where she makes the mission real and urgent for all of us regular folks. “What does a prophet do?” Sister Joan writes. “A prophet cries out, cries out, cries out. Without fear. Without care for cost. Without end. Dear Prophet, for the sake of the children, for the sake of the world, for the sake of the gospel, Cry out.”

At our meetings, we pray for persistence. We rally for hope. We resolve to pick one thing: change one habit, talk to one friend and have faith that all of our small works together can indeed heal the world. We may choose a lighter book for our next read. But the heavy call to prophesy remains.

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JOHN GRONDELSKI
2 weeks 2 days ago

Wow, the virtue-signaling woke are now "prophets!" (Apparently self-anointed).

Josh McDonald
2 weeks 2 days ago

All the baptized are prophets.

Patrick Robinson
1 week 6 days ago

Interesting list of issues including registering voters. Hopefully, they want more pro-life and pro-school choice voters registered. I would think it’s hard to find issues more important than protecting the unborn and giving opportunity to kids stuck in underperforming urban public schools. I found it odd that such Catholic centric issues were not mentioned in the article

Dionys Murphy
1 week 3 days ago

"I found it odd that such Catholic centric issues were not mentioned in the article" - Why? Who wants to mention a right-wing political red herring that's a lie such as "school choice," which is really about moving public money to conservative only-Christian, primarily neo-Evangelical schools. And why mention "pro-life" issues when most people who talk about being "pro-life" aren't actually pro-life but are primarily pro-birth and forget about the garment of life in such things as capital punishment or the effects of unbridled capitalism or war on the oppressed.

Carl Fortunato
1 week 5 days ago

When you use "virtue" as an insult, it's a good bet that you're on the wrong side of a moral question.

Do you call people "do-gooders," too?

J. Calpezzo
2 weeks 2 days ago

Here's a novel idea. We need women priests.

Patrick Robinson
1 week 6 days ago

The only human our faith recognizes as immaculately conceived would be barred from consecrating her own Son’s body and blood based on her gender.

Lisa Weber
2 weeks 2 days ago

To prophesy is to speak the truth. One truth the church has yet to grasp is that it will struggle until it develops the role of women in the church community - something other than silent, obedient, and on her knees.

Diane Matous
2 weeks ago

As someone who has been in churches since I was a little girl, I want to challenge you on that statement. Exactly where in churches are women silent, obedient, and on their knees? And who do we hear (in actual life, not secondhand) pressuring us to be? As a woman, I get frustrated when women blame "cultural pressure" for the fact that they don't stand up or speak up when it needs to be done. As the writer admitted, she herself doesn't "like" to do it. Prayer and silence are not things that make you weaker, but stronger; however, few women I know spend time silent or on their knees. The true prophetic call, according to Scripture, doesn't come from society's polite invitations. God was the one who gave strength to the prophets.

Lisa Weber
1 week 3 days ago

Mary is so often depicted as silent, obedient, and on her knees. I am aware that prayer and inner silence are essential for the spiritual life, but “on her knees” can also be a position of subservience or menial labor. Think of scrubbing floors.

I am also well aware of the amount of courage it takes to speak up and the strength it takes to deal with the backlash. Breaking the feminine cultural norms that put most women in the same position as children can be very uncomfortable. And woe to the woman who has to face the wrath of other women for daring to hold an opinion not identical to the opinion of the meanest woman in the group.

Until the church can help women build a feminine culture suitable to adulthood in the community, it will struggle to keep women in the church. Part of the culture of adulthood in the community is allowing individuals to have and express their own opinions.

I sometimes have difficulty accessing particular articles in this magazine. That is why it has taken me so long to reply.

Jayne Chandler
1 week 3 days ago

Thank you Lisa, for speaking truth to substance. I am a lone wolf in my small, conservative church, but have hope in reading this article and the responses from some brave women.

Lisa Weber
1 week 3 days ago

Jayne,
I hope you find more sources of hope and encouragement in your parish. Online discussions can be very helpful as well.

Judith Jordan
1 week 3 days ago

Lisa:

Your thoughtful comments are excellent.

Lisa Weber
1 week 2 days ago

Thank you, Judith! The encouragement is helpful.

Michelle Gergen
2 weeks 2 days ago

Thank you for sharing your journey. I just finished reading Sr Helen Prejean’s book River of Fire. It may be just the encouragement you need to keep dancing at the margins and speaking truth to power.

Jayne Chandler
1 week 3 days ago

I agree, Michelle. I read Sr Helen's book, 'River of Fire', two months ago. It was so real, and powerful, I couldn't put it down. Every Catholic would be wiser to encounter her bio in this book.

Crystal Watson
1 week 5 days ago

As Catholics, women have to speak up about the inequality we face in the church (priesthood), and about the US Bishops lobbying to curtail women's reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights, sex abuse victims' rights. Recommended authors for your reading group: Rosemary Radford Ruether (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rosemary_Radford_Ruether) and Sandra Schneiders (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sandra_M._Schneiders).

Jayne Chandler
1 week 3 days ago

Thanks Crystal! I have been a parishioner for eight years at a small, conservative Catholic church where I live in Oregon. I am the only person with facial piercings and tattoos. Also, I am 70 yrs old and a convert since 1985. Truthfully, I have a love/hate relationship with my church of choice and some days I struggle to stay. It seems that Catholics are all supposed to think and look alike to be valuable to the Church. I hope one day, this won't be the norm. I read a great article in America concerning Missionary Discipleship, ". . . it demands a willingness to leave behind treasured practices that have served the church well in past ages, but now imprison the Gospel". My love of God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and love of others, Christian or not, I hope will shine.

Regina Eichinger
1 week 3 days ago

I'm not digitally savvy but I'll try again. The Catholic Church should proclaim the permanent deaconate of women as soon as possible. It is not a problem with Catholic history, tradition or theology. However, the notion of women priests is a problem, not just with tradition but also with theology. We anthropomorphize God (it's the best we can do!). God is God the Father and then there is God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. We can say God our Mother and God our Daughter except that we Christians say Christ, a man, entered human history to save us, he's a man not a woman. Some people might say, how convenient, it perpetuates a patriarchal society, and it is men who are saying that. And add to that the ancient myth that woman came from the rib of a man. It's all patriarchal and hogwash. We, women, must revolt and declare our supremacy or, at least, equality. Well, the Blessed Mother holds a quite powerful place in Christian theology. She is the mediatrix...she is Holy Mother Church and Christ is her groom. Wow, if words matter those are powerful words. Anecdotally, when my husband was dying of a rare cancer and he and I were ensconced in a hotel room at Mayo Clinic, we had the TV on PBS, specifically the series The Power of Myth (Bill Moyers talking to Joseph Campbell). I don't remember well but they were talking about marriage, the Church, etc. and my husband said to me "they're talking about us." That comment has always lingered in my memory and helped sustain me throughout the years. Sure, my husband also said go out and get a puzzle to bide the time. He was very sick but I wasn't.

Crystal Watson
1 week 3 days ago

Jesus didn't chose anyone, male or female, to be priests. Priests are not stand-ins for Jesus. They are a creation of the church, not of God, and there is no God-given reason why they can't be women. Jesus' mother was not some kind of goddess - she isn't even given a name in all of the gospels, and she's only mentioned once in the gospel of Mark. The church has put her on a pedestal as a way to control the role of women in the church.

Lisa Weber
1 week 3 days ago

Crystal, I agree that the way the church depicts Mary is primarily about constraining and controlling women.

Jayne Chandler
1 week 3 days ago

Thanks, Crystal. I have also thought about these topics and have read a lot of church history and agree with you. Men have ruled and run the Church for millennia, but now is the time for the Church to change and grow into spiritual maturity. If the Amazon, (regarding female deacons), can do it, we can too. And also, the priesthood can change for the better, to include women. In a recent article in 'America' concerning missionary discipleship, " . . . it demands a willingness to leave behind treasured practices that have served the church well in past ages, but now imprison the Gospel".

Crystal Watson
1 week 3 days ago

I'm a convert too and also on the west coast. It can be hard to find a church with like-minded people. I eventually stopped going but kept up with Jesuit spiritual direction and also with on-line communication. What I didn't realize at first was that a majority of US Catholics had beliefs similar to mine ... https://www.pewforum.org/2015/09/02/chapter-4-expectations-of-the-church/#catholic-desires-for-change

Barbara Tignor
1 week 3 days ago

I’d think you’d have to be “called” to be a modern day profit, don’t you? Those who don’t feel that God is asking them to do that have other gifts to offer, I’m sure. And, remember — the Old Testament prophets were not very well liked in their time — so, be prepared for a bumpy ride! But, I agree we need them in these troubling times — and, hope that all who are called will do God’s will.

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