Why the Catholic Church needs modern-day female prophets
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.
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.
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.