In the Tradition of Sister Madeleva

Convergence 2000 began appropriately with a meal at the guest house and ended with the reading of "The Madeleva Manifesto: A Message of Hope and Courage." The warm welcome and hospitality of Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Ind., surrounded us during the entire weekend of April 27-30, as did the memory of Sr. Madeleva Wolff, C.S.C., in whose name and honor Keith Egan designed the Madeleva Lecture series inaugurated in 1985. All but one of the 16 Madeleva lecturers came to pool their wisdom about women in the church.

For some it was a reunion with friends and colleagues. Others were meeting for the first time. We knew one another’s writingsnot just the Madeleva Lectures, but the significant corpus of work that each has produced. Thus, it was a kind of homecomingconnecting, communicating, expressing gratitude for the opportunity to gather. Trust and laughter emerged in short order. Opinions were voiced clearly and with conviction and received with care and attention. Disagreements were expressed honestly and respectfully. It was an experience of both ecclesia and collegium at their best.


The exchange that took place was not just among the lecturers and those who came to hear and discuss what they had to say. The context was a crucial factor informing the manifesto, proving once again that feminist spirituality is an embodied spirituality. We delighted in an exchange with Mother Nature. She wore a lavish, colorful gown, decked with flowers exuding various perfumes, and I think the birds said more than we did! We were also grateful for an exchange of generations. Some of the oldest Holy Cross sisters stepped or rolled out in wheelchairs to enjoy the afternoon sun, while others prayed and followed the proceedings from a distance. We joined the college’s administration, board of trustees and Madeleva Society for meals, and each of the lecturers was gifted (and I do not use this term lightly) with a Saint Mary’s College student who broke bread with us and made sure we arrived in the right building at the right time. The Spirit of God was invoked in our hearts, at our sessions and in our joyful worship Saturday afternoon.

On Friday evening, we gathered (900 strong) in O’Laughlin Auditorium to hear Sandra Schneiders, I.H.M., deliver the 16th Madeleva Lecture, With Oil in Their Lamps: Faith, Feminism and the Future (Paulist Press, 2000). Schneiders described feminism as a comprehensive life stance that affects all one’s commitments and activities, is rooted in women’s experience of oppression and embraces both theoretical and practical engagement aimed at bringing about a new and different world order. Schneiders discussed feminism under three headings: its effects on 20th-century culture, its effect on the church and its future.

Many identified with her description of a Gospel feminism that turns to Jesus as the model of one who gave his life for others without losing himself, who belonged to yet transcended his Jewish tradition, who mediated the particularity of his life and situation and the universality of his concern and who lived the tension between a radical subversion of the social, political and religious status quo and absolute refusal of violence as a means to its demise. Christian feminist vision, transmitted successfully to the next generation, will shape the future because it is a Gospel vision of full humanity for all persons and right relations among all creatures.

In the four private sessions on Friday and Saturday, skillfully facilitated by Margaret Brennan, I.H.M., many issues emerged. Grounding all our deliberations was the conviction that "feminism" and "Gospel" be tightly linked, i.e., feminism is a constitutive dimension of Gospel living. Advocacy for the full humanity of women within a Christian context is a Gospel value, based on the truth that women are made in the full image and likeness of God and baptized into full citizenship in the church. To separate "Gospel" from "feminism" is to misunderstand Christian feminism, causing some to distance themselves from the feminist struggle.

A second leitmotif pointed to the importance of the imagination and the imperative to envision a new way of being human, a new nondualistic, multivocal way to understand gender differences, a new way to be the whole body of Christ. The seedbed for this creative, imaginative activity is the solitude and silence of contemplative intimacy in the context of everyday lifean intimacy that grounds and enables just relationships.

We spoke often about the young. There was a great deal of energy around the need to mentor future generations of Christians and to work with them to bring about a better future. Do we speak often and with conviction of the terrible beauty that is our tradition and tell stories about how it has nurtured our lives? Although betrayals of this tradition are within and around us, they cannot silence the call to protest, to conversion and to faithfulness. Concretely, how does one invite young women of every race and class to prepare for roles of prophetic leadership in church, academy and society? The young include those who know almost nothing about this tradition and who therefore cannot be intelligently committed to it; those who are hungry for meaning, searching for sources of spiritual depth and a religious home; those preparing for ministry through advanced study, who are apprehensive about assuming the mantle of leadership in an uncertain future. A clear ray of hope was reflected in a statement that one religious studies major made to another as they sat listening to the panel on Saturday night: "In the year 2025, I want to be up on that stage with you."

We were also acutely aware of speaking to those women who have suffered grievously from unjust ecclesial laws, customs, practices and attitudes. We wanted to speak to those who have been fired from church positions without due process and in some cases without cause; to those who have been silenced, ridiculed, ignored or dismissed because they are women; to those who are not invited to share power and be included in decision-making; to those who are suffering battle fatigue from long and faithful commitment to change. We wanted to offer a word of hope and courage to those who are disheartened or impatient with change that seems to come at a snail’s pace.

Many expressed the need to keep the cries of all the poor and oppressed before us as we continue to shape Gospel feminism. Others voiced a desire and a will to continue to enhance lay/religious collaboration; to include the earth and the cosmos in our theological and spiritual vision; to acknowledge, celebrate and learn from African-American, Hispanic and Asian women, so that we may be truly transformed by their wisdom. Others asked about the insights to be gained from the life that flourishes on the margins (women, vowed religious, rural populations, racial minorities, prisoners,the desperately ill) and how this life might be put at the service of the reign of God. As the words of our conversations moved toward words on a page, the "charter" became an "invitation" (long discussion), which became a "manifesto" (in a flash of recognition).

Many knew or discovered with pleasure that Saturday was the feast of St. Catherine of Siena, a lay woman and doctor of the church. What better model for our deliberations? In her life of prayer, courage and sacrifice, she has mentored Christian women down the ages. In the afternoon, many who had come for the weekend met to discuss Schneiders’ talk. Each facet of the weekend functioned as a note in a crescendo leading up to the panel on Saturday night when the Madeleva lecturers shared the fruit of their conversations. The session began and ended with a dramatic proclamation in English and Spanish of "The Madeleva Manifesto: A Message of Hope and Courage." A mood of expectation filled the auditorium and the reading of the manifesto was interrupted often with sustained applause. At the end, all those gathered were on their feet. Panelists then responded to questions about biblical justice and Gospel feminism and named aspects of their lives that made it possible for them to remain faithfulwith oil in their lamps. Kathleen Norris enriched the conversation with two poems: Jane Kenyon’s "Depression," which, contrary to its title, was filled with Easter joy; and Louise Glück’s "The Wild Iris."

The manifesto itself negotiates the tension between the limits and particularity of individual histories and a universal vision that is faithful to our catholic tradition. It is addressed in simple, personal and impassioned language to women in ministry (85 percent of ministers in Catholic parishes are laypeople, most of them women) and in theological studies; to women who are old, in mid-life and especially to the young; to women in all stages of life who are tempted by the demons of despair and indifference; to those scanning the horizon for prophetic leadership on behalf of women; to women who suffer the cost of discipleship; to all persons of all traditions who imagine and work to bring about a world unburdened by oppression.

The message is a message of hope and courage. Springing from the truth that "The way things are now is not the design of God," it challenges us to hear and respond to the call of the Spirit to claim and celebrate Gospel feminism; to reimagine what it means to be the whole body of Christ and to follow the way of Jesus Christ in solidarity with one another; to study and teach the rich tradition of Catholic thought and spirituality. It is our contemplative intimacy with God in the Spirit that will empower us to work to transform structures and attitudes of oppression and to resist anything that treats women or men as less than fully human.

"Convergence 2000" was a graced, privileged moment in which we reimagined once again what it means to be full human persons. It affirmed, proclaimed and made alive the truth that women in the church are rising and converging. It was a historical moment, marked by the grace of genuine ecclesial community. It was a theological moment, marked by depth of thought and insight about who God is and what it means to be God’s people. It was a spiritual moment, which witnessed to the fiery, tangible presence of the Spirit. It was a paschal moment, marked by the glory of new life in Christ and the challenge to keep imagining it so. And it was a human moment, marked by good conversation, humor ("If we can’t even get a pronoun for half the human race, we have serious problems!") and gratitude for those upon whose shoulders we stand.

As we listened to the proclamation of the first reading for the Second Sunday of Easter (Acts 4:32-35), I thought it captured, mutatis mutandis, what many of us experienced at Convergence 2000:

Now the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things which she possessed was her own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet; and distribution was made to each as any had need.

Convergence 2000 was not intended to be the possession of those who were privileged to attend. It produced a "word" that is necessarily limited, yet offered in the spirit of a church that is catholic and a world that is diverse beyond our imagining. It is a word of truth, hope and courage that is part of a much larger, more diverse mosaic in which we catch a glimpse of the full humanity of all women and, beyond that, of the great Shalom of God. It is a word intended to be a catalyst for staying power and for committed action, so that some day the phrase from Acts will be true of us: "There was not a needy person among them."

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