The Table

Over the weekend I had the opportunity to attend the Voices of Faith gatherings at the Vatican, which included a mass, storytelling event, and panel held to mark International Women’s Day.

In its second year, this Goetz foundation initiative has rallied around a quote from Pope Francis: “It is necessary to broaden the space within the church for a more incisive feminine presence.”

voices-of-faith1The day began at the Chiesa di Santa Maria Regina della Famiglia in Vatican City, with three celebrants: Archbishop Anil Couto, Bishop Brian Farrell, LC, and Fr. Noel Maddhichetty, SDB. In the small chapel, behind the Palazzo del Governatorato, “in the heart of the Vatican” – which Archbishop Couto joked, “now we know the Vatican has a heart,” we sang, “All Are Welcome,” to begin the celebration.

I went to this gathering not knowing what Voices of Faith hoped to achieve. I share their belief in the importance of showcasing women’s hard work, amplifying marginalized and unreached/unheard voices, and celebrating what our church is capable of; yet, I went with the notion that this event would not articulate the need for equality for women. (Equality is the basis of WOC’s International Women’s Day interfaith initiative #EqualinFaith). However, early in the day, I was proven wrong: not only did the Archbishop deliver a homily on equality, one of the few that I have heard from a man,  he also read aloud testimonies from women studying all over India about their experiences as women and girls in church and society. That kind of air-time for women’s words during the homily is very rare.  But then, seamlessly following the Archbishop, Kerry Robinson, went to the altar and offered her own homily. I really couldn’t believe it was happening.

After mass, the storytelling event began – similar to the event last year, stories of women who have lived incredible lives, working in conflict regions, working with refugees, enhancing access to education, and anti-trafficking efforts to name a few. But it was Jesuit Fr. Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator, S.J., who delivered one of the most commanding and moving testimonies, about the kidnapping of Nigerian girls, and the real danger of all girls who hunger for education: “Educated Nigerian girls are becoming an endangered species.” Through tears, he never once claimed to be a voice for these girls, but a voice who cannot remain silent in the wake of so many injustices to girls in the world.

At this point, I think it must be acknowledged what these women and Fr. Orobator are doing is in part because of, and despite of multiple oppressive and patriarchal systems, many of which the Vatican maintains. Until women’s voices are equal to the voices of men, our church participates in the same forces of oppression that these brave women and men work to fight every day. I await the day the Vatican uses all of the resources and gifts of the church (especially the work of these women) to work for peace and justice.

If only the church could institutionally and spiritually support these women in their work, and in the world. Imagine if the church hierarchy actually expressed faith in these voices.

Gudrun Sailor, Dr. Tina Beattie, Deb Rose-Milavec, Ulla Gudmundson, and Dr. Astrid Lobo Gajiwala. (L-R)

Gudrun Sailor, Dr. Tina Beattie, Deb Rose-Milavec, Ulla Gudmundson, and Dr. Astrid Lobo Gajiwala. (L-R)

Which brings us to the second half program, a panel discussion moderated by FutureChurch’s Deb Rose-Milavec, featuring Gudrun Sailor, Swedish Ambassador Ulla Gudmundson, Dr. Astrid Lobo Gajiwala, and Dr. Tina Beattie. A few notes from the panel:

– Astrid Lobo Gajiwala, who was one of the main authors of the Catholic Church of India’s gender policy, noted that even in the best circumstances, “women can make recommendations,” as power is linked to ordination.

– There is an exhaustion around conversations that begin, “we need to more of…” women’s theology, greater spaces for women… etc, without practical steps to get there. Deb brilliantly urged Tina Beattie to “put some skin” on her more abstract visions.

– Ulla Gudmundson expressed her own frustration at the adjectives used to describe women (tender, patient, motherly, warm) – with these qualities, Ulla suggested Pope Franics is a wonderful example of the feminine genius. She would describe herself as adventurous, curious, and independent.

– Tina Beattie put forward that if we are asked to accept that women’s ordination is “off the table,” then there is no reason why there can’t be equal representation in all other Vatican positions. Tina also spoke of her research in mother mortality, and the absence of “official” Catholic voices on this issue. (It should be noted that Tina is an advocate for women’s ordination and a keynote speaker at the WOW 2015 Conference.)

– Gudrun Sailor echoed a hope for change in Canon Law – which unnecessarily separates the clergy from the laity – as well as a change in mentality of how change might happen in the church (hoping for a shift from the top-down model).

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Astrid Lobo Gajiwala; Deb Rose-Milavec, and Ulla Gudmundson

– Astrid also spoke about a need for inclusive language, a God liberated from male-constructs. She said every time she reads “man” as possibly meaning “humanity” she is left to doubt her inclusion. Astrid also spoke about a church where we can all respond to God’s callings regardless of being male or female, and the need for women’s stories and voices during the homily.

I counted the word ordination several times during this panel, not as a point of debate, but as a roadblock for full equality, to which the women responded with creative and realistic hopes for ways to bring women’s leadership into a more actualized reality. I urge you to watch the full video (available here), and imagine yourself hearing these powerful voices in Vatican City. I wish that more Church officials were present to hear these discussions, but perhaps for the first time, the voices of women –discussing women’s full equality in the church– were broadcasted from the Vatican – if only for a day.  As Dr. Mary McFarland said during the event, while we often ask, “Where are the women?” perhaps the better question is, “Where will they be tomorrow?” 

Kate McElwee and Deb Rose-Milavec inside the Vatican, after the day's events.

Kate McElwee and Deb Rose-Milavec inside the Vatican, after the day’s events.

Read More about Voices of Faith: NPR; Vatican Radio; New York Times; National Catholic Reporter; Catholic New Service