Women – A potential for ministry in the church today

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Críost liom. Críost romham. Críost im dhiaidh. Críost ós mo chionnsa agus Críost fúm. Críost ina chónaí I mo chroíse. Críost fós ó dheas díom. Críost ó thuaidh. Ón Tiarna tig slánú. Ón Tiarna tig slánú. Go raibh do shlánú, a Thiarna, inár measc go saol na saol.
Christ with me. Christ before me. Christ after me. Christ over my head and Christ under me. Christ living in my heart. Christ also south of me. Christ to the north. From Christ comes salvation. From Christ comes salvation. May your salvation, O Lord, be in our midst forever.
There is a play called ‘No name on the Street’ by Edward Murch where a woman is looking for her son; first in Gethsemane but she is too late. They have gone. Then she finds that they have gone from the upper room at the inn where they had the Paschal meal. Finally she reaches Golgotha. It reminds me of the story of women in our church – always asked to be the few steps behind but never at the centre. It wasn’t always so. Women were the first to be told of Jesus’ resurrection; these women were told to go and tell the men, who at first didn’t believe them. Women understood what had happened – men had to reason it, witness it. Did the men not believe because women brought the story? Perhaps women were the first to be told because they, throughout Jesus’ ministry, understood better than the men. When the men had fled, it was the women who gathered around the cross to be with Jesus’ at his last breath.
In her challenging book ‘The Elephant in the Church’, Mary Malone traces the history of women in the church beginning with the women in scripture. While the first Creation story says; “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them. Male and female he created them”, it was the second story of Adam and Eve which prevailed. Eve, the temptress and the first sinner. Down through the ages, women have been seen by the official church as such, the source of evil.
Even in the 11th century poem in Irish poor Eve gets it hot and heavy! “I am Eve. It is I that outraged Jesus of old: it is I that stole Heaven from my children; by rights it is I who should have gone upon the tree” Because of this legacy, married men cannot be priests, because they have been contaminated by women. Mary Malone writes that the church says two entirely contradictory things at the same time about women – “women are absolutely equal but also inferior; women are equally created by God but secondarily and sinfully; and women are absolutely and equally united to Christ in Baptism but not really since they are subordinate to men”.
She writes of the first Gospel to be written, that of Mark, written some forty years after the death of Jesus and therefore the most historical of the four Gospels. But apart from the women who were involved in Jesus’ miracles, there is no mention of women disciples until the very end of the Gospel. It is only when Mark has announced the total failure of the male apostles and disciples in Chapter 14 that it becomes necessary for him to bring the women to the fore, to name their leaders, state that they had followed Jesus from Galilee (a huge trek for women in those days) and were with him at the crucial last moments of the life of Jesus. “There were also women there looking on from a distance. Among them Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joset and Salome. They used to follow him and provide for him when he was in Galilee and there were many other women there who had come up with him to Jerusalem.”
Mary Malone follows the story of how the image of Mary Magdalene, the leader of these women disciples, was manipulated later to portray her as a prostitute. Hence the unfortunate name given to the Magdalene Laundries. How different it would have been for these girls in the Magdalenes if they were encouraged to see themselves in the light of Mary Magdalene the leader of the women disciples, cherished and loved by the Divine; indeed marked by the Divine in the wonderful creation of their lovely baby sons and daughters.
In our recent commemoration of 1916, we heard of the airbrushing of the figure of Elizabeth O Farrell out of the photograph of the surrender of Pádraig Pearse. A play taking place in Cork recently called “The Sisters of the Rising” explored the women of 1916; women who were rarely mentioned in the inherited story nor in the official records of the Rising. Airbrushed. And 1916 is only a hundred years ago when newspapers, official records, photographs were possible. And yet the inherited story missed the women. How much easier in a primitive society over 2000 years ago, with no contemporary accounts, to airbrush the women out.
Mary Malone follows on with the story of the medieval women mystics. She says they “claimed direct access to God and claimed further that this direct access was available to all without exception”. Just as the whole Thomastic structure of faith and reason became the centre of the theological enterprise, the mystics claimed that love was central, and far beyond reason in God’s eyes. And just as the Latin language became the sacred language of the increasingly clericalised church, the women mystics taught, prayed, read the scriptures and preached in their own vernacular language.
Hildegarde, an 11th century mystic, wrote that from a very early age she had an awareness of God and knew she was in the shadow of the Living Light. She believed in the ultimate redemption of the whole of creation. She wrote liturgies and spiritual dramas for her sisters, encouraged the playing of musical instruments and composed music. In one of her last visions she speaks of the ‘endless circulation of love’ in the universe. Mary Malone explains that the women mystics speak of “no experience of a gap between God and themselves but a sense that from time eternal God was present and already loving and active in a person’s life. There is no sense of original sin but a sense of what Matthew Fox called ‘original grace’”.
Patrick’s Breastplate says the same thing; Christ all around me. Naomh Íde, our own Saint Ita, dreaming of nursing Jesus at her breast, composes a poem which translates; “It is little Jesus who is nursed by me in my little hermitage. Though a cleric have great wealth, it is all deceitful save Jesukin. The nursing done by me in my house is no nursing of a base churl: Jesus with Heaven’s inhabitants is against my heart every night. Little youthful Jesus is my lasting good; He never fails to give. It is noble angelic Jesus and no common cleric who is nursed by me in my little hermitage – Jesus, son of the Hebrew woman.” Even in the ninth century, Ita has a somewhat jaundiced eye of the clerics! Naomh Íde is our native mystic.
Mary Malone’s story of Marguerite Porete from France intrigued me and I can only paraphrase it here. Marguerite felt that she was made by God in the image of God, from all eternity and that therefore she was never removed from God’s sight or from God’s love. She speaks of knowing God in the place ‘where she was before she was’ and her goal in life was to return there. She wrote that women seem to be able to cross the boundaries between the Divine and the human more easily that the men of her day. She suggested that there were two Churches. Holy Church the Great and Holy Church the Less. Holy Church the Less signified the church of reason and Scholastic theology where men argued about God and tried to contain him. Holy Church the Great signified the Church of love which was potentially open to everyone and welcomed all those who were trying to love and live by love. God was already there in the depths of self and it was a question of going within and not looking up or out or anywhere else. Marguerite was burned at the stake in Paris on June 1st 1310. Marguerite also speaks of the Holy Spirit, writing her book on the ‘parchment of the soul’ and says that trying to follow the inspiration of the Holy Spirit is like trying to capture the sea in her eyes. Her final sense of herself is contained in the marvellous phrase “I am who God is through the transformation of love”
Julian of Norwich (14th century mystic) said “Holy Church says that sinners are worthy of blame and wrath, but in my showings, there was no wrath in God” Julian wanted, like so many other women mystics, to focus only on love. Love is essential to human wholeness, and the task of the Christian is to negotiate the journey to full humanity, in imitation of Jesus. ‘This I am, the capability and goodness of the Fatherhood, This I am, the wisdom of the Motherhood, This I am, the light and grace that is all love.’”
The story, theology, written words and lives of these wonderful women were also airbrushed and still in spite of being made Doctors of the Church in recent times, when did you last hear anything about Hildegarde of Bingen or Catherine of Siena? Hildegarde saw herself as a ‘feather on the breath of God’. A few years ago I wrote a new bilingual text for a hymn tune already written (I imagined myself on a sail boat in the harbour, that I looked out on as a child in West Cork, and that the Spirit was the wind);
“Tá gaoth bog ag séideadh thar chuan mo chroí…” A soft wind is blowing over the harbour of my heart, whispering to me to sit in the vessel of love. A soft wind is swinging kindly and gently urging me to set sail. The English verses read; “A red sky at night is a sailor’s delight and heralds a bright new morning. Its deep crimson glare, a promise so clear, says a new resurrection is dawning. New day, new skies, new dawn you bring, new life in sunlight and in shade. New courses to chart, new sails to furl and you to share my journey. Your breath fills my sail at the launch of each new day, sets me gently along on the rising tide. Your breath moves me beyond my tears, beyond my fears and you as my guide, my wind, my tide, my captain so fair, my compass in stormy waters, my harbour, my port, my calm; My boat a safe haven will find ‘neath a clear blue sky.
A wonderful teacher in my secondary school (where in my senior year we studied four documents of the Vatican Council in detail and also read Populorium Progessio of Paul VI) asked of our class “God choose to enter the world through an unmarried mother. Discuss”.
In a long tradition, including women like Sarah, Elizabeth and Mary, women have been marked by the Divine to be the first bearers and carers of humankind created in God’s image. The moment of conception is blessed and baptised by the Divine. It always shocked me at baptisms of children, including my own, when the priest spoke of the parents giving the child physical life but now in baptism the child will become a child of God. In another instance a priest said; “this child was a pagan yesterday, but is a child of God today”. Any woman who carried a child knows differently, instinctively, that God is present in that child alive and kicking in your womb. The tradition of burying children in cillíní – and pregnant women- and the way hospitals dealt with miscarried and stillborn infants is so sad. “Before you were in the womb, I named you”. What a wonderful image!
So what do we celebrate in Baptism? We need to rediscover the creative God in our midst, to celebrate the wonder and goodness of each unborn and new-born infant, to see our ministry in re-ordering our baptismal ceremonies as communities celebrating and welcoming this new creation of another human being. The whole community. I was at Mass in Melbourne some years ago at the same church my granduncle said Mass in. A couple were presented with their baby the week before the baptism of that infant after the homily and the priest explained that the baptism would be held the following week at the Sunday mass and there would be refreshments afterwards for everybody. A new member of their community. And bring the children! Children should grow up knowing that each was welcomed into the Church community in a special way in joy.
When the children went up to Jesus and the disciples tried to turn them away, and stop annoying Jesus, it occurs to me that it was the women who pushed them forward. After all it would have been the women who were taking care of the children. They instinctively knew that Jesus would and did love to see them, to talk to them, to touch them. Their innocence would delight him, their simplicity would calm him in the face of the tricky Pharisees, the needy sick and the bewildered. No wonder he said “Unless you become like little children” The women would have heard that, they were with the children, enjoying them, understanding them, talking about them (women usually do). So they understood better than anybody what Jesus actually meant when he said “Unless you become like little children”
The women aren’t mentioned in this story of the children but they must have been there. And don’t tell me there weren’t women involved in the feeding of the multitudes – we have fed multitudes in our day! And who prepared and served the Passover?
Jesus sat with his disciples, and shared a Passover meal with them. They would have had lamb and bread and wine. And when he was sharing this meal with them he asked to do the same in his memory. Liturgically nowadays, the priest partakes of the bread and wine on his own – or with other priests if they are concelebrating. Then he takes a key to open the tabernacle and take last week’s food to share out with us the lookers-on. Imagine Jesus – eating on his own and taking a key and going to a press and sharing last week’s lamb and bread! The women had the lamb cooked and bread baked and the carafes of wine all there. And no doubt shared in the Passover meal themselves too. If women were now in charge of celebrating the Eucharist, we would all be coming on Sunday to a tea-party!
Even on the feast of the Last Supper itself we make little effort to remember the supper as Jesus asked us to do. When my nephew in Switzerland was making his first Holy Communion, the group of women who were in charge of preparing them from the celebration, arranged that the children bake the bread for the Eucharist, brought the bread in procession at the offertory and this was the bread blessed and broken and shared with us on the day.
We would have a completely different Eucharist today if women had been in charge. Churches would be ordered differently because women would have seen that everybody was around the table –not in military style pews looking up at the priest. My daughter and I help a little with the music for the church in east Galway. A lovely very small church with no side aisles. Many years ago it was re-ordered to set the altar facing the people. An ideal time to have a large rectangular table going down the middle of the church with the community gathered around. Instead the architect put up a huge wooden structure, floor to ceiling to emphasise the tabernacle, and put a small squat table – quite unlike a supper table – raised on steps to overlook the participating community – not inviting them to surround it.
Mary of the Gospel was always an enigma to me. I couldn’t see the woman of the gospel in the face of the plaster statues or holy pictures of my youth. I couldn’t get the Queen bit. It flies in the face of the Gospel but was a result of the triumphalism of the medieval church when it emphasised the kingship and queenship of Jesus and Mary. But it also helped to promote a vision of a woman who was apart from us and unlike us in anyway. So too with the virgin birth – another point in which we could never be like Mary – promoted for centuries in a church that had a real problem with sex.
I never had a problem with the idea that Joseph took Mary as his wife in real terms and lived and loved her. What was so wrong with that? Mary herself said “Your father and I have been looking for you” – so she saw the family as Joseph, Mary and Jesus. I also would have no problem with Jesus having real-life brothers and sisters. I remember a lovely print of Mary and Joseph holding hands walking in a corn-field, the wind in their hair and smiles on their faces. I had it up on a wall at home for a long time. I’ve had a real problem with the Hail Holy Queen. I remember having this discussion with a priest years ago. I think Hail is too close to Heil! I don’t believe we are in the valley of tears, this valley was God’s creation and we should love it, cherish it and care for it. I also don’t believe that we were the poor banished children of Eve. How do you square that with Jesus saying ‘Unless you become as little children’? The priest said I had destroyed the prayer on him! Why don’t we women make up a prayer to Mary, the Hebrew woman as Naomh Íde said, who gave birth to Jesus.
Mary was the woman who gave birth to Jesus, who nursed and nurtured him, taught him together with Joseph and when Joseph died continued on her own doing that. And they say Jesus was an adult when he and his mother went to a wedding in Cana. And it is Mary who urges Jesus that he should step forward. At first it seems he doesn’t want to but how many of us, mothers, know that line. You suggest a line of action to your son and he presents some argument against it and later, hey presto, he does exactly what you wanted him to do! But of course it was his idea then! What did Mary sense? Was it just that the bride and groom were close relatives and she was distraught at the thought of them being embarrassed and she said rather abstractedly “Do something!”? Or did she know, really deep down know, because she knew everything about that boy of hers, because she saw the divine working in him already in his wisdom, in his actions at home, that somehow he could solve the wine problem. And what a first story in the public life of Jesus, changing water into good wine at a wedding. There wasn’t any sense in which Jesus or Mary were going to say, “Ye’ve had enough already”.
Will the real Mary please stand up? We women need to find the real woman – the mother, wife, widow – a woman who worked, cleaned, washed, baked, listened, learned, understood, supported, walked huge distances, first to Elizabeth while she was pregnant and later all over Galilee and finally back down to Jerusalem, so a physically strong woman and who grieved agonisingly after seeing her son’s awful torture and death.
In the lovely Irish song Caoineadh na dTrí Muire, Mary agonisingly asks “Cé hé an fear breá sin ar chrann na páise?” “Who is that fine man on the cross?” “Do you not recognise your son, Mother?” “Is that the little son I bore for nine months? Is that the little son that was born in the stable?” we really sense the real woman, brokenhearted, devastated, crying in utter agony and sorrow, so beautifully sung by Iarla Ó Lionáird the other night at the Centenary Concert.
For me I understand her best when I sing the Magnificat; “My soul now glorify the Lord who is my Saviour. Rejoice for who am I that God has shown me favour. God fills me with joy Alleluia. His holy presence is my robe. Alleluia”. Mary understood that the Divine lived through her.
If we believe that the Divine is revealed daily, hourly, in our lives and in the lives of all humankind, then we need to search for the evidence of how we, as women, follow the path of Jesus in today’s world. How we interpret the Divine in the world today is a ministry that is sorely needed and it is one in which women should play a vital role. Our response must be always one of love, compassion and understanding. Clinging to rules, traditions and old models of ritual for the sake of it, could be interpreted as preventing us from searching for the divine response we need. Rules and traditions may be used deliberately to prevent women and men from defining their ministry, from sharing and living the gospel in today’s world.
For instance, only 7 gifts of the Spirit! What about the gift of life and energy, the gift of sport, the gift of laughter and fun, the gift of music, painting and craftwork, the gift of close friendship, hundreds of gifts. When I wrote the hymn “Is tú mo cheol”, (you are my music), I meant just that. God, the Holy Spirit, was and is the music in me.
In reflecting on my own role in the church, I find that it is this joy that is missing. When I went to church in Switzerland when my late sister was alive and lived there, I found that the priest invariably had this inner joy in his face. His smile at prayer was contagious, his participation in the singing was encouraging. His chat before and after Mass with the community was completely natural he was obviously integrated as a community member.
In Ireland, my experience has been the opposite. When my father taught us to read plain chant in the days of the Latin Mass, in our family we had individual missals with which we followed the liturgy. On Holy Week, my Dad often, for instance, sang the priest’s part and we’d respond. He’d also show us how the priest who was reading out the prayers in Latin also read out in the same tone of voice the instructions for the next bit, the people at Mass thinking it was all prayer! Leaving the singing to the choir. My mother went to daily Mass in her home village and anytime I was down there I would go with her. In the middle of a cold winter, when she was in her eighties, the church was still always freezing and unwelcoming. A woman would have a warm place ready for her neighbours.
Despite being involved in liturgy all my life since I was a child, I have come to know that for the ordinary punter, there is a growing chasm between our liturgies, our liturgical language, practice and environment and the gospel. And too long have we had the instruction, attend your Sunday liturgy at all costs and that will suffice! Membership meant attendance at Sunday Mass. It is time to really get back to the gospel. And try and retrieve the joy. Because we have the Good News. And knowing the Good News will inform us in every aspect of our daily lives, will help us interpret the Divine in our world.
My education, first with my parents, and my father as my National School teacher, then with the Presentation Sisters in Crosshaven and then Aloys Fleischmann all taught me that each one of us had to make a difference. It has been my motto all my life, to work with the Divine, the Spirit in me to make a difference. I have been blessed by people, many of them priests, I’ve met, heard or read during my life. I would love that to be the experience of the next generation. I think we would be immeasurably enriched by getting together as women, re-reading the New Testament and try and find the women’s story there and learn about the great women mystics and the independent women of the church who founded orders of nuns and the stories of contemporary women. I think we can articulate like these women before us how the Divine is always with us, just as Jesus promised. I believe we can then change the Church and the communities from within.
A recent programme with Mary Berry, showed her visiting various different Christian Churches on how they celebrated Easter and the food they associated with the joy of celebrating the Resurrection; Greek Orthodox, Italian Catholic community, Church of England, Philippino Catholic Church. So she prepared an Easter feast. Members of these different churches came and brought food to add to Mary’s dishes, where a long trestle table was beautifully laid out. The food was blessed and shared. This was real Eucharist, a shared Eucharist, real Ecumenism. “Do this in memory of me”
In the play ‘No name on the Street’, the woman looking for her son comes eventually to Golgotha and someone points to the cross and says; this is your son. But she says ‘no, that is not my son’. She is the mother of Judas. Then she rounds on the audience and says Judas was loved too by a mother and who should stand in judgement over him? Women often see things completely differently.
Máire Ní Dhuibhir

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  1. I am sure that it is very healthy for the members of the Universal Church to have its theological mind-set challenged and potentially stretched, and Mary Malone does make points with which I concur (I’ll not discuss).
    However, with all respect to Mary Malone, I also cannot concur with much of what she hypothesizes about Mary, and in some of her opinions about the Church.
    Again, for reasons of brevity, I’m not being specific, but suffice it to say I cannot find, for myself, much in her theology that resonates with my lived experience of Mary, Jesus, and the Church. I also have to bring caution to applying a lot of credibility to all the women, understood to be mystics.

  2. Mary T. Malone is speaking on “Woman and Church: Steps on the long road to inclusion and mutuality”, followed by Q & A next Monday at the We Are Church meeting. All are welcome. Admission is free (there will be a collection).
    Venue: Jesuit Conference Centre, Milltown Park, Sandford Road, Ranelagh, Dublin 6
    Time: 7.30pm to 9.00pm
    Date: Monday 11th of April 2016

  3. Con Devree says:

    Mother Angelica died on Easter Sunday. She was the greatest, by far, female evangelist of the modern era.

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