Bravely Holding Vision: Reflections from the Road to Woman Priesthood

Bravely Holding Vision is a series written by current Young Adult Catholics blog editor, Sarah Holst. Sarah is in the application process to become a Roman Catholic Womanpriest in the Midwest Region. They currently work as an artist in Duluth, MN. Sarah and her partner Nathan will be leading a workshop on Watershed Discipleship at the National Call to Action Conference this November in Milwaulkee.

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Sarah holding space on Ash Wednesday on the Abundant Table Farm.  “Remember you are earth and to earth you will return.”

One of the joys in my life right now is, after a long season of transience, settling into a place where my partner and I plan to be for a long, long time. I relished my years of post-college volunteer work, learning and adventure (shout-outs to Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest and Episcopal Service Corps for providing that for folks like me), but am so hungry to have a home, know the cycle of seasons, start a garden that I will tend to year after year, and perhaps most acutely, make and have friends that I won’t shortly be moving away from and saying goodbye to.

It is a heart-wrenching thing to gather one community after another around oneself and then, as you start to take root and grow, to be yanked out and replanted. As difficult (and sad) as it is to start in a new place again, I am reassured by the fact that this is the last time that I will be newly befriending land, community and story. (At least, according to plan. The Holy Spirit dances in spiraling, changeling ways.) I can’t wait to get past the introductions and into the deeper work, the re-learning and unlearning and being reborn with a place again and again, I can’t wait to take steps beyond where before, I have always packed my Subaru and driven away.

A few weeks ago, in the midst of all of this beginning, I was invited by new friends to a backyard concert of Duluth singer-songwriter Rachael Kilgour’s. With a gentle shock, I found myself sitting on a bench within my new watershed, listening to songs about radical self-love and grace. I listened to Rachael sing and watched the trees move in the breeze behind her.  Suddenly, in this backyard set up with folding chairs and drinks and snacks, I felt like I could cry. It felt like Church to me.

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Where I Find Myself: Mass

This is a post by Julia M.  Julia serves as a Campus Minister at a Catholic college in the Midwest. She’s learning what it means to minister to a community while also questioning many of the practices and traditions of the Church; sometimes it’s quite a challenge! She’s especially passionate about feminist theology and story-telling, particularly as they relate to the integration of sexuality and spirituality. 

I used to joke that I was the only one of my 12 young adult cousins that still went to Mass on my own – meaning without parents encouraging or forcing me. But I’m not sure I can say that anymore. I’m losing interest in the Mass. It’s a beautiful practice that can sometimes be so comforting, reminding me of my childhood, my family, and people that I love. Since my first Feminist Theology class, however, I’ve struggled to sit in Mass without analyzing everything I saw and heard. For a while I thought, ‘oh, its no big deal.’ So much of my daily life included thinking about, studying, and contemplating the Creator. Mass wasn’t the only place I could experience spirituality.

NOR-001This last year has changed things. I’m no longer a student of theology. Now, I minister at a small Catholic university in the Midwest. And I’m the only minister there. We have no priest, no sister, no other lay people working in ministry. Just me. Because of this, a part of my otherwise enjoyable job description was to attend every Sunday night Mass we held on campus.

Let me give a little background: the school I’m at is largely a commuter school with most students either living at home or going home each weekend to work and spend time with family. Many students, then, go to Mass with their families on Sunday mornings or do not attend Mass at all. Very few students ever attended our Sunday night Masses. (I think the most that I ever saw there were 12 students at one Mass.) I love small communities, but this was different. I was a leader and a minister – but not really. There, at Mass, the priest was the leader; he was the minister. I was just there to set everything up for him and put it away when he left. Sundays were totally different than Monday-Friday. During the week, I would sit with the students and talk to them and engage in spiritual conversation and practice. On Sunday nights, I was the priest’s helper. Continue reading

A Seven-Month Honeymoon Sabbatical

unnamed-1  We got married on August 30, 2014 in a park in Duluth, Minnesota. The sun came out just in time for the service. A butterfly joined us on the altar. A flock of seagulls flew over our heads. We had a mixed gender wedding party, a blessing with Lake Superior water was given by our mothers, friends read from Job and Matthew, John O’Donohue and Rumi, and we printed a special acknowledgment in the program to the indigenous people of the area in regards to use of the Lake Superior Watershed, their home.

Two days later, I gratefully traded gown for canoe paddle and plunged my uncharacteristically golden toenails into the muck of the Boundary Waters, further baptizing myself into my new home and new chapter. We had decided to take a period of time to slow to the world, ground into our new calling in relationship, and explore who we wanted to be in the world, individually and together. It felt like an ideal time to let the ground lay fallow, and re-evaluate as we started a new stage.

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Sensus Fidelium and the question of women’s leadership

The scene is familiar, one that has been recreated many times in parish social halls across the country: One wall is lined with a long table laden with cookies, cut vegetables and dip, cheese and crackers. The walls are decorated with banners from past parish missions and a crucifix adorned with a woven palm branch. The faint smell of oil from last Friday’s Lenten fish fry hangs in the air.

Parishioners from a three-parish cluster come in, are welcomed and encouraged to sign in at card tables by the door. They smile as they recognize the faces of friends across the hall. There are the requisite hugs and handshakes; people asked after each other’s family members, commented about sports, local politics, and the cold winter weather.

The pastoral associate called us to order, offered a brief opening prayer, and introduced the speaker, a representative of the diocesan office, who is to speak about Pope Francis and the New Evangelization. After a power point presentation highlighting themes from the apostolic exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel” about being missionary disciples and some anecdotes about applying Francis’ words, we were given time for discussion at our tables. Each table was to discuss “what the church needs to leave behind” and “what the church needs to carry forward” and then share insights with the large group.

At our table the ten of us looked at each other expectantly. A metal chair squeaked when the woman beside me shifted her weight. Her husband beside her flipped through his copy of “The Joy of the Gospel.” The woman next to him took a bite of her cookie. We heard the murmur of conversations from neighboring tables.

“We’re going to need to give a report back soon,” someone said, frowning slightly.

“So,” I said, jumping into facilitator mode and pulling out a notebook and pen, “let’s start with the first question: what does the church need to leave behind?”

There was a thoughtful pause.

“Well,” ventured one woman, “what about the position of women in the church?”

Our formerly quiet and unengaged group of ten became instantly animated around this question and I jotted down notes as quickly as I could so as not to lose any threads of the conversation. Several people at the table remembered the post-Vatican II energy when it seemed to them women’s ordination to the diaconate and priesthood was a distinct possibility. One man spoke about examples from the New Testament of women in leadership roles in the early church. Someone else pointed out Pope Francis’ words in Evangelii Gaudium about a “more incisive female presence” in the church. I mentioned a recent article by Mary Ann Walsh, RSM in America magazine which gave concrete examples of ways women could assume more leadership in the church even without engaging the question of the ordination of women.

“So,” I said, “based on all I’ve heard, here’s a statement: ‘in order to move forward, the church needs to leave behind the exclusion of women from particular leadership and decision-making roles.’ Do we have consensus?”

“Yes,” came the resounding agreement.

The speaker re-convened us, thanked us for our work, and started with the tables in the back of the hall. The ideas shared ranged from big-picture and abstract to nuts-and-bolts practical. One table spokesperson spoke about the need to use personal invitations and not just rely on bulletin announcements to engage parishioners. Another recommended greater collaboration in several ministries among the clustered parishes. As ideas were shared, those gathered listened and occasionally nodded in agreement.

The speaker pointed to our table. I repeated our consensus statement: “in order to move forward, the church needs to leave behind the exclusion of women from particular leadership and decision-making roles.”

No sooner had the words been spoken than the room burst into sustained, hearty, and enthusiastic applause. One guy a few tables away even let out a cheer, pumping his fist in the air. I looked around the parish hall at the about 100 Catholics – mostly lay, but several deacons and priests – continued to clap.

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When the applause finally subsided, the speaker smiled graciously, made no comment about my statement or the community’s response, and simply invited the next group to share. I sat down and someone at a neighboring table tapped me on the shoulder, grinned and gave me a thumbs up.

Please note that this took place in a rural, economically depressed part of Western Pennsylvania and not in some left-leaning urban area. This wasn’t a group of progressive, lefty millennials or hyper-educated academics. The parish hall that night was filled with women and men who are steel workers, teachers, nurses, small business owners, retirees who are committed to their parish family and Catholic faith. I wager most of the 100 people in attendance wouldn’t self-identify as feminists or activists for church reform. It was a room full of average American 21st century Catholics, responding out of their own experience.

As I reflected on that evening’s events, I began to look at them through the lens of sensus fidelium (sense of the faithful) which Pope Francis defines in Evangelii Gaudium #119 as the “instinct of faith which helps them {the People of God} to discern what is truly of God”. It’s a tricky concept, described as an “intuition” about “the right way forward” for the church. It would be an abuse of the idea to say that it turns the church into a democracy which conflates majority opinion and doctrinal teaching. On the other hand, it is problematic to claim that sensus fidelium should never be invoked to contest or challenge the teachings of the Magesterium.

According to the document Sensus Fidei in the Life of the Church by the International Theological Commission, “not only do they {the laity} have the right to be heard, but their reaction to what is proposed as belonging to the faith of the Apostles must be taken very seriously, because it is by the Church as a whole that the apostolic faith is borne in the power of the Spirit.”

The document goes on to speak of “new ways for the journey…as they are sensed by the people.” I was graced to witness and articulate something which was “sensed by the people” in the social hall that night. In our little corner of Western Pennsylvania, 100 Catholics spontaneously, unanimously, and enthusiastically spoke about the need for inclusion of women in leadership and decision-making roles in the church.

What are the “new ways for the journey” to which we are being called as the Pilgrim People of God around questions of women’s leadership?

About the author: Rhonda Miska (rhonda.youngadultcatholics@gmail.com) is a former Jesuit Volunteer (Nicaragua, 2002-2004) and a graduate of the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. Originally from Wisconsin, her past ministries include accompaniment of the Spanish-speaking immigrant community, Muslim-Christian dialogue, social justice education, direct outreach to people who are homeless, congregation-based community organizing, and coordination of a community with adults with intellectual disabilities. She is currently a Partner in Mission with the Sisters of the Humility of Mary at the Villa Maria Education and Spirituality Center in Villa Maria, Pennsylvania.

Call to Action 20/30 Online Book Group Series on Family

Hello, everyone!  From time to time this blog is used to alert you all to upcoming events sponsored by the CTA 20/30 Community.10922725_10206401728304832_5422178793120968808_n

The Call to Action 20/30 Community is launching a monthly series of Online Book Groups on Family.  20/30 members Sarah Holst and Katie Jones (the current and former editors of this blog!) will be hosting conversations on chapters that explore the diversity of family life and community for young progressive Catholics.  These conversations are hosted online and all are welcome to join.

The 20/30 Online Book Groups are exciting and supportive conversations. This series will creatively explore expanding boundaries and blurring borders of what “family” means in the lived contexts of members of the 20/30 group. The Book Groups will use chapters from books that examine traditional ideas and assumptions, view Catholic thought through anti-oppression lenses, and expand on ways to build communities and practices of inclusion. Monthly conversations about these chapters will be held on Google Chat.  These are safe spaces to bring your experience, identities and faith wherever you are on your journey. Continue reading

Of Habits and Hobbits

“I was expecting, you know…hobbits.” My friend Valerie said this to me with surprise and perhaps a touch of disappointment after she spent time with Catholic Sisters.

Hobbits?” I asked, immediately imagining Bilbo Baggins and his ilk running through the chapel and dining hall of the motherhouse. “Wait, do you mean habits?”

She caught herself and realized that she had inadvertently confused the term for the traditional dress of women religious with the humanoid Middle-Earth residents of Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. (In Valerie’s defense, she made this slip before her morning cup of coffee!)

This is one of many conversations I have had since moving in with a community of women religious. I’ve fielded questions from friends, family, acquaintances, colleagues, taxi drivers, bank tellers, and near-strangers. Some questions are funny and off-the-wall – often related to portrayals of sisters in pop culture like the movie “Sister Act” or the reality TV show “The Sisterhood.” Other questions are poignant and thoughtful; they lead to great explorations of big topics like community, justice, feminism, spirituality, ministry, human sexuality, and everything in between.

One question I have been asked more than once is: “Do you live with real nuns?”

At first, the question was confusing. What did this mean? Do people think I live with “imposter” nuns? What would render a sister fake? I wondered. I’ve come to realize the question they are really posing is if I live with habited sisters. The Sisters of the Humility of Mary modified their dress in response to the Vatican II document Decree on the Adaptation and Renewal of Religious Life (Perfectae Caritatis).  They moved to a simple blue suit without a veil. Now they wear contemporary dress with a ring and a medal as a sign of their vowed commitment and membership in the community.

There are women religious – from postulants to jubilarians – who are attracted to the habit and I don’t challenge their desire for distinctive dress. Some believe the habit gives a powerful, visible public witness to a sister’s identity as a consecrated woman in the world and opens the door to ministry. Others find that the habit separates women religious and leads people to put them on a pedestal which negatively impacts their ability to do ministry. Sister Susan Rose Francois’ Habits of Love or Sister Sophia Park’s Beyond Habits and No Habits (both on the Global Sisters Report website) explore the habit question. There are valid reasons for both sides of the habit argument and it’s not something I seek to hash out here.

What I do challenge is the idea that what women religious wear marks the authenticity of their identity as consecrated women. A nun or sister is not more or less committed, faithful, or prophetic based on her choice of dress. From the full habit to a simple pin or cross there are many ways that women religious today choose to externally present themselves. What dress will allow women to best serve the people they seek to serve? What will facilitate their ministries? What will communicate the message they seek to communicate about their way of being in the world? These are the questions that guide individual sisters and congregations. Especially during this Year of Consecrated Life, it seems more relevant than ever to stress that religious life is not a fashion statement.

As a keen observer of contemporary women’s religious life and a guest in many convents and motherhouses, I have concluded that what women religious wear is the least interesting thing about them. The sisters of Giving Voice, a national organization of younger women religious, echo this observation in their February 2010 letter in which they state “our clothing is the least significant part of our lives, yet receives so much attention.”

The preoccupation with the habit question seems to me an application of the ubiquitous sexist rule that what matters for men is the substance of what they do, whereas for women it is how we look while doing it. It’s clearly present in the entertainment industry where singers, actresses, and other performers are subjected to constant and intense scrutiny about their dress, weight, hair and makeup – just glance at the covers of the magazines in the checkout line. Commentators are more likely to focus on female politician’s pantsuit collection, hair accessories, and makeup than they are on her policies and ideas.

Is our hang-up with habits just a religious application of this same principle? If so, the response should be a strong, unequivocal emphasis on the full human dignity of all women whose identity is infinitely more than their physical appearance and wardrobe and whose gifts must be named and celebrated.

What women wear – whether we are nuns or world leaders, nurses or grandmothers, CEOs or gardeners – does not define us. I have been blessed to meet and develop relationships with women religious who have spent decades as teachers, spiritual directors, police chaplains, counselors, pastoral ministers, academics, artists, activists, administrators and more. Their fidelity to God, commitment to mission, and passion for service would make them “real” sisters in anyone’s book – whether they are wear a coif or a cardigan.

So if you come to the motherhouse where I live – or to many other motherhouses around the United States – expecting to see habits (or hobbits, for that matter!) you won’t find them. But if you come to find “real sisters” – that is, consecrated women striving to live lives of service and prayer in community, animated by their charism and vision of God’s kin-dom, committed to God and to one another – you will not be disappointed.

 

About the author: Rhonda Miska (rhonda.youngadultcatholics@gmail.com) is a former Jesuit Volunteer (Nicaragua, 2002-2004) and a graduate of the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. Originally from Wisconsin, her past ministries include accompaniment of the Spanish-speaking immigrant community, Muslim-Christian dialogue, social justice education, direct outreach to people who are homeless, congregation-based community organizing, and coordination of a community with adults with intellectual disabilities. She is currently a Partner in Mission with the Sisters of the Humility of Mary (real nuns!) at the Villa Maria Education and Spirituality Center in Villa Maria, Pennsylvania.