Although I come from the Roman Catholic faith tradition, women from other denominations will recognize the issues upon which I touch or dwell in this collection of my poems, stories, memoirs and essays: the uniqueness of women in terms of their talents, burdens and sorrows; the failure of the hierarchy of mainstream churches to recognize the contributions of women in the history of the Church; the widely accepted relegation of women to peripheral, rather than central, roles within churches and the unexamined “disease” (unease) the hierarchy and some priests exhibittoward sexuality--their own and women’s--contributing to injustice within the Church and society, such as:
the vacuum caused by the near total exclusion of women=s voices from the pulpit;
the hollow ring of marital and family advice emanating from the pulpit or the confessional by an all male hierarchy and clergy who have not known, or returned, a woman=s love or the joys and pains of fatherhood;
and, most recently and significantly, the tragic history of pedophilia among certain priests and the cover-up of their crimes by certain bishops.
For years I kept many of the poems and narratives in this book in a folder with other unpublished work. I had not realized that there was a unifying theme: my growing discomfort with the church into which I was baptized and confirmed; into which my ancestors were baptized; the church under whose auspices I was educated through university; the church in which I was married; the church in which my son and grandchildren were baptized and confirmed, the church I still love.
Why write this book now? As a seventy-year-old woman, I=ve had a lifetime of interactions with the clergy and hierarchy who represent my church. The examining I do now was influenced years ago by the Jesuits at Marquette University who reminded me that a questioning attitude toward my faith was necessary if I were to be strengthened in it. They spoke of that mysterious entity called Aconscience,@ and that I should act in accordance with it, as long as it was Ainformed.@ I could be wrong, but if I acted in good faith, God would still look kindly on me.
So, in this book, I probe my conscience and make public its contents, especially in regard to women and their diminished role in the Church. I=ve known many splendid women, some of whom remain my most trusted friends. They=ve raised children by themselves; struggled to support them; cared for disabled husbands and children; known bouts of intractable loneliness and insecurity; and they prevailed, becoming stellar professionals in education, law, medicine, business, and some have entered the religious life, becoming sisters. These last women possessed all the qualifications needed to become exemplary priests--a calling, dedication, compassion, love for the poor and preaching skills--but they lacked the one physical characteristic that would have made them eligible for the priesthood: a penis. Because these faithful and accomplished women lacked the organ considered the sine qua non for ordination, the Church rejected their calling. The Church fathers and their successors denied and continue to deny that an all loving God would ever bother to call a woman to become a priest or deacon.
The knowledge of what life is like for poor women, not just in the United States, but, most especially, in the poorest countries on this planet also agitates my conscience in regard to my church. As a Peace Corps volunteer in Peru, and later, while doing research in other Latin American countries, I witnessed women who go hungry in order to feed their children. If they were Catholic, birth control was forbidden, and their husbands= virility was frequently gauged by the number of children (especially boys) they produced. Birth control is against Anatural law,@ said the hierarchy, but they conveniently ignored the maternal and infant mortality rates and the wretched poverty that precludes even adequate breast milk for the new infant.
These valiant women inhabit my conscience, the conscience that was fed at St. Anne=s grade school in Milwaukee while reading about the saints and how they were persecuted because of their faith, compassion and love for one another and their enemies. I believe the unacknowledged dove-tailing of cultural and ecclesiastical patriarchy in a nation anchors women to an inferior status within the Church and in the wider society.
I divide this book into sections that correspond with five primary themes: Madonnas, Neither Male nor Female, Impure Places, Lamentations and Anticipating Grace. Within each section there may be poems, stories, memoir, novel excerpts and essays that relate to the theme. Readers will move through different genres in each section. I have also included a free-standing essay on abortion in which I thread my way through this agonizing and weighty issue.
On January 12, 2010, just as I was finishing the book, an earthquake struck Haiti. Horrifying images of death and destruction poured out of the country. Two, in particular, struck me: one of a couple who had just lost their fourteen month-old baby to dehydration and one of a mother clutching a doll to her breast. The two poems I wrote, inspired by those images, are included in ALamentations.@ Except where otherwise noted, all the writing is my own.
Although I close the book “anticipating grace,@ my own hope has been muted of late when I see subtle changes in the Mass, signifying a return to the old ways. Although I can still recite the Sanctus and Agnus Dei in Latin with the most fluent, I fear the return of the time when priests faced the altar rather than the people as well as the banishment of women from the altar altogether. My husband and I live in Pensacola, Florida for eight months of the year. There we attend a healthy, vibrant parish that must be one of the most integrated churches in the nation. We have female altar servers, and they give me hope, as do the women lectors and eucharistic Ministers. In our summer home in North Carolina, however, we attend a parish where all the altar servers are boys, where Latin is returning to the Mass, and where the bishop=s injunctions, as relayed through the pastor, have less to do with morality than the bishop=s conservatism. The warnings the priest relays to those who believe in, for example, optional celibacy for priests and the ordination of women, distract from my experience of a merciful, just and loving God. I don=t know what I would do if my church were to further exile women in a return to the Aold order.@
And yet, if it were truly the Aold order,@ women would be ordained and priests would marry as many did before the Second Lateran Council of 1139.
As I write, a new translation of the Roman Missal, the prayers used at Mass, is being written ostensibly because the keepers of doctrine believe the more inclusive and accessible language of the existing one weakens the liturgy and diminishes respect for tradition. At the same time, the Vatican is undertaking a sweeping evaluation of the formation, values and lives of women in certain women=s religious orders in the United States. While the Vatican downplays the significance of this study, many sisters fear that it is part of an effort to control their spiritual and personal lives. Someone in the Vatican has an interesting sense of timing or a warped sense of humor to pursue the examination of sisters and nuns at the same time civil society is uncovering the widespread history of child sexual abuse and concealment within the Church.
Also perturbing, is the recent avenue created for disaffected Anglicans (Episcopalians in the United States), to become Roman Catholics. Through this opening, those Anglican groups unhappy with the ordination of women as priests and bishops, the elevation to bishop of an openly gay man, and the blessing of same sex unions, may retain their worship traditions and their married priests within the Roman Catholic Churc