The Message We Send

What does the Church hold as more important: conformity or Eucharist?

If you think that sounds like a loaded question, you’re right. It is. But it is a question we need to be asking. Recently, a little girl in Indiana was denied her place at the Eucharistic table because she wanted to wear a suit rather than a dress for her First Communion. The parish insists that they issued a dress code requiring girls to wear dresses with long sleeves. But clearly the dress code wasn’t about modesty or being dressed appropriately because the suit she wore was both modest and appropriate for a First Communion. Her parents were told that either she wore a dress or she would not be allowed to participate with her class. Instead, she would receive Communion after the Mass, privately with her family and the deacon and there would be no pictures. Intended or not, the message sent to that little girl told her:

There is something wrong with you.

You don’t belong here.

You aren’t good enough.

If you want to be part of the Church, conform.

The message also sent to her classmates and their families was that there was something wrong with her desire to be herself because that self didn’t fit a particular image the Church wanted to create. Because she did not fit that image, she should be hidden away. Because she did not fit that image, shaming and excluding her was acceptable.

Her family ultimately opted to find another Catholic school and another Catholic parish rather than force the tearful, confused child to wear a dress just to fit in. What should have been a joyful celebration instead became a traumatic experience that caused deep and unnecessary emotional and spiritual wounds.

authenticI don’t want to debate dress codes or gender roles or images of femininity and masculinity.  I don’t care. I don’t care if she prefers suits and ties to dresses and frills.  I don’t care how short or how long she wears her hair. I. Do. Not. Care.

I do care very much that a child was denied her place at the Lord’s Table and she was denied her place within the Body of Christ. This. Is. Wrong. There is no spin, no list of rules, no tradition, no hermeneutic that can ever justify keeping a child from Jesus and, worse, telling her that it’s her own fault for wanting to come to the Table as her most authentic self.

A 9 year-old does not have the spiritual maturity nor the theological wherewithal to differentiate between God and Church. Through the eyes and understanding of a child, the Church, the priests, the deacons, God, and Jesus are all rolled into one. Because of this, the Church must be very conscious of the messages it sends to our children and the message the Church is sending to its girls and young women is emotionally and spiritually harmful.

Our girls are growing up being constantly told that their shorts are too short, their pants are too tight, their shirts are too low, their shoulders should not be bare, and their makeup should be more subtle, but also that dressing too much like a boy is wrong. Our girls are growing up knowing they are not permitted to be ordained. In some places, they are still growing up knowing they cannot serve on the altar. They are growing up with the message that somehow being a girl is shameful.  More concerning, our girls are growing up with the subtle message that even though Jesus loves you, he expects you to meet a certain standard in order to earn that love. They are getting the message that it is perfectly normal to have to surrender your authenticity, in part or as a whole, in order to be loved. If it is okay for Jesus to expect these things, it is only natural to expect the same in other relationships.

Then we wonder why our young women, who have been raised in the Church and have been taught since childhood about the all-encompassing love of God, are so easily drawn into unhealthy, unloving relationships. Parents and Church leaders will scratch their heads and wonder: Why do our young women try so hard fit in with society? Why are they so willing to give up their very identity for any person or group of people who merely say the things they want to hear?

I think what we really need to start asking ourselves is whether or not it could be because we’ve taught them to be fake. Could it be that the reason they work so hard to mold themselves to their group of friends is because they’ve been subtly taught from childhood that conformity is the path to love and acceptance? Could it be that the reason they tolerate disrespect in relationships is because a disconnect between hearing, “I love you” and actually being treated with love and respect seems normal to them?

Amazing, intelligent young women raised in loving, faithful families, are reaching young adulthood and selling themselves out. In part, they do this because they have been taught that to do so is not only normal, it’s expected. Until we start broadcasting and reinforcing the message that our girls are beloved daughters of God – full stop, no checklists – then the Church will continue to fail her daughters.

Truth to Power

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In today’s gospel, Jesus tells his disciples how to settle their disputes. Jesus explains that they are to deal with conflicts between two parties and, if that does not work, then to address it openly in the company of others. The final step is to bring it to the church.

I’ve written many times on this blog about domestic abuse and how it has impacted my life. I’ve written about how it has affected my relationship with my former Catholic parish. I’ve called out the Catholic Church’s lack of response to domestic abuse. While the Catholic Church doesn’t openly condone domestic abuse, it doesn’t openly work to end it either. Imagine if the efforts to end domestic abuse rivaled that of the efforts to end abortion. And I’ve pointed out the missed opportunities that the Church has had to be supportive of empowering women in general. For a recap, you can read Accountability, Reading the Synod, Life Reclaimed, Love In The Ashes or Morning After Reaction: Like A Girl. 

So great, we all know I have a big mouth and a small but loyal readership. Is the leadership of the Catholic Church really knocking themselves out to see what I have to say? I somehow doubt it. So I did what Jesus told me to do. I brought it to the Church directly. Speaking truth to power, I took it directly to the bishop in the form of a letter that I fully expected to go unanswered. When his secretary called me ten days later and told me he wanted to meet with me, I almost keeled over.

Between my own experiences and some of the research I had done over the last semester, I had learned precisely how unprepared the parish priests are to deal with domestic abuse situations. There is no training on domestic abuse or the cycle of violence – none at all – not in seminary and not beyond that. And yet, they’re responsible for preparing couples for marriage and counseling those whose marriages run into difficulty. There’s a USCCB document about domestic abuse that offers some thoughts on the subject but most of the priests I’ve talked to don’t even know it exists. This lack of training is precisely what I called out in my letter to the bishop.

I requested that the Church begin addressing a number of things on a parish level.

  • To recognize abuse victims when they present themselves and to assess their immediate safety. When a victim makes any sort of indication that there are abusive behaviors in the home, they have to be told they have an option to leave if they don’t feel safe. The initial response can’t be to try to salvage the marriage.

 

  • Knowing where to refer victims for the specialized counseling they need and how to help them contact the local domestic violence shelters. This type of crisis counseling is highly specialized and it can’t be up to the parish priests to handle it. But they must know where to send victims to ensure they get the help they need to recover. Also knowing how to help a victim get in touch with a shelter can be the difference between life and death.

 

  • Knowing where to refer abusers for the specialized counseling they also need, which is not simply anger management classes. Anger is an emotion. Abuse is a choice. Abusers have their own unique issues and they also need specialized long-term counseling. Their need for power and control is not all that different from a drug addict seeking their next high. And until they are ready to accept full responsibility for their actions, nothing will change.

 

  • Accountability for abusers. Far too often, abusers escape any real consequences from the civil authorities. In the Church, there are no consequences whatsoever. A known abuser should be held accountable for their actions, up to and including moving an abuser to a different parish to prevent contact with the victim.

 

  • Safe sanctuary for victims. The sacraments offer healing and grace. Victims need to be able to access the sacraments, without fear, in order to heal. The ability to be active in parish life should not be contingent upon trying to avoid contact with their abuser.

 

  • Raising awareness. The Catholic Church devotes a lot of time and energy to raising awareness of causes it cares about: abortion, religious freedom, immigration etc. Domestic abuse is a sin against the basic human dignity we all share. And it’s time the Church started talking about it openly.

 

I spent nearly an hour with the bishop going over where things fall far short of what is needed, both in general and in my specific situation. We talked about solutions, including the way the Lutheran churches handle situations where the abuser and victim are in the same parish. Ultimately, he promised me that he would address this with all the priests of the diocese at the convocation of priests and they will work to find ways to address each of the concerns that I raised, including some form of accountability for abusers.

And so now I have brought the issue to the Church. I have done what is within my power to do and it is now out of my hands. I will be watching closely to see what happens. I’ve made a conscious effort to keep my jadedness in check and to take this one bishop in this one diocese at his word. Seeing the Church, even on a local level, finally address the issue of domestic abuse would bring a great deal of healing to survivors like myself.

The Sheep At The Fence

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I originally heard the story of the sheep at the fence from an American man who had been to Ireland on business. While he was there, Sean, one of the local men, invited the American to spend Saturday with Sean’s family and enjoy a home-cooked supper. Shortly after the American arrived, Sean’s daughter came into the room saying, “Papa, I saw a sheep with its head poking through the fence. It was looking at me very strangely.”

“Ah. He likely found some tasty grass to nibble on just this side of the fence. Don’t mind him. He’ll find his way home.” he replied and sent her off to play.

A little while later, his daughter came back into the room. Again she said to her father, “Papa, that sheep is still looking at me from the fence.”

“Not to worry. It’s just one of our neighbor’s flock and is a likely just very curious fellow.” He sent her off to help her mother in the kitchen.

They all sat down to supper and after they had finished eating, the children cleared the table and started the dishes. The daughter returned a third time, insistent that the same sheep was still looking at her through the fence. Intrigued, Sean finally decided that perhaps he needed to take a closer look at this nosy sheep. Looking out the window, he saw nothing odd about the sheep. He figured maybe he should take a walk and as he drew closer he realized something was wrong. The sheep didn’t make a sound or even try to run away. When he got right up to it, he could see what they hadn’t been able to see from afar: the sheep was stuck in the fence. Worse, the poor thing had been completely devoured where it stood and only the head and front leg remained intact.

This story came back to me as we headed into Lent. Lately, I’ve found myself speaking far more openly about women’s ordination and my inability to reconcile my experiences of God with the teaching of the Catholic Church. That struggle isn’t a new one.  It dates back to the days before my First Communion.  I can still show you the spot on which I was standing when the nuns explained to my shocked and horrified little self that girls would never be priests. But such things are not spoken of good Catholic circles. As I’ve finally given up any pretense of acceptance, I’ve heard privately from other Catholic women faced with the same struggle. I’ve heard the same thing from nearly all of them. “Have you ever been able to have an honest conversation about this with any priest in the Church? Because I tried and they shut me down immediately. I was told is these are the rules. Follow them.”

OUCH!

Seriously guys, can’t we do better than that?

I know these are the rules. I get it. But please realize that if the best answer the shepherds can come up with is, These are the rules. there are a lot of sheep who are going to stay stuck in the fence. They’re going to stare back at pulpit with empty eyes, looking for all the world like they’re part of the flock when in reality they’ve been eaten alive by a myriad of doubts and emotions until they end up spiritually dead. If the Catholic priests are to be the shepherds Pope Francis is asking them to be, if they are really going to smell like their sheep – all of their sheep – they need to take a little walk along the fence line and figure out how to help the ones who find themselves caught in the fence. Either find a way to guide them safely and fully into your pasture or find a way to turn them loose so they are free to find safety in another one.

Why do I keep writing about what I see in the Catholic Church? Because I hear things that some priests never will simply because I’m a woman and I’m more out than in now. That makes me a safe sounding board. I hope by bouncing back what I’m hearing, maybe, just maybe, it will open up the floor for a more honest conversation about women’s ordination. No, the rules won’t change but maybe given an honest conversation, some of those women who find themselves caught in the fence will either find their way back in or gracefully find their way out. A true shepherd would rather see his sheep safe in another pasture than dead in the fence. After all, a good shepherd can always recover a lost sheep.

The Best of Intentions

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Several years ago I was invited to join a meeting of exceptionally talented writers, all teachers, professors, and published authors. And then there was me with my small yet loyal blog following. Back then Wholly Jane was still just a half-finished work in progress and I was feeling entirely out of my league, an insecurity which I quite openly voiced. I was assured that I was precisely what this group needed because I wrote from my gut. Our task was to write the Prayers of the Faithful for all Sunday and Holy Day Masses. The feeling was that this vital piece of the liturgy had grown stale. People mentally checked out and were composing their grocery lists and checking their watches. The hope was that by bringing a variety of voices to the liturgy, we would recapture them by making the prayers more meaningful. These prayers are a key role in the laity’s participation in the Mass. They are intended to represent the prayers of the community, to bring before The Lord the everyday concerns of those sitting in the pews. So in order to keep them meaningful, they needed to be tied closely to Liturgy of the Word and also be in touch with the real world issues that lay just beyond the church doors. This was something that none of us ever took lightly. It takes time. It takes thought. Most of all, it takes prayer. Lots of prayer.

Over the years, we learned to recognize each other’s writing voices and we each have developed our own unique way of connecting the community to the liturgy. For me that always meant trying to speak for those who were barely seen and rarely heard. The forgotten, the lonely, the abused, the addicts, those facing spiritual darkness, those who felt unforgivable and unloved, the sick whose illnesses were not always obvious: all of these fell within my bailiwick.

As my regular readers know, over the past year my growing discontent in the Catholic Church has led me to other denominations, to begin dating other churches so to speak. And yet, here I am, still writing these Prayers of the Faithful, lending my own unique voice and life experience to the Sunday Mass that means so much to so many of my family and friends. I struggle now more that I ever did and I find that I will pray most of the week with those six relatively short sentences.

Who am I missing? Who hasn’t been heard this month? Lord, show me.

And He never fails me. The voices of the unheard come to me.

Over the years, I have been asked on a handful of occasions to change the wording on what I’ve written. The reasons varied. Perhaps the language felt awkward or unclear or perhaps could be construed as leaning too far towards one political party or another. Sometimes no such request came and the priest or deacon who read them simply made the alterations himself. There was no drama in any of it as we all did what we felt called to do.

Last week, as I read the reading from Romans, what deeply struck me was the image of the Spirit praying within when we don’t know how we are to pray. And the voices that came to me were those of all the Catholic women I’ve come into contact with over my lifetime. The issue that all of us have had to grapple with at some point or another is the issue of women clergy and our feelings and convictions on that topic. The truth of the matter is that many, many women don’t know quite what they feel. And the prayer that emerged was this:

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Why Didn’t The Women Run?

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The men who followed Jesus dropped everything to follow him. For three years, they saw him perform many miracles. They heard him teach. They saw signs from the heavens. They knew he was the Messiah and yet when the soldiers showed up, they ran.

It was the women who kept vigil at the foot of the cross. It was the women who went to the tomb. It was a woman who first saw Jesus after the resurrection.

In all fairness the men had reason to run. The Pax Romana was a violent, bloody, oppressive affair. Had they hung around or interfered, chances are they’d have been killed as well.

But the women stayed. Why? Why risk the wrath of the Roman soldiers? Why risk the wrath of the Jewish community? Let’s not forget women could be stoned for stepping out of line. What did they see in Jesus that they would place themselves in harm’s way just to be by his side in his darkest hours?

Over the years of Jesus’ ministry, there isn’t the power play amongst the women that there was amongst the men. They aren’t vying for a favored position by Jesus’ side for the simple reason that they were women. They had no position. Ever. Women were property. They were used and discarded at the whim of men. They were invisible and voiceless. The fact they were allowed at table with Jesus to hear him teach was in and of itself an unheard breach of protocol. While there is no doubt the men loved him and believed in him, the men who followed Jesus had an agenda: to see Israel rise again. For the women, this agenda meant little. They would still be invisible, voiceless property whether under Roman rule or in a new Israel. The patriarchal society would ensure that remain unchanged.

I’m no biblical scholar, but as a woman I know what it feels like to be invisible and to be voiceless. I know what it feels like to be used and discarded at the whim of men. I also know how it feels to be seen and that is a powerful experience. When you have lost all touch with your own value and humanity, to have another see it in you and gently reflect it back to you is nothing short of miraculous. And that is what Jesus did for them. He saw them as individuals, not objects. He even saw great good even in those society had already condemned. That is not something one forgets. Ever.

While the men loved Jesus as a beloved friend and teacher, they had to come to terms with not only his capture and crucifixion but the death of their agenda, the death of their dream of a new Israel, their guilt at abandoning one whom they had loved and served. They also had to deal with their well-founded fear of repercussions.

And here lies the difference, the women loved Jesus for who he was, not for what he could be. The women saw him for what he was – he was Love Incarnate who saw them when they were invisible to anyone else and embraced them. And because they were open to his love as only the invisible and discarded can be, they in their own human way tried to do for him what he had done for them: to be there for him in love even when society had condemned him and to show him their love in whatever way they could even if all they could do was to stand at the foot of his cross and weep.

It was love alone that brought them there and kept them there. Love is the only power strong enough to have brought the women through their fear and given them the courage to stand by through the horrors of the crucifixion and the long dark hours of the day after. They trusted him to keep his word to return to them. They would not be disappointed.