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Staying power: though many Catholic women give a host of reasons for leaving the church, these guest bloggers at USCatholic.org explain what keeps them in the pews every week.

I want to be a parish lady

A young woman's admiration for those who care for the church helps form her ambitions.

By Molly Jo Rose

I want to grow up to be a parish lady, but I have to be at least 60 for that job, or my hair has to have turned white, or I have to have at least four children. I'm pretty sure that's what the job application specifies. Should I apply to be one today, they will likely turn me away, tell me I am not dressing the right way just yet, tell me to come back when I have more children, or tell me to maybe find a small group of young contemporaries to do a Bible study.

What they don't know is that I've been training long and hard for the job of parish lady, shadowing my morn for as many years as I can remember. It began on Saturday afternoons, when my sister and I slowly slid down each pew, carefully rearranging the books for the Masses that weekend, with the Bible on the left and the People's Mass Book and Glory and Praise on the right. Then on Sunday mornings, we'd leave early for the 9 a.m. Mass to give a few elderly women a ride. Later that day, we'd return to an area just outside of the church called the grotto, where my morn led the rosary.

The following weekday mornings were spent either in the vestibule of church where my morn organized "God's Pantry," delivering brown bags of food to the needy of our parish, or assisting the local nursing home patients in their weekly game of bingo. In addition to these things, my morn led Bible study on Monday evenings, cleaned the church, frequently laundered the priest's vestments, visited the parish school to teach my classmates and me how to pray the rosary, and, in her free time, engaged the priests in deep theological discussions to keep them sharp and on track.

It's that last one that's really important. As a little girl I knew I couldn't do that part of the parish lady job, and even today I know I wouldn't be very good at it. Like all parish ladies, my mom is smart, well read, and very protective of the church, both with a little "c" and with a big "C."

In between opening up the church on cold winter mornings and bringing the Eucharist to the sick of our parish, my morn stays on top of the church's goings-on to make sure that the parish remains doctrinally sound. Young parishioners may come in with new ideas or a priest may suggest something that veers off from what my morn recognizes as the right path, but she and the other parish ladies are there to remind them of the traditions and roots of the church.

Is it too much to call them gatekeepers? Is that word too negative? Peter is a gatekeeper. Let's say they're like Peter.

As a little girl, when someone asked me what my mom did, I told them that she didn't work. I might have even said she was "just a housewife." But I know for sure I did not say the words "parish lady." I didn't have that language yet.

I didn't know how important those women were, and I was still too young to know anything about the controversy of women's role in the church. All I knew was these were the things my mom did. And I knew even then that the church, the priests, and her fellow parishioners could not have gotten on without her.

--Molly lo Rose blogs at Mapmaker of the Human Condition (mollyjorose.blogspot.com).

One foot in the margins

Keeping the faith by keeping in touch with the poor

by Bridget Purdome

I have one foot in a suburban parish. I worship and minister there, my daughters participate in the religious education program, and my husband serves as a deacon, but I don't feel like I fully belong. As a woman who feels called to preach, my gifts aren't being completely utilized. This often leaves me with a sense of spiritual homelessness.

How do I keep my faith? My other foot as well as my heart and soul belong to those living on the margins of society. I'm a member of an urban ministry team founded by an order of priests which offers spiritual retreats for women who have experienced homelessness and are in recovery from alcohol and drug addictions.

Last weekend I picked up three women from two homeless shelters; one shelter was founded by religious brothers, the other by religious sisters. We drove to a retreat house run by another group of religious sisters, where we joined 12 other homeless women and two team members and spent the weekend sharing our stories, engaging in various spiritual exercises, and praying together.

During our small-group time, each woman was invited to share her story. One woman told of being abused by her boyfriend and then used as a prostitute. Another shared the pain of losing her 26-year-old son to AIDS. The only way she could cope was by turning to heroin. Another woman explained that she was raped by an uncle and then ostracized by her family for pressing charges against him. As I listened to each horrifying story, I felt the pain, the hope, and the courage of these powerful women. I knew that God was healing them.

At this point, my own struggles seemed pretty mild, but the women challenged me to share my story. As I told of the frustration of journeying through the diaconate formation program with my husband and having my own gifts dismissed by the institutional church, I was touched by the care and concern of the women. 2hey listened and offered their support and even advice. I knew that God was using these powerful women to heal me.

How do I keep my faith as a woman in the church? By keeping one foot in the parish and the other with those on the margins. By sharing my struggles and my hope. By trusting that God is working to heal our broken church.

--Bridget Purdome holds a master's degree in pastoral studies from Loyola University Chicago and is currently working on her master of divinity degree. Her daily reflections can be found at TheSpiritToday.com.

Showing up for Mass Real relationships keep one young woman coming back to church every Sunday.

by Julia Feder

Showing up for Mass Real relationships keep one young woman coming back to <TI>Staying power: though many Catholic women give a host of reasons for leaving the church, these guest bloggers at USCatholic.org explain what keeps them in the pews every wee every Sunday.

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by Julia Feder

One Sunday in late August I went to church. I had been going on and off to this particular parish for about six months. I could feel at home here--it was a vibrant community with a rich musical tradition, though the preaching often left me more frustrated and empty than when I arrived--but this was just an intuition at this point. I wasn't at home quite yet.

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I wasn't coming every week; I would attend one Sunday here and there, not attend the next week because I felt frustrated and angry, and then return again when the negative feelings subsided. I wanted to commit to weekly attendance. I really did. I didn't know, though, if it was healthy for me--that is, if I would end up feeling more alienated and frustrated through regular attendance than without it. So this particular day in August I think I was so frustrated and desperate that everything I had been holding inside came tumbling out to anyone who pressed me.

During the after-Mass coffee and food hour, I really let it all out to two folks--both longtime members of the community, elderly and well-respected faithful Catholics, Charlotte and Mack.

"Why don't we see you more around here?" they asked me. "Did you just move here?" I paused for a moment before I responded, "No, I just have a really hard time being a part of the church and being a woman. I see a lot of injustice, a lot of misogyny, and it makes it difficult for me to be here sometimes." Charlotte chastised me, "You can't change things by staying at home! If you're just sitting on your butt, we're never going to see women on the altar. You've got to get working, Mother Julia."

A 70-something-year-old woman calling me, a 20-something-year-old, "Mother" humbled and challenged me. "OK, I will come," I agreed, "but I'm going to be talking about it with you when it gets hard again!"

I started regularly attending Mass and formed a weekly discussion group so that the parishioners could gather to discuss the readings. Between that and the after-Mass coffee hours, I formed relationships with some parishioners, particularly the elderly ones.

A few months later, during one coffee hour, Mack shared with me a hurtful comment that his doctor had made during a recent visit. His doctor had "joked" that Mack had little reason left to live. I told him, "You better keep living. You're the reason that I come to church. Do you remember when you yelled at me because I said I was going to stay home? If you're not around, who is going to make sure that I keep coming?"

I was joking a little, but not completely. "Yeah, that's right," he said seriously and with a smile on his face, "I am the reason you are here. I can't go anywhere." I was caught off-guard by his sincerity and tears filled my eyes. I became, for a moment, the reason he was there. And in that moment I could feel the best of what we think of as church--not some abstract idea of community, but real, concrete people with whom I have built and am building relationships of encouragement.

Honestly, it is still difficult, but I can now express myself when I have difficulties, I can say what I'm struggling with, and I can experiment with a vision for a better future alongside people who know me and care about me and who yell at me from time to time. This is, for me, the only way to keep the faith in a wounded but still hobbling institution.

--Julia Feder is a Ph.D. student in systematic theology at the University of Notre Dame and blogs at Women in Theology (womenintheology.org).

A woman of the church

A diverse parish and the body of Christ helped one woman find her place--not in, but as part of the church

by Kathleen P. Hockey

Sometimes I am not sure I keep the faith. During those times, with a flip of the hand, I say, "I'm done with this!" I rant and rave, badmouth the new conservative trends in the church, and sometimes (horrors) I skip Mass in a sort of twisted statement of discontent. I ask myself why I should be active in a church that spends so much time on the issues of liturgical semantics and sexual mores, while at the same time attempting to convince the world of the virtue of celibacy. What about poverty, alienation, and genocide?

Being corrected for my unorthodox opinions, directed challenges, and alignment with the so-called cafeteria Catholics who are really the most alienated from the community is not fun.

Yet in spite of these times of disgust I find myself volunteering, participating, and thinking the struggle is worth it. The church, after all, is more than institutional majesty and a few self-proclaimed keepers of orthodoxy.

The faith community where I worship has no less than 30 ministries, most of which exist to serve the poor, sick, grieving, and incarcerated. The pastor has delegated all parish administrative responsibilities to deacons and laypeople while he spiritually ministers to the faithful--and the not-so-faithful. He is so well liked that three retired priests--one conservative, one liberal, and one physically challenged--have made their home at our parish. Having four priests of such different persuasions and gifts provides a model of religious diversity. Needless to say our church is full on Sunday with women and men serving at the altar, the veiled and jean-clad all kneeling together, worshiping in genuine camaraderie.

This kind of parish community is why I remain faithful. It gives me hope that in spite of the polarization and injustice so often talked about and bemoaned, in many corners of the church world, tolerance, equality, and charity prevail quietly.

There is one more thing that keeps me faithful. It is the realization that our church is a global church. While I am safe and sound in the United States, both male and female Catholics in other countries are being suppressed or exterminated for the faith. Willingness to die rather than not be Catholic makes the pettiness here seem downright sinful.

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Remaining faithful means I must define myself as something other than "a woman in the church." I am not a woman in the church; I am a woman of the church. "In the church" means someone or something else is the church, and I am in it. "Of the church" means that as a Catholic I am part of the essence of church, the people of God. With that definition being a woman doesn't matter, regardless of what some may think.

--Kathleen P. Hockey is a social worker, author, and speaker from Albuquerque, New Mexico. Her website is kathleen-hockey.com.
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Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:Dec 24, 2011
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