The Ursuline Sisters of Cincinnati recently sponsored a symposium on women’s spirituality. About 150 women and one priest were present for the three talks and table-sharing.
Speaker Dorothy Mensah-Aggrey, past director of faith formation for the Archdiocese of Washington and currently administrative specialist for curriculum design and adult catechesis for the Institute for Pastoral Initiative at the University of Dayton, highlighted the role of several women in the Bible.
Calling women “the crown jewel of God’s creation,” Mensah-Aggrey urged women to look for “an Elizabeth” who can serve as a sounding-board and confidante as Mary’s cousin was for her when she gave her “fiat” to the angel Gabriel’s annunciation.
Speaker Karen B. Enriquez, assistant professor of theology at Xavier University, Cincinnati, reviewed the devotional life of women in her native Phillippines, what she called “the faith of my mothers.”
Enriquez underscored the significance of Mary’s “pondering” and “reflecting in her heart” as she wrestled with the mystery of God’s will. Mary, she explained, was given to contemplation and discernment of the Spirit, preliminary but essential steps before being empowered to respond to human needs and the divine will.
Key-note speaker Phyllis Zagano, senior research associate at Hofstra University and author of several books, especially studies on women deacons in the Church, focused on “Women in Ministry: Then and Now.” Her research confirms the ordination of women as deacons in the past, and prompts her to say that what the Church did before it can do now.
Zagano suggests that, based on comments made by Pope Francis, the restoration of the ancient practice of ordaining women as deacons could be restored. In his apostolic exhortation Gospel Joy the pope wrote that "we need to create still broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence in the Church” (103). She noted that Pope Benedict XVI said something similar in 2006, when he asked whether in ministerial service women could be offered “more space, more positions of responsibility.”
This symposium reminded me that a study published in 2013 by sociologists and researchers William D’Antonio, Michele Dillon and Mary Gautier found that “there is strong evidence of a dip in women’s commitment to the Church over the past 25 years” (American Catholics in Transition, Rowman and Littlefield, p. 91).
One example of the declining commitment is women’s response to the statement “I would never leave the Catholic Church.” In 1987 61% of women affirmed that statement, but in 2011 only 55% agreed.
The researchers drew the conclusion that “it has become quite evident that women’s long-standing loyalty to the Church and commitment to Catholicism can no longer be taken for granted” (p 104).
It was obvious to me as the only male at the symposium on women’s spirituality that there was among the women in attendance a hunger for spiritual growth, an informed background in Church matters, and an eagerness to be of service in spreading the Gospel and building the Kingdom.
Nearly all pastors are aware that women make up a lion’s share of the staff and volunteers who plan, propel and produce parish programs. Eliminate the contribution of women, and the schedule and most services come to a screeching halt.
The story of salvation may reflect a patriarchal society, but no one can discount the contributions of Ruth, Deborah, Esther, Hannah, Priscilla, and of course Mary. Paul often refers to the ladies who support him and his ministry, and significantly the only person in the New Testament specifically described as diakonon (deacon) is “our sister Phoebe” (Romans 16:1).
The services rendered by countless religious sisters and nuns, in this country and around the world, have been a powerful force in the mission field and in the classroom. The martyrdom of Sister Dorothy Stang, SND de N, in 2005 confirms for the present age the role and spirit of women in service to the Church and the Kingdom.
Women’s spirituality will likely differ from that of men in many ways. Even though men and women are equal (in Christ we are all one, as Paul affirms in Galatians 3:28), that equality does not preclude difference. We need to recognize that difference and promote that feminine spirituality so that the work of spreading the Gospel and building the Kingdom may be complete (it is, as Genesis 2:18 put it, “not good for the man to be alone.”)
I was reminded by several ladies attending the symposium that I was indeed “blessed among women,” and I testify today that I respect and welcome the blessedness that is theirs.