Newsletter Winter 2001
Celebrating Women Witnesses: WOW!
When I returned from a short but sweet mid-February Florida
visit with two of my sisters in the Congregation of St. Joseph,
I found a nice surprise awaiting me in the FutureChurch mailbox.
It was a letter from Elizabeth Johnson, a wonderfully down
to earth woman (and also a CSJ but from a different province)
who is Distinguished Professor of Theology at Fordham University.
Her first book, She Who Is, has the unusual distinction
of being both a masterpiece and a pleasure to read. If you
haven’t yet read it, be prepared to learn all the ways the
Church has traditionally thought about God and why an evolving
understanding of the feminine divine fits right in with traditional
Catholic doctrine (believe it or not). Her most recent book,
Friends of God and Prophets, reflects on the communion
of saints, a quintessentially Catholic concept that this gifted
woman skillfully reinterprets for 21st century ears. I suspect
it is Elizabeth’s interest in the communion of saints that
led to her letter: She writes:
By Sr. Chris Schenk
Congratulations on the new packet Celebrating Women
Witnesses! Very, very well done! The individual bios I read are
just filled with theologically liberating and spiritually nourishing
fare. And the whole packet is designed creatively to help people
carry out a new design of connecting with the cloud of witnesses.
May this project succeed royally.
Wow! What a compliment to all our writers and editors. It
is thrilling to hear from an expert that our initial vision
and hopes had been realized.
Until now, many women saints have been falsely stereotyped
as passive, obedient, sweet and silent before male leaders. Celebrating
Women Witnesses, FutureChurch’s
newest resource packet containing twelve essays and prayer services
about historic women of faith, emphasizes how belief in the Gospel
impelled them to resist patriarchy and lead radically counter-cultural
lives. We hope this effort will help Catholics and other believers,
particularly women, reclaim the remarkable history of women leaders
in the Church and world. This allows 21st century women and men
to invoke their witness in our own struggle for inclusion in a
patriarchal church. Some Examples:
The Beguines: dubbed ‘the first
women’s movement’ by some scholars, this cadre of 12th-14th century
women responded to the signs of their times in a way that both
shaped and threatened the structures that governed women’s lives.
They ministered actively to the poor while following a contemplative
lifestyle. To live between cloister and marriage required courage
and creativity in a time when women were considered dangerous if
not controlled by men.
Thea Bowman: this African American ‘sister
of everybody’ inspired and challenged her listeners with the spiritual
power of Black Sacred Songs evoking a God who “lifts up the lowly.”
She used her music to break down barriers of culture, class and
condition and often quoted the wisdom of her elders who had the
ability to “speak truth to power,”
Prisca: a prominent married woman
leader of the first century Church, Prisca and her husband Aquila
founded and directed house churches in three of the most important
early Christian centers: Corinth, Ephesus and Rome. Prisca evangelized
both women and men and worked in partnership with both her husband
and with Paul risking persecution in behalf of the Gospel.
Dorothy Day: thanks to this woman
known as ‘the conscience of American Catholicism’ many Catholics
now know the power of nonviolent resistance and direct action in
opposing injustice. What is less well known is that her conversion
happened as a result of the birth of her child: “No human creature
could receive or contain so vast a flood of love and joy as I often
felt after the birth of my child. With this came the need to worship,
to adore. I came to know God.”
Mary of Nazareth: the Church’s
nearly 2000 year veneration of Mary has provided both women and
men with a powerful female model of holiness. It has also unwittingly
preserved images of the divine feminine during the long period
of patriarchal theological reflection from which we are now emerging.
Contemporary reflection seeks to rediscover the modest Magnificat
woman of Nazareth who, though the marginalized mother of a political
prisoner, proclaimed God’s power to “cast the mighty from their
thrones and to raise up the lowly.”
Last year activists from our Women
in Church Leadership project sponsored over 280 St. Mary
of Magdala celebrations worldwide. People loved the celebrations
and clamored for more resources about other women believers. Like
the St. Mary of Magdala resource material, Celebrating Women
Witnesses is grounded in extensive research.
Designed for use by parishes and small faith communities,
the resource includes the latest biblical and historical scholarship
about twelve women of faith: Mary of Nazareth, Prisca, Clare
of Assisi, Thea Bowman, Angela Merici, Dorothy Day, Catherine
of Siena, Julian of Norwich, Therese of Lisieux, Teresa of
Avila, Sor Juana, and the Beguines, a medieval women’s movement.
Individual prayer celebrations provide opportunities
for women to preach and serve in visible liturgical roles every
month of the year if they choose. Each woman witness is also
depicted in original artwork by Eileen Cantlin Verbus, and
individual prayer services celebrate their lives.
Scholars who know them well wrote materials on the 12
women. Jesuit Fr. Steve Krupa of John Carroll University, whose
latest essay about Day will appear soon in America magazine,
profiled Dorothy Day. Mary Jo Weaver of Indiana University
writes an arresting and unusual essay on Therese of Lisieux
and Jesuit Fr. Joseph Brown, director of the Back Studies program
at Southern Illinois University, writes a charming piece about
Celebrating Women Witnesses is an offshoot of
the highly successful Call for National Dialogue on Women
in Church Leadership (WICL) project that was also initiated
and developed by FutureChurch in partnership with Call To Action.
WICL was inspired by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious’
1996 Benchmarks study that made 15 recommendations for advancing
women’s roles in the Catholic Church right now, short of ordination.
The packet also contains brochures on women in the lectionary,
lay preaching, a holy week prayer service highlighting Jesus’
women disciples and suggestions for how to make sure parishes
use newly approved lectionary texts instead of ones which take
for granted the subordination of women.
So far nearly 400 packets have been sold in only three weeks.
And they are reaching the people we hoped to reach. One woman
wrote to tell us she was using the prayer services for her
ministry to women in prison while many others are busily planning
monthly prayer services in their parishes and small faith communities.
Still others are using the Good Friday prayer service featuring
the women who accompanied Jesus for a Holy Week celebration
in their parish.