Women in Church Leadership
Celebrating Women Witnesses

Reflection on the Project by Chris Schenk, CSJ

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:

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 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 Mary of Magdala 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 appeared 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 Thea Bowman.

Celebrating Women Witnesses is an offshoot of the highly successful Advancing 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.

One of our best selling resources, this packet continues to be a favorite of organizers at parishes and small faith communities. 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.

See the packet description

Order the Celebrating Women Witness packet