It does seem to me that women never cease finding ways around institutional structures that limit their participation in society and church life. Women’s groups in many traditional African societies have done just that. Today the Catholic Women’s Organizations continue to play a similar role in a church where women seem “not to count.” In Nigeria, the Diocesan Councils of Catholic Women’s Organizations provide avenues for women to be counted. Founded on the tenet of the World Union of Catholic Women’s Organizations, the council, an umbrella of various women’s groups in dioceses, constitutes an essential component of the Nigerian church. Though kept away from the pulpit, the sheer number of women and their web of organizations and commitments to the local church make them amply audible and wholly visible in church life.
Every parish in our Port Harcourt diocese has what I may call a chapter of the diocesan councils group. That is to say, there is a women’s organization in every parish. The local chapters provide a platform from where women can fulfill their mission of evangelization and work for human development. Membership of the organization is open to all Catholic women.
The first Saturday of the month is Catholic Women’s Organizations (CWO in the popular parlance) Day. In our local church, we dedicate every first Friday to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and devote first Saturday to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. It is a day we honor the Blessed Mother. So it goes without saying that this day is special to all of Mary’s devotees. Catholic women appropriate the devotion for their spiritual enrichment. In our diocese and other dioceses in the country, women come out in their numbers every first Saturday, clad in their colorful CWO uniform, a white blouse, wrapper and head gear to match. The wrapper is made of fabric with blue background, imprints of the Madonna, rosaries and bowls of incense and some rose petals. Each imprint is of significance to the life of women.
The Madonna, for example, draws attention to the physical motherhood of the Blessed Mother and all that goes with nurturing a child into adulthood. While the bowl of incense reminds one to pray constantly – “my prayer rises up to you like incense” – praying the rosary draws one closer to the mysteries of Christ we celebrate in worship. A closer reflection on the motif of the fabric helps us understand why the women chose for their motto: “Through Mary our Mother, we succeed.” Mary, the showery figure of the first part of the Jesus infancy narrative, advances in the story prophesying and evangelizing in the hill country of Judea in the company of Elizabeth, Zachariah, their yet-to-be-born son, John the Baptist and their neighbors.
Motivated by the Spirit and in the footsteps of Mary, our women continue to expand the boundaries. They make positive impact not only among their peers but in society at large. I work closely with the women of the Church of the Nativity parish in Origwe as spiritual director. This group of dynamic women is drawn from various fields of endeavor. Among them are professionals, entrepreneurs, fruit and vegetable traders, school teachers and homemakers. It is hard to tell who is who when interacting with the group because of the solidarity that has evolved among them.
Like women in other parishes in the diocese, we at Origwe meet every first Saturday of the month. In addition to praying together (Holy Hour and Benediction including the celebration of the Eucharist), eating together is also part of the day’s activities. We end the day discussing issues that promote the presence of women in the church and society. Top on the agenda is witnessing. One question we continue to ask ourselves is, how best can we witness as Catholic women in Port Harcourt City, particularly within the Origwe community? Of course, this question is at the heart of what it means to be a Christian and more especially to be a Catholic in a pluralistic religious environment.
One way in which we witness is through outreach programs that support the evangelical mission of our parish. Our local CWO is organized into four sub-groups. Each group undertakes a particular ministry for the month. These include home visitations and visits to orphanages. Primarily, the women reach out to women in need, particularly indigent widows within the community.
The women embark on development projects such as skills acquisition. On regular bases, a group would organize sessions aimed at helping women learn how to produce items in constant demand, such as detergent for household use, body cream and mosquito repellent. The larger group also offers a limited amount of interest-free loans to some members to improve on their trade. Furthermore, the group on occasion invites experts to address contemporary issues in theology, medicine and politics. In every parish, the CWO undertakes to provide a month’s supply of food items to the rectory pantry every first Saturday. Many priests admit that without the women’s support the parish would fall apart.
First Saturday for women is not like any other Saturday. It is a day to celebrate womanhood in prayer and discussion. The day evokes a sense of Jesus inviting his disciples after a long day’s work to “come away to a lonely place and rest” (Mk 6:31). Women thrive not in isolation but in relationships; the monthly gathering provides opportunity for socialization, bonding and solidarity.
There is no gainsaying that our local church community conforms to the age-old cultural patterns that offer women little chance in active participation in leadership. But that mind-set may be shifting given the position the diocesan councils group fills in contemporary church life. In solidarity, women simultaneously give voice to their actions and announce their presence in the community. With such witness value of Catholic women in the local church, one would be hard put to think of not counting women when it matters most. To appreciate the subtle but significant influence of Catholic women in the local church, one can imagine a church where this great army withdraws en masse from active participation; the consequences of the outcome would be hard to imagine. Like most Catholic women who dot their parish environment with their colorful CWO uniforms once each month, I truly look forward to deepening my relationship in solidarity with women of the Church of the Nativity, Origwe, every first Saturday.
[Caroline Mbonu is a member of Congregation of the Handmaids of the Holy Child Jesus and holds a doctoral degree from the Graduate Theological Union. She is senior lecturer in the department of Religious and Cultural Studies at University of Port Harcourt, Nigeria.]