Where do women stand?

A monument to Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz is seen at what was once her convent, San Jerónimo, in Mexico City. (Wikimedia Commons / ProtoplasmaKid)

I took the rickety bus from the outskirts of Guayaquil, Ecuador, into the city with our parish women's group. Beautiful women. The pillars of the community.

We were headed to a diocesan-wide Pastoral de Mujeres (Women's Ministry) workshop. They talked excitedly through the bumpy 90-minute trip, relieved to momentarily escape their grueling lives, especially for an event with their beloved church. I was thrilled, too. These women give so much to their parishes; today was a day for them to be enriched.

The fourth floor of the downtown archdiocesan building pulsed with the energy of women calling to one another, and embracing. Eventually, we settled into chairs for the program, advertised as "La Espiritualidad de Semana Santa" ("The Spirituality of Holy Week").

I looked forward to what the presenter would do with such a lovely topic and so much richness in the room. Although these women had little formal education, they know the paschal mystery intensely because they live it. Holy Week Scripture and tradition would come alive, I thought, in light of their experiences and insights.

A young priest, maybe 35, entered wearing a black cassock. The only man in the room. The women fussed over him. He was cheerful and friendly, to be sure, but it was easy to see he relished the deference they showed. He began his presentation.

For the next two hours, the priest spoke about how to set up the church for Holy Week, which color flowers are permissible and where to place them on the altar. He reviewed what they could do to assure that Holy Week wouldn't be stressful for Father, like how best to lay out his garments.

Then came the kicker. He drew a diagram of the sanctuary on the chalkboard to indicate where the women could and could not be.

"Now when you're decorating the church, make sure not to go behind this line. Women should stay in front of the altar," he instructed, pointing and adding boundaries. "You can stand here ... or here ... but be careful not to go here."

My face was hot with fury. Ecuadorian society already oppresses these women. And now, instead of filling them up with the good news of the Gospel, this man had the audacity to reinforce their subordination.

What saddened me most was the flurry of pens in the room as the women soaked up every word and rushed to record the information. They looked up and down as they copied the diagram in their notebooks, asking clarifying questions so they knew just where they were permitted and not.

This is all too often the story of women in Catholicism: figuring out where we can stand.

It was the story of Sor Juana de la Cruz, a 17th-century Mexican nun and theologian I discovered this semester in Church History. Sor Juana had a remarkable intellect, with a command of theology, philosophy, literature, music and science. She had the most extensive library in New Spain and spent her days studying and writing, often commissioned by royals. Her fame spread.

In 1690, Bishop Manuel Fernández de Santa Cruz wrote a public letter under the pseudonym "Sor Filotea," condemning Sor Juana's intellectual and literary career. Historians believe she knew who her critic was, and she wrote a reply, a rhetorically structured letter of self-defense known as La Respuesta ("The Answer").

Most female theologians before Sor Juana faced similar disdain; if they wrote, they had to demean their own abilities and apologize for being so bold. At times, their "gifts" felt like burdens. Sor Juana, in La Respuesta, tells us that she wrestled against her nature, wondering why God made her who she was if she couldn't be that person.

She writes, "[God] knows that I have prayed that He snuff out the light of my intellect, leaving only enough to keep his Law. For more than that is too much, some would say, in a woman; and there are even those who say that it is harmful."

Nevertheless, Sor Juana came to theological certainty that if God made her this way, she was supposed to be this way, and she must use her gifts.

She courageously pens, "My writing has never proceeded from any dictate of my own, but a force beyond me; I can in truth say, 'You have compelled me.' ... For ever since the light of reason first dawned on me, my inclination to letters was marked by such passion and vehemence that neither the reprimands of others (for I have received many) nor reflections of my own (there have been more than a few) have sufficed to make me abandon my pursuit of this native impulse that God himself bestowed on me. His Majesty knows why and to what end he did so."

She knew where she stood.

Ministering in the chancery and at a local parish over the past four years, I identify with some parts of Sor Juana's struggle. I've seen brilliant churchwomen disregarded in favor of less-qualified men. I've seen our parish charismatic group use Christianity to reinforce machismo, excluding women from any kind of leadership. I've seen my own gifts taken for granted or stifled.

I've prayed and struggled. This Lent, I found myself asking Jesus, "Do you really want it this way? Where do I stand?"

Then, the first weekend after Easter, I went on retreat with Future of Charity, an intercongregational group for newer members of the Sisters of Charity Federation. We spent our time digging deep into the Resurrection scriptures. On Sunday morning, we prayed with John's account of the risen Jesus and Mary Magdalene. I've entered into that scene imaginatively many times before, sometimes as an observer, sometimes as Mary, and once as the angel. That morning, I felt Jesus inviting me to step into his place and gaze upon Mary.

Peering out through Jesus' eyes, I felt myself overcome with love and admiration. I felt emotional to see her there, still seeking me and caring for me fervently after the tragic events of the previous days. I deeply treasured her fidelity. I marveled at the woman that Abba created her to be, delighting in all that she was. She filled me with hope and joy. There was a loving smile and a call on my lips when I spoke her name: Mary.

I trusted her completely. I felt that intimate, utmost trust welling up, especially when I commissioned her to carry the Gospel to the men. I loved her fiercely and honored her incredible gifts of leadership. I knew she was the one I wanted to bear the good news. There was tender joy in my heart as I sent her, placing the future of my mission in her hands. I knew she would believe and proclaim.

This tender encounter with Jesus moved me powerfully. I knew he had come to me to show me how he feels about women. He loves us. He trusts us, delights in us, honors all that we are.

He fills us with gifts and impels us to use them passionately. He calls us, even in ways the world and the Church might not yet understand. He sends us to proclaim the Gospel. His love seeped into my doubt, and I knew: Women, where we stand is in Christ.

[Tracy Kemme is a Sister of Charity of Cincinnati. Author of the blog Diary of a Sister-in-Training, Tracy is passionate about religious life. She currently studies theology at Xavier University and serves as bilingual pastoral minister at a local parish.]