This summer, a focus on the role of women in church history

It's summer and time for my annual retreat. Talk to any nun. Most of us would rather forego our vacations than miss this precious interlude of quality time with the One who got us into this mess to begin with.

Most years, I go to a quaint hermitage on the bucolic grounds of the Sisters of Charity of St. Augustine near Ohio's Amish country.  I watch the sun rise on one side of my solitary abode and set on the other. From the front porch, you can see a huge weeping willow overhanging a placid pond, unsettled only by wide-mouthed frogs that urp and splash whenever I wander by.

I love this place. A priest friend told me about it when I was pondering whether to enter the Cleveland Sisters of St. Joseph. So I set aside a weekend each month to consider God and me and where it all was going. After a year, I roamed the grounds for a glorious week in the fall, searching out my final answer. When it was time to leave, I was so filled up, it left me uncharacteristically speechless. A beloved sister-spiritual director helped me sort it out: "Chris," she said, "I think you're in love." Who knew? It made no sense at all and actually seemed sort of goofy at the time. But there it was, and I couldn't deny it.

I love this sacred hermitage space not only because of its association with my nun roots, but also because subsequent years brought new chapters in my God quest. Retreat is a time to reconnect with the God-mystery at a deeper level. A frequent dynamic for me is the gentle uncovering of places in my heart that I have walled off, either because the pain was too much to deal with at the time or, well, who wants to look at pain when the World Cup is on TV?

But there you are in your hermitage. You, you and (now I'm really bored) you. And, well, yes, there's that pesky God person. God loves us so much, God can't help but lead us to healing and a bigger love, even though the process is sometimes painful. So my hermitage walls reverberated with cries of sorrow, grief and anguish when my mother died. They frequently witnessed my fiery anger and, worse, despair at the slow pace of church renewal and reform. Why aren't you doing this faster, God? (Did I mention how important a good spiritual director is for times of retreat?)

Without fail, God finds a way to untangle twisted strands of bitterness, despair, fear, grief and, sometimes (I'm ashamed to admit), hatred that I have walled off way down deep where no one else could see – sometimes not even me. Invariably, I come home chastened, refreshed and filled with a new awareness of who God is, who I am, and the power of Christ to unmask my wounds of negativity and heal them with forgiveness, hope, courage and a peace that truly does pass understanding.

And then there's the fantastic ice cream stand down the road that, as a beloved child of God, I treat myself to each day. (The black cherry is the best.)

Not every year is heavy, deep and real. Often, the time unfolds peacefully with lots of rest, a quiet joy and always great gratitude.

I didn't have that kind of retreat this year.

Probably because I am researching the church fathers for a project about women leaders in early Christianity. Often, the only way we know that a woman was leading at all is because churchmen are complaining about it. For example, in the third century, Hippolytus wrote the Apostolic Tradition, telling his community not to ordain the widows. Well, someone must have been ordaining them, or he wouldn't have needed a rule.

Rereading the sad history of sacralized misogyny so rooted in the religious and philosophical culture from which Christianity emerged, I came to a new awareness of why it is so difficult for today's "fathers" to be open to the theological work of people like Elizabeth Johnson. Her seminal work, She Who Is, honors church tradition even as it reflects on the need for a fuller apprehension of the God mystery in feminine metaphor as well as masculine. Her work is liberating for women and men alike.

But for the institutional church to receive and act on it, contemporary churchmen would have to, in the words of the Philippian hymn, empty themselves. This is very hard to do. I would guess it nearly impossible without recourse to the saving mystery of Jesus, "who did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at, but emptied himself" (Phil 2:5-7).

Differing worldviews are at the heart of the recent standoff between the Vatican, which wants these pesky LCWR women in their (subordinate) place, and LCWR, whose members live within a feminist liberation understanding of the Jesus who frees women (and everyone else) from structures of domination and subordination.

In my solitary hermitage, sturdily walled-off wounds of institutionalized sexism (and, yes, despair – I hate that) are gently nudged open once again. But this time with excruciating intensity. I am overwhelmed as I gaze down a 2,000-year arc of supposedly sacred subordination. A complicating overlay is that I have been socialized into this. Aren't I really a prideful, uppity woman? Shouldn't I just shut up, keep the peace and do what "the fathers" tell me to?

Another wrinkle is that, like many Catholic women, I love these men. Both the fathers of the first centuries and the fathers of today. How can you not love an Ignatius of Antioch? Ignatius, while writing letters consolidating the male-only rule of bishops, is also under arrest journeying to certain martyrdom in Rome. He does this out of love for the Christ whom I also love.

So many church fathers of yesterday and today are great lovers of Christ. They are also very wrong about women and their roles in the church. It can be hard to hold these two truths together without hating oneself, "the fathers," or both.

But somehow, God steals in to heal and love those who painfully strive to live with integrity in this messy enterprise called the Catholic church.

I left my silent sanctuary feeling fragile but oddly opened up. Last Sunday was the feast of Peter and Paul. I was surprised to discover I wasn't dreading it. Most years, I experience this feast as one more depressingly triumphant celebration of a patriarchal church out of sync with Jesus' ideal.

But now, I remember that both of these men were martyred in Rome for love of the same Jesus that I love and still close enough to the earthly Jesus' example of inclusivity and self-emptying love that they respected and valued women's leadership.

You can see this in Peter's haste to raise Tabitha, the only female leader given the grammatically feminine title of "disciple" in the New Testament (Acts 9:36-42). Some commentators believe she may have been a member of Jesus' Galilean discipleship, so Peter could have known her well.

You can read how Paul valued the leadership of women such as Phoebe, Prisca and Junia in Romans 16. He calls them his co-workers and acknowledges that, like himself, they were "apostles to the Gentiles." There were no exclusive structures in the church yet. No one was "ordained." Women and men simply worked together (and frequently died together) proclaiming the good news of Jesus' powerful liberating love to a world desperately in need of it.

But perhaps a picture is worth a thousand words.

Here is a photo of a fourth-century tomb relief now in the Vatican Museums. The description reads: "the deceased between two apostles." The woman is holding a biblical codex, a sign of her learning and authority. Both "apostles" are portrayed attentively listening to what she has to say. On her casket, this fourth-century woman (or her family) has evoked the memory of Peter and Paul in validation of her leadership.

God, when will our contemporary church fathers heed the example of Peter and Paul?

[A Sister of St. Joseph, Sr. Christine Schenk served urban families for 18 years as a nurse midwife before co-founding FutureChurch, where she served for 23 years.]

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