At a surprisingly early age, perhaps nine or ten, I became the author of my own spiritual narrative, meaning, I took it upon myself to initiate and pursue the deep mystery of my faith. Weekly Mass was an event, not an obligation, and something to which I attended without my family. The singleness of my worship at such a young age drew stares and whispers from those families who had arrived in tact. And while I was not unaware of their curiosity, I found it easier to lose myself in the absolute wonder of my environment. This was the world to which I belonged. I was at once home and alive in a devotion filled with sacramentals, those objects of religious piety that created a force field of God’s protection around me.
While the mystery of God’s love enveloped and graced my adolescence, a slow and creeping suspicion began to take hold of my faith. Because of my “girlishness,” I was barred as an alter server, and I began to absorb my otherness. I worried about my difference, and began to question the fairness of God. Telegraphic messages of inferiority caused me great confusion. The implicit reality that as female I was ontologically challenged, slowly sifted its way into my psyche and I would argue, my soul as well.
As a budding young feminist, what I found within the teachings of the church, either implicit or explicitly, did not coincide with what I felt to be the inner me. On the cusp of adulthood, the collision between self and Church [read as God] was inevitable. The catechetical formation of my youth, of coming forth equally male and female in the image and likeness of God seemed like a childish myth and certainly not the reality of the andocentric church to which I was now departing.
Fast forward twenty years, and I cautiously found myself back in the Catholic Church, only this time in the arms of feminist theologians. I was hooked. Their writings informed my life choices, directing me towards my current doctoral pursuit. Yet I have found the academic arena is able to shield and protect me from the pain I continue to feel within the institutional church. To demonstrate the interweaving of the challenges and nourishment I experience as a Catholic I addressed above, I would like to share with you the following story.
Recently I was able to share this sense of exclusion by virtue of my femaleness with a group of foreign priest working in U.S. parishes. Participating in a cultural awareness program specifically designed for priests, I was invited to share my personal experience as a woman “doing” theology within the Catholic Church. The main concern, as expressed by the leaders of the program, themselves priests, is the inability of foreign priests to work collaboratively with women within the parish setting. Currently women are functioning as pastoral associates, directors of religious education, chaplains, parish administrators and more. It is within these ecclesial settings that the tension can be most pronounced between the ordained and the theological trained women that interact with them.
Encircled by sixty priests, and armed with a large number of diverse texts written by feminist theologians as examples of this discipline, I began detailing the trajectory of the development of feminist theology both in the United States, and later, in Third World settings. I shared a feminist critique of the Christian tradition that has privileged men’s experience over women’s, has imaged God in predominantly masculine metaphors and language, or used the Christian message to craft an ecclesial structure of exclusionary hierarchy. Yet, I discovered, it was the image of God as Father, followed by the use of exclusive language that generated the most curiosity and dialogue. While for the most part the use of inclusive language coupled with female images of God is foundational to feminist theology, this was completely new news to my audience. While I had been prepared to discuss women and ecclesiology from an anthropological perspective, I had failed to anticipate the core of the matter. The fact is, the inability to image God in the feminine, or to have exposure to inclusive language, particularly within liturgy, speaks on one level to their seminary training, but on a deeper, theological level, it demonstrates the continue mind-set of the Catholic Church with regards to women. While papal encyclicals attempt to affirm feminism in the modern world, these continue to be, in my estimation, smoke screens that view women’s contributions based on their reproductive capacity.
My own level of anxiety began to rise as the question and answer format began to become more pronounced with objections to any shift in language or Christology. So I shifted gears and began to do exactly what is foundational to feminist theology: I spoke from my own experience. I began by focusing on the diversity of my memories as an Irish-American Catholic. I shared my deep Catholic identity and love for the Church that sustained me as a child; how the nuns reflected and transmitted their care for us through their vocation of teaching. I shared the richness of being raised by an Irish-American mother who instilled in me the Celtic infusion of the Incarnation into daily life. I shared my love for the Eucharist and the aspect of community and ties to the dead through the Communion of Saints, and of course, Mary, whose motherly attention, strength and love continues to call me out of the darkness. But I also shared the pain of exclusive that I spoke of earlier, how I feel estranged from my church as a woman. The tension I and others have experienced in parish ministry with tremendous responsibility but no authority to make lasting change are striking examples, I surmised, of the issues women in ministry continue to face. I asked the men to imagine what it must feel like for the young girls in their parishes, who on Vocational Sunday, the time when young men are asked to consider the priesthood, are not represented or prayed for? While I myself do not feel personally called to the priesthood, the pain of exclusion for my sisters who do feel this vocational deeply saddens me. As I continued to speak from my own experience, surrounded by priest of varying generations, I began to witness an ever so slight shift in attitude in some, and in others a wonderful delight at the theological possibilities for themselves and those they work with. Eager to assimilate this new theology, they asked how to begin, and how to convey these expanded images of God to those they serve and work with. Here is what I suggested. Begin with the most intimate and personal—themselves. Start by reading suggested feminist theologians, pay particular attention to what disturbs you, makes you uncomfortable or uneasy. Then reflect on those feelings through pray and journaling because, I reminded them, you cannot give what you do not possess. And in conclusion I asked that each of them reevaluate how they perceive the women they work with professionally, as well as the countless women who volunteer their time and resources. How might they operate from an inclusive, collaborative model? Feeling affirmed and well, empowered with the change of attitudes, I suggested they take this to a new level; that in preparing their Sunday homilies, they cite feminist theologians as sources of theological authority. And finally, because paradigm shifts of the psyche can be painful excavations of the self, I asked they proceed with patience and self care, but proceed they must. The responsibility rested on them to continue the task of waking up to inclusive, collaborative models of being church. The structure will continue to work against such theology I warned, it always has. And then, in the quiet weight of consideration of my words, something remarkable occurred. A young priest who had remained reserved and cautious asked me the question, “Why, exactly, do I remain Catholic?” The simplicity of the question caught me off guard. My vision, I explained, has felt impossible. The inability to feel welcomed and accepted in what seems to be an oxymoronic state, a feminist woman in the Catholic Church, has left me ragged and scarred. The inability to find a home within the Church is both vexing and sad. But I also know this is not the complete picture. I shared how I also carry within me the memory of Church as home, sustaining me in ways when others could not. Just as it is impossible not to be in the love of God, I find it equally impossible not to be Catholic. The Church needs the voices of women like me and others, who as feminist theologian Mary Jo Weaver argues, “Long for something they cannot name, while desiring a community of belief and celebration they cannot describe.” He seemed immensely satisfied with my response and I could see, if ever so slightly, the shift beginning to take shape.
 Mary Jo Weaver Springs of Water in a Dry Land: Spiritual Survival for Catholic Women Today. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993) 21