Honouring the Prophets: Prophetic Women

Reprinted from The Common Good, no. 27, Easter 2003

One of the most truly prophetic movements that has come into being in recent times is the one that is known as Catholic Women: Knowing Our Place, based in Christchurch and working in conjunction with like-minded groups all over the world and within New Zealand itself. Its members range in age from those in their 90s to those in their 20s. They come from all walks of life and from all backgrounds. They are virtually all women who are active members of the Catholic Church and who are prepared to put themselves on the line to work for justice and equality for women in their Church. They are prophets in every sense of the word. They have seen a vision of a time in the Church when women are listened to and are given an equal place with men in its political and liturgical life. That means that women have an equal voice in policy-making in the church and that they are accepted into its ordained priesthood.

This movement has all the characteristics that were the authentic mark of the prophets of old. Prophets of every century, before Christ and since, have seen injustice being practised in their day and have cried out against it, challenging the religious leaders of their time, making themselves profoundly unpopular with those in authority, not accepting the status quo where it violates justice and respect for any of God’s children.

Catholic Women: Knowing Our Place came into being in the manner of many prophetic movements, in response to an unjust situation inflamed by a repressive injunction. But, such movements do not suddenly appear out of thin air. They spring to life from frustrations that have been simmering beneath the surface for long years, unconsciously waiting for a catalyst to crystallise them, articulate them and bring them to the surface, Such was certainly the case here. The year was 1994.

The catalyst was a letter from the Pope in May of that year, saying in effect, that women could not only not be ordained priests, they could never be ordained priests at any time in the future. That in itself may not have been catalyst enough. Not satisfied with that, the New Zealand Bishops added their own letter entitled ‘The Preservation of Priestly Ordination to Men.’ This was much closer to home, but it is doubtful that this would have been enough to ignite the flame. Still not satisfied with these two letters, the then Bishop of Christchurch, Basil Meeking, added his own letter. It was ‘a bridge too far.’ Women in churches all over the diocese were outraged. Some walked out of their church that Sunday morning never to return. Others remained to seek solidarity with other women and come out into the open to express their deep-seated anger.

Two such women were Sheryn Gillard-Glass and Glenda Rich. These two women had met at University when they were studying law and, once qualified, had kept in touch with each other. They were two of the many women making a strong reaction to the injunction that all discussion on the ordination of women in the Catholic church was to cease forthwith. In June 1994, they invited a group of women to meet in Sheryn’s home and twelve women gathered to discuss what action they might take. One of those they invited was Dr Anna Holmes, whom they had never met, but who was already well established as a fearless and prophetic voice in the Church. They decided to test the water by calling a public meeting where the implications of the letters could be discussed and where other long-standing frustrations could be aired. That meeting took place on 10 August, 1994 in the Stringleman Room at the Public Library. 258 people attended, virtually all women. A new movement was born. They chose a name that was both enigmatic and ambiguous, but there was nothing enigmatic or ambiguous about the movement itself.

One of the early actions that established the movement firmly in the minds of others was an historic protest march, a Pilgrimage of Hope, held on 18 September, 1994. Again, it was a question of just how many women would commit themselves to such an action, but on the day, some 200 people, men and women, took part with their numbers extended by women who travelled from Dunedin to show their solidarity with their Christchurch sisters. What they did was highly symbolic. Because the Catholic Cathedral is the symbol of the institutional Church in the city, they spoke in a symbolic way to the institution that relegates them to second-class membership. They turned and walked away from that building to go to a liturgy and a picnic in Hagley Park. Some churchmen have chosen to interpret this action as Catholic women walking away from Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. But the women know that they are the Body of Christ, walking that day in the cause of justice. If they had any intention of walking away from Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, they would have left the Church long since, just as thousands of their sisters and, sadly, their own children have done. These are the women who have stayed in the Church.

Nine years after these events. Catholic Women Knowing Our Place is alive and well. Its meetings are marked by beautiful liturgies which demonstrate the liturgical leadership of women at its creative best. It fills women with the joy of having it so, and the sadness of not having it so. Perhaps most important of all the activities of the movement, is the contact it provides by Email, with similar movements all over the world, be it We Are Church, in Europe or BASIC (Brothers & Sisters in Christ) in Ireland, or their sister-movement in Australia. It is significant that, in their early days when they had no funds and wanted to send representatives to a conference in Australia, money poured in from people all over the country to enable them to go. This year, two representatives with their husbands, went to a conference in Tasmania where the guest speaker was a member of BASIC. The content of such conferences is shared with all members and it all adds up to the growing conscientisation of women in Catholic Women: Knowing Our Place. In the meantime, women are prepared to wait, but they are not going to wait for ever.

Written for the series by Sisters Pauline O’Regan, Helen Goggin, Teresa O’Connor, Marie McCrea.

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