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Women gather to envision future for Catholic Church

Megan O'Neil | Thursday, April 7, 2005

While members of the College of Cardinals gathered in Vatican City this week to bury Pope John Paul II and to appoint a new leader, a group of roughly equal size met in Le Mans Hall at Saint Mary’s to discuss hope for the future of the Catholic Church.

There were no television cameras present, and at the end of the night there would be no smoke, gray or white, wafting from the bell tower. But students and faculty talked with energy and sometimes emotion about issues ranging from the ordination of women to homosexuality to Terri Schiavo.

The discussion, entitled “The Church Women Want,” began with opening comments from two church experts and five students and then continued in small groups. It was part of an ongoing dialogue at the college in relation to its official affiliation with the Catholic Common Ground Initiative, a movement founded by former Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin.

Mary Henold, professor at Roanoke College and an expert on Catholic feminism, told the audience she was a “contradiction” within the Church.

“I am unapologetically progressive and thoroughly Catholic,” Henold said. “I can’t imagine ever leaving the church, although I have come to understand that others are perfectly justified in doing so.”

When she asked herself what she would like to see in the Catholic Church, Henold said, there were several obvious answers including the ordination of women and the recognition of single, non-celibate women whom, she said, the church currently ignores.

Other responses, Henold said, took her by surprise and will take further thought to develop fully.

“First,” Henold said, “the Church I want is a church that lives.”

Henold said the decline in vocations to the priesthood, specifically the order of Jesuits that deeply influence her, is frightening.

“I’m willing to take on more responsibility as a layperson, so that the church I love remains vibrant and visionary in the changing world,” Henold said.

Henold said the Church should once again embrace itself and its history. Henold believes the Church has lost some of its identity in the last half of the century,

“The reality for many of us who grew up in Vatican II’s wake is that we never experienced that which made Catholicism truly distinctive, and so now there’s a real hunger in my generation and younger for a vibrant Catholic culture,” Henold said.

According to Henold, her position could be misinterpreted as an argument to return to the days before the second Vatican Council. Instead, what she would like to see is a return to a teaching of Church history.

Senior Carolyn Madison said she has had many strong role models in her life and in her faith, particularly her mother and grandmother. These roles, however, are no longer sufficient in a modern Church, Madison said.

“There are many positions in which women can make a difference, can inspire others, can lead someone to a better union with Christ,” Madison said. “However, [these are] positions in which women are restricted in their actions and these women desire more.”

Senior Sarah Brown recounted her most memorable childhood experiences as a Catholic, bringing the gifts up to the altar and being asked to serve as a cross bearer during mass.

“These feelings of having been included and taken seriously in the Church are both what made me Catholic and what keeps me Catholic,” Brown said.

Brown said that while she feels fortunate to have been given certain roles within the Church as a woman, the Church still fails to include them on an equal level.

“When I watch CNN interview members of the leadership of the Church on the significance of the death of the Pope and I see no women approached, I do not feel included,” Brown said. “I do not feel as if my voice is being taken seriously.”

Brown told the audience the Church must make a place for women at every level.

“The Church that I want, as a woman, is one that works to make women’s voices and women’s experiences included and taken seriously in every arena of the Church – from carrying the gifts of the Eucharist during mass, to leading the Church in its decision making.”