Creating a song and dance: the prophetic role of women religious in the Church in Aotearoa New Zealand today

I believe that women religious have a prophetic role. In the Church in Aotearoa New Zealand today, it is the prophetic role of women religious to persist, no matter the consequences, in calling for ecclesial reform so that women may participate fully in t

Creating a Song and Dance -Kiwimagining

The Prophetic Role of Women Religious in the Church in Aotearoa New Zealand Today

Address to the Catholic Bishops and Congregational Leaders of Aotearoa New Zealand

Waikanae, Kapiti Coast, 6 March 2006

Elizabeth Julian RSM


New Zealand is a funny place, a distant Pacific outpost where the Anglo-Saxon work ethic has fused with a laid-back island ethos, producing a culture of hard-working people who nevertheless come off as remarkably unflappable and unpretentious. In a nation of a little over four million, where the barriers that insulate leaders from their people are not nearly as thick as elsewhere, it’s remarkably difficult to put on airs.

So wrote John Allen, the Vatican correspondent in Rome for the National Catholic Reporter, in his column ‘The Word From Rome’ (24/02/06) at the beginning of an article reporting an interview with Cardinal Williams. Here I stand, then, as one of those four million inhabitants, before you our Catholic leaders – bishops and religious – because the barriers between us are so thin and because our experience has taught us what Allen has observed, i.e., that it is indeed ‘remarkably difficult to put on airs’. From this funny, distant, thin place I begin.

I believe that women religious have a prophetic role. In the Church in Aotearoa New Zealand today, it is the prophetic role of women religious to persist, no matter the consequences, in calling for ecclesial reform so that women may participate fully in the Church. As I see it, this ultimately means changing the imagination of those in the Church who, at this point in our history, have the power to stop the abuse of half of its members. By abuse I mean the continuing exclusion and oppression of women caused by what I see as sinful, discriminatory structures and practices.

While there are many ways to explore this prophetic role, my approach for you as Bishops and Congregational Leaders will be as follows: first, I will briefly name my social location; next I will use resources from the Tradition to claim my authority for seeking reform; third I will look at Church documents calling religious to be prophetic; fourth I will explain what I understand by the term ‘prophetic’; fifth I will describe the institutional problem as I see it; and finally I will suggest two resources for bringing about this shift in the institutional imagination – the prophet Miriam, as the woman who created a song and dance, and the coastal landscape as edge, since we are gathered here on the Kapiti Coast.

Let me make it clear at the outset that what I offer comes from my perspective as a Pakeha woman religious in Aotearoa New Zealand in 2006. I do not claim to speak on behalf of all women everywhere nor on behalf of all the women religious at this conference, let alone the rest of the world. I am not speaking on behalf of the Sisters of Mercy, nor am I speaking on behalf of Wellington Catholic Education Centre. I am quite certain, however, that many Catholic women wherever they may be will identify with my position. I do not pretend to understand the male mind on this issue other than to express my continuing amazement and profound despair at what I read and hear. Let me also make it clear that I am not arguing for women’s ordination in the current understanding of priesthood. I am arguing for our baptism to be taken seriously.

Social location

I have been a Sister of Mercy for nearly 30 years and involved throughout that time in the ministry of teaching. Apart from study periods at Boston College and at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago I have lived my religious life in Wellington. It is from here that I view the world through a feminist Catholic lens. I live in a country where women feature prominently in many leadership roles (Prime Minister, Governor General, Chief Justice, Speaker of the House, CEO of the largest company, mayor of Wellington, etc). I work in a building in Wellington which houses many Catholic diocesan offices as well as several national offices. It is located across the street from Parliament, next door to the Catholic Cathedral and the Archbishop’s residence, two doors from the Anglican Cathedral and Archbishop’s residence and a two minute walk from the Reserve Bank, the Prime Minister’s residence, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and many other Government Ministries. My office looks out at Parliament Buildings. Thus I am in the middle of an area in which important social, economic, political and religious decisions are made every day. Women are able to make decisions at the highest level in all places except the Catholic Church. Why? In a nutshell, because decision-making in the Church is linked to ordination and at this point in our history the institutional imagination is unable to conceive of women as images of Christ when it comes to presiding at Eucharist.

Claiming my authority

By what authority do I call for reform? By what authority do I call for a change in the institutional imagination? I turn first to Scripture, to the role of the Spirit, next to Church documents and Canon Law which address the need for reform, and then to those Church documents which speak specifically about the prophetic role of religious and women religious in particular.

The Role of the Spirit in Scripture

Genesis assures us that God’s creative Spirit was at work from the very beginning bringing newness (1:1-2). It was this same powerful Spirit who came upon the judges of Israel (cf. Judg 3:10), upon the kings of Israel (cf. 1Sam16:13), upon obscure individuals and made them into prophets of God (cf. Isaiah 61:1). All the time she was bringing newness.

Her work of bringing about a new creation continues in the New Testament in Luke’s account of the Annunciation (1:35). And we can be sure that this Spirit is poured out on all of us, not just some, for we have that wonderful passage from Acts (2:14-21) where Peter quotes from the prophet Joel (2:28):

Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice, and proclaimed to them, “You who are Jews, indeed all of you staying in Jerusalem. Let this be known to you, and listen to my words. These people are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

‘It will come to pass in the last days,’ God says,

‘that I will pour out a portion of my spirit upon all flesh.

Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,

your young men shall see visions,

your old men shall dream dreams.

Indeed, upon my servants and my handmaids

I will pour out a portion of my spirit in those days,

and they shall prophesy.’

We know that we cannot control the energy and dynamism of the Spirit for as the Gospel of John tells us:

The Spirit blows where it wills (John 3:8)

And this Spirit is with us always:

And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth, which the world cannot accept, because it neither sees nor knows it. But you know it, because it remains with you, and will be in you. (John 14:16-17)

We certainly cannot hide from her:

Where can I go from your Spirit?

From your presence where can I flee? (Ps 139:7)

Faced with this certainty, then, we need to be alert to her signs, to be open to her working today, bringing newness, bringing a new vision here among us at Waikanae.

Such is her generosity she comes with gifts galore. Paul reminds us of their great diversity:

To one is given through the Spirit the expression of wisdom; to another the expression of knowledge according to the same Spirit; to another faith by the same Spirit; to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit; to another mighty deeds; to another prophecy; to another discernment of spirits; to another varieties of tongues; to another interpretation of tongues. But one and the same Spirit produces all of these, distributing them individually to each person as he wishes. (1Cor12:8-11)

And yesterday, the first Sunday of Lent, we were led by this same Spirit into the desert with Jesus (Mark 1:12-15). Just as the desert (and we will find Miriam here later) was a testing time for the Israelites (Num 10:11-21:34), so too was it a testing time for Jesus and so too it is a testing time for us. The desert is where the Israelites, where Jesus and where we are thrown on the providence of God.

We only need to look around this room to see the result of the Spirit. Those women and men who founded our congregations were acting under her guidance. That we are here today is proof that they listened to her desire for newness. Theologically, the only way the Spirit can act to bring about newness is through human agency, and that means through you and me today.

Finally Paul tells us:

‘Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophetic utterances’ (1 Thess 5: 19-24). She can effect more that we can ever hope or imagine – here at Waikanae, where she blows, as James K. Baxter (1997, p. 157-158) claims:

Like the wind in a thousand paddocks,

Inside and outside the fences

You blow where you wish to blow

Church documents

As well as Scripture, another source from the Tradition which I believe gives us a mandate to seek reform is found in various Church documents, especially from Vatican II. A key piece here is the prophetic statement from Gaudium et Spes (1965), which continues to this day to give hope to many women who remain in the Church.

Nevertheless, with respect to the fundamental rights of the person, every type of discrimination, whether social or cultural, whether based on sex, race, color, social condition, language or religion, is to be overcome and eradicated as contrary to God’s intent. (# 29) [italics added].

As theologian Elizabeth Johnson (2004, p. 51) reminds us, the theological term today for ‘contrary to God’s intent’ is sin. What the Council taught is that discrimination against women on account of their sex is sinful.

Another important statement in which we can locate a mandate for seeking reform comes from the Synod document Justice in the World (1971):

While the Church is bound to give witness to justice, she recognises that anyone who ventures to speak to people about justice must first be just in their eyes. Hence we must undertake an examination of the modes of acting and of the possessions and life style found within the Church herself. (# 40)

But prior to this we find a very strong reminder about the need for reform in Unitatis Redintegratio, the Decree on Ecumenism (1964):

Christ summons the Church to continual reformation as she sojourns here on earth. The Church is always in need of this, in so far as she is an institution of men here on earth. Thus if, in various times and circumstances, there have been deficiencies in moral conduct or in church discipline, or even in the way that church teaching has been formulated – to be carefully distinguished from the deposit of faith itself – these can and should be set right at the opportune moment. (# 6)

The safety net here, of course, for those wishing to maintain business as usual, is the ‘deposit of faith’, commonly understood as the ‘teaching of Jesus Christ as found in Scripture and in the apostolic tradition’ (Dallavalle, 1995, p. 409). It must be remembered however, that whatever we understand by this term, it is not an uninterpreted, objective body of knowledge which fell from on high. It came originally through the minds and pens of men out of their experience upon which they had reflected. The process of inspiration, however we understand it, did not neutralise the human tendency to impose a particular view. Since then this ‘deposit of faith’ has been and continues to be officially interpreted solely by men some of who, according to their lights at the time, sanctioned slavery, the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the death penalty, among other atrocities, and wrote and preached and taught the most horrendous lies about women. These men sincerely believed that they were being faithful to the Tradition. We now know, of course, that they lacked the institutional imagination to see that other truths were indeed possible.

Theologian Nancy Dallavalle (1995, p. 409) calls the ‘deposit of faith’ ‘an exhaustible treasure of which the Church is the trustee.’ Often it appears to me as if the treasure has been exhausted with nothing more to explore – the Church has spoken on the ordination of women and the matter is closed. However, it is important to remember that the ‘deposit of faith’ or the ‘storehouse of revelation’ (LG #10) is not the property of the magisterium but rather it is entrusted to the Church as a whole under the guidance of the Holy Spirit (DV #10). Furthermore:

With the help of the Holy Spirit, it is the task of the entire People of God, especially pastors and theologians, to hear, distinguish and interpret the many voices of our age, and to judge them in the light of the divine word, so that revealed truth can always be more deeply penetrated, better understood and set forth to greater advantage. (GS #44) [italics added]

The Church guards the heritage of God’s word and draws from it moral and religious principles without always having at hand the solution to particular problems. (GS #33) [italics added]

Although the Church has contributed much to the development of culture, experience shows that, for circumstantial reasons, it is sometimes difficult to harmonise culture with Christian teaching. These difficulties do not necessarily harm the life of faith, rather they can stimulate the mind to a deeper and more accurate understanding of the faith. The recent studies and findings of science, history and philosophy raise new questions which effect life and which demand new theological investigations. (GS #62) [italics added]

Promulgated in the same year as Unitatis Redintegratio, Lumen Gentium states:

The laity have the right, as do all Christians, to receive in abundance from their spiritual shepherds the spiritual goods of the Church, especially the assistance of the word of God and of the sacraments. They should openly reveal to them their needs and desires with that freedom and confidence which is fitting for children of God and brothers in Christ. They are, by reason of the knowledge, competence or outstanding ability which they may enjoy, permitted and sometimes even obliged to express their opinion on those things which concern the good of the Church. ( #37). [italics added]

Canon Law

From Church documents I turn now to Canon Law:

The Christian faithful are free to make known to the pastors of the Church their needs, especially spiritual ones, and their desires. (Can. 212.2)

According to the knowledge, competence, and prestige which they possess, they have the right and even at times the duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church and to make their opinion known to the rest of the Christian faithful, without prejudice to the integrity of faith and morals, with reverence toward their pastors, and attentive to common advantage and the dignity of persons. (Can. 212.3)

What we have then in the above statements from Scripture and Church documents, as well as Canon Law is, I believe, an invitation, at the very least, to raise questions and to imagine that there may be ‘more than one right answer’ to the question concerning the full participation of women in the Church today in Aotearoa New Zealand.

It seems to me that we must be allowed to talk about the issue and that the talk cannot be an institutional monologue. We need to have a genuine conversation. By conversation I mean one in which the question is in control, not the conversation partners, neither of whom can predetermine the outcome (Himes, 2005, p. 29). We cannot tell at the outset what we may learn because the process itself is uncontrollable. Both partners need to keep the Gospel in view, to listen with humility, not with the conviction of the rightness of their positions. Both partners really need to ask how the structures and processes of the institutional Church can best serve the truth of the Gospel. Both partners need to theologise creatively in their actual ecclesial and cultural context to discern the truth in love, no matter how shocking that truth may be to some. As theologian Timothy Radcliffe said in the The Tablet recently:

The Greek word for truth – aletheia – implies the activity of uncovering what is hidden. We must study the Word of God, attend to the teaching of the Church, reflect upon the experience of Christians through the centuries and today; we must pray for enlightenment and test our ideas in debate with one another. (2006, p.13)

It’s about allowing for the possibility that we may be wrong. It’s about allowing for the possibility of there being more than one right answer. It’s about the questions that will show us the way, rather than the answers we may come prepared with. It’s about allowing for fragments of grace to touch us unexpectedly. It’s about glimmers of hope appearing in the darkness as together we allow ourselves to be embraced by God’s Spirit of newness.

And as theologian Michael Himes (2005, p. 29) points out, we have in our tradition good models of the Church learning from the world rather than teaching the world, first, in terms of slavery and second in the adoption of the language of human rights in Catholic social teaching. In both of these cases the Church did not teach the world, rather it had to learn from the world. These examples, I believe, should encourage us to hope that the Church will eventually learn something from the ‘world’ regarding the rights of women.

So what is the role of women religious here? I turn now to the prophetic dimension of religious life first by tracing its appearance in Church documents and then by examining what we mean by prophetic.

Religious life as prophetic according to Church documents

In the preparation of this address I was very surprised to discover that the prophetic dimension specific to religious life does not really appear in Church documents until the 1978 document Religious and Human Promotion. However, in so far as religious are included in the ‘holy people of God’ and the ‘laity’, then we share in Christ’s prophetic role as outlined in Lumen Gentium:

The holy people of God shares also in Christ’s prophetic office; it spreads abroad a living witness to Him, especially by means of a life of faith and charity and by offering to God a sacrifice of praise, the tribute of lips which give praise to His name. (#12)

Christ, the great Prophet, who proclaimed the Kingdom of His Father both by the testimony of His life and the power of His words, continually fulfils His prophetic office until the complete manifestation of glory. He does this not only through the hierarchy who teach in His name and with His authority, but also through the laity. (#35)

Similarly the Directives for the Mutual Relations Between Bishops and Religious in the Church (1978) speaks of religious sharing in the prophetic role of Christ common to all the People of God:

Considering then the fact that the prophetic, priestly and royal condition is common to all the People of God (cf. LG 9, 10, 34, 35, 36), it seems useful to outline the competency of religious authority, paralleling it by analogy to the three-fold function of pastoral ministry, namely, of teaching, sanctifying and governing without, however, confusing one authority with the other or equating them. (#13)

As far as I can tell the specific call to religious to be prophetic first appears in Religious and Human Promotion (1978):

Evangelisation, for the Church, means bringing the Good News into all strata of humanity and through it transforming humanity itself from within: its criteria of discernment, its determinant values, its sources of inspiration, its designs for living, opening them up to a total vision of humanity. To accomplish this mission, the Church must search out the signs of the times and interpret them in the light of the Gospel, thus responding to persistent human questions. Religious are called to give singular witness to this prophetic dimension. (Introduction) [Italics added].

One of the signs of the times that John XXIII in 1963 identified concerned women. In Pacem in Terris we read:

[I]t is obvious to everyone that women are now taking a part in public life. This is happening more rapidly perhaps in nations with a Christian tradition, and more slowly, but broadly, among people who have inherited other traditions or cultures. Since women are becoming ever more conscious of their human dignity, they will not tolerate being treated as inanimate objects or mere instruments, but claim both in domestic and public life, the rights and duties that befit a human person. (#41)

It is interesting to note, however, that it is women who are identified as becoming more aware of their own human dignity. It’s not that men are becoming more aware of women’s dignity, let alone institutions!

We can all ‘search out the signs of the times’ and we can all read them. To my way of thinking many of them are writ large and clear, but the question is, whose interpretation counts? At this point in our history, my interpretation and the interpretation of numerous women like me throughout the world counts for very little. If it did I wouldn’t be standing here demanding that my baptism be fully acknowledged:

For all of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3:28)

We would have a Church operating, not just in theory but in practice, as ‘women and men equally created in God’s image, equally redeemed by Christ, equally called to be disciples, equally entrusted with Christ’s mission, and equally endowed with Spirit’ (Reid, 1996, p.10)

I find the encouragement expressed in the following paragraph from Religious and Human Promotion particularly reassuring:

Nor should religious fear any obstacle to the generosity and creativity of their projects from the hierarchical nature of this ecclesial communion, because every sacred authority is given for the purpose of harmoniously promoting charisms and ministries. Indeed, on the contrary, religious are encouraged to be “enterprising in their undertakings and initiatives;” this is in keeping with the charismatic and prophetic nature of religious life itself. (RHP #27)

To be encouraged to be enterprising in our undertakings and initiatives is indeed heartening.

In Redemptionis Donum (1983), a few years later, we were again reminded by Pope John Paul that like all the baptised we share in Christ’s prophetic role:

The universal mission of the People of God is rooted in the messianic mission of Christ Himself – Prophet, Priest and King – a mission in which all share in different ways. The form of sharing proper to “consecrated” persons corresponds to your manner of being rooted in Christ. The depth and power of this being rooted in Christ is decided precisely by religious profession. (#7)

However, the document which refers specifically to women religious and the prophetic nature of religious life is Vita Consecrata, the (1996) Synod document. It is the sections below which give me the authority I believe to claim what I am claiming, i.e., that we need a change in the institutional imagination:

The dignity and role of consecrated women

Certainly, the validity of many assertions relating to the position of women in different sectors of society and of the Church cannot be denied. It is equally important to point out that women’s new self-awareness also helps men to reconsider their way of looking at things, the way they understand themselves, where they place themselves in history and how they interpret it, and the way they organise social, political, economic, religious and ecclesial life. (#57)

As we saw in Pacem in Terris, here once again it is ‘women’s new self-awareness’ that is bringing about changes in how men understand themselves, their place in history, their interpretation of it, and the way they organise social, political, economic, religious and ecclesial life. The male is still the norm. There is no hint here of the God-given equality of women and men. At the same time, however, the document does urge women religious to use their experience as women in the Church to proclaim prophetically the Gospel message of equality:

Having received from Christ a message of liberation, the Church has the mission to proclaim this message prophetically, promoting ways of thinking and acting which correspond to the mind of the Lord. In this context the consecrated woman, on the basis of her experience of the Church and as a woman in the Church, can help eliminate certain one-sided perspectives which do not fully recognise her dignity and her specific contribution to the Church’s life and pastoral and missionary activity. Consecrated women therefore rightly aspire to have their identity, ability, mission and responsibility more clearly recognised, both in the awareness of the Church and in everyday life. (#57)

Of course what the following paragraph recommends can never be totally achieved until our baptism is fully recognised:

It is therefore urgently necessary to take certain concrete steps, beginning by providing room for women to participate in different fields and at all levels, including decision-making processes, above all in matters which concern women themselves. (#58)

(Later I will list many concerns I have, many of which have arisen precisely because women have not been able to sit at the decision-making table. In the meantime Vita Consecrata continues):

The prophetic character of the consecrated life

The prophetic character of the consecrated life was strongly emphasised by the Synod Fathers. It takes the shape of a special form of sharing in Christ’s prophetic office, which the Holy Spirit communicates to the whole People of God. There is a prophetic dimension which belongs to the consecrated life as such, resulting from the radical nature of the following of Christ and of the subsequent dedication to the mission characteristic of the consecrated life. The sign value, which the Second Vatican Council acknowledges in the consecrated life, is expressed in prophetic witness to the primacy which God and the truths of the Gospel have in the Christian life. Because of this pre-eminence nothing can come before personal love of Christ and of the poor in whom he lives… In the history of the Church, alongside other Christians, there have been men and women consecrated to God who, through a special gift of the Holy Spirit, have carried out a genuinely prophetic ministry, speaking in the name of God to all, even to the Pastors of the Church. True prophecy is born of God, from friendship with him, from attentive listening to his word in the different circumstances of history. Prophets feel in their hearts a burning desire for the holiness of God and, having heard his word in the dialogue of prayer, they proclaim that word with their lives, with their lips and with their actions, becoming people who speak for God against evil and sin. Prophetic witness requires the constant and passionate search for God’s will, for self-giving, for unfailing communion in the Church, for the practice of spiritual discernment and love of the truth. It is also expressed through the denunciation of all that is contrary to the divine will and through the exploration of new ways to apply the Gospel in history, in expectation of the coming of God’s Kingdom. (#84)

Significance for the contemporary world

In our world, where it often seems that the signs of God’s presence have been lost from sight, a convincing prophetic witness on the part of consecrated persons is increasingly necessary. In the first place this should entail the affirmation of the primacy of God and of eternal life, as evidenced in the following and imitation of the chaste, poor and obedient Christ, who was completely consecrated to the glory of God and to the love of his brethren. The fraternal life is itself prophetic in a society which, sometimes without realising it, has a profound yearning for a brotherhood which knows no borders. Consecrated persons are being asked to bear witness everywhere with the boldness of a prophet who is unafraid of risking even his life. Prophecy derives a particularly persuasive power from consistency between proclamation and life. (#85)

The most recent document, Starting Afresh from Christ: A Renewed Commitment to Consecrated Life in the Third Millennium (2002), adds nothing new to the prophetic dimension but essentially repeats Vita Consecrata:

In a particular way we recognise the preciousness of apostolic work carried out with generosity and the particular richness of the “feminine genius” of consecrated women. This merits the greatest recognition on the part of all, of pastors and of the faithful. But the path embarked upon must be deepened and extended. “It is therefore urgently necessary to take certain concrete steps beginning by providing room for women to participate in different fields and at all levels including decision making processes”. (#9)

Finally, although not a Vatican document, the 1989 Joint CMSM/LCWR Statement, Transformative Elements for Religious Life in the Future, begins with the prophetic dimension. The Assembly in Louisville, Kentucky developed ten transformative elements during several days of visioning the future of the world, society, Church and religious life. The first element proposes that religious will a be prophetic witness:

Being converted by the example of Jesus and the values of the gospel, religious in the year 2010 will serve a prophetic role in church and society. Living this prophetic witness will include critiquing societal and ecclesial values and structures, calling for systemic change and being converted by the marginalised with whom we serve.

So there is much important material that identifies prophecy as an integral part of the nature of religious life and calls us to be prophetic. What exactly does this mean?

The meaning of prophecy

The clearest articulation of the prophetic dimension of religious life for me comes from Sandra Schneiders (2000, pp. 137-152; 252-257; 313-358) for whom prophecy is essentially about hope for the reign of God as well as action to bring it about (p. 316). Prophecy is not about telling the future. Rather ‘it is about telling what time it is, what it is time for, in the present’ (p. 138). Using the work of Rabbi Abraha