By Molly T. Marshall
A bit of sadness crept over me as I watched the departing ceremony of Pope Francis. His presence in our midst has called each of us to a more joyous and merciful way of living. As a nation we have watched him embrace persons in wheelchairs, kiss children, visit those in prison, meet with victims of clergy sexual abuse, reprimand bishops, chide those in political power, and call for us to turn away from a consumerist culture. I miss him already!
A former student of mine posted this perceptive question: “Could this be a time of spiritual awakening?” Indeed, it could be. People from varied perspectives have repeated and tweeted phrases from his various speeches and homilies. The world is longing for goodness, and his lived faith is compelling. The papal visit has not simply touched the Roman Catholic faithful, but Protestants and persons of other faith traditions. It has been a particular joy to me to hear the soaring music of the church.
No religious figure rivals this pope in moral authority, and he speaks across ecclesial and religious boundaries. We saw this in his moving participation with other religious leaders at Ground Zero in New York City. His capacity to nudge people to live ethically is remarkable. He is above all a pastor and practical theologian, and he speaks with remarkable clarity.
Hardship has honed his humility. As a young Jesuit leader, he was imperious with his priests and was demoted. He attempted a doctorate in Germany and never managed to finish it. He spent time in barrios and became deeply acquainted with poverty. Now he calls the world to notice those marginalized by the global market and to live more simply for their sake.
On these matters I agree with the Holy Father. Yet, as a minister who has spent her life working for justice for women in the church, I must register a concern. This past Sunday, Maureen Dowd of the New York Times wrote that Francis would be a perfect 19th-century pope. She is known for her acerbic take on matters; however, the warrant for her critique is the Pope’s recalcitrance on the role of women in the church. And she is right.
While Francis applauded the good work of women religious, they were always ancillary to the center of worship and the leadership of the church. The visual imagery of the Pope surrounded by only men at every liturgical event was striking. Women were in the congregations — some of the time — or near the altar in order to sing or offer a brief prayer for the people. That’s all. When it came time for the Eucharist, they were not in view.
While it is not possible to do everything at once, surely the marginalization of women in the church requires sustained attention. The Pope offered a slight nod to the possibility of married priests; why not open the conversation about the ordination of women? Do not both fall under the rubric of tradition rather than apostolic dogma? Thomas Aquinas contended that priests should “bear a natural resemblance” to Jesus Christ; however, both his biology and theology are suspect here.
Sister Joan Chittister, OSB, courageous advocate for greater inclusion of women in the Roman Catholic Church, wrote a spirited letter to Francis on the cusp of his visit calling for him to pay more attention to the plight of women around the world. “It is impossible, Holy Father, to be serious about doing anything for the poor and at the same time do little or nothing for women.” Women are the poorest of the poor, she notes, and cites the atrocities women suffer all the while. Further, women are mostly “ignored — rejected — as full human beings, as genuine disciples, by their churches, including our own.”
Baptists are welcoming more women as pastoral leaders, yet the pathway of these women clergy toward fulfilling their calling is more fraught than their male colleagues. I am grateful for the good work of Baptist Women in Ministry, ably led by Pam Durso, and the sister American Baptist organization, with Patricia Hernandez creatively at the helm. The education and advocacy work of these two bodies is making a difference, for which I give thanks.
At every event, the Pope invited us to pray for him. I have begun doing so, for the world needs his continuing witness. I will also pray that he will be able to hear those persistent voices calling the church to welcome its daughters to every role within it. That would surely move him into the 21st century!