By Fr David Stewart SJ
February brings us Ash Wednesday and begins our Lenten repentance and renewal. It brings us a new prayer intention from Pope Francis, a prayer from his own heart that he’d like us to take into our hearts and our own prayer. The Pope encourages us to consider, prayerfully, gender-based violence and, since faith is the daily living-out of prayer, to find ways of supporting and advocating for women who are being harmed. The prayer intention this month invites us to ‘pray for women who are victims of violence, that they may be protected by society and have their sufferings considered and heeded.’ In the month that begins the season of repentance, there is an opportunity to repent for failures to heed women’s suffering, both in our own lands and abroad.
Trapped and voiceless
In the monthly journal from our colleagues in Dublin, the Sacred Heart Messenger (see below), the writer Sr Susan Jones notes that ‘Many female victims are trapped with no safe way out of their situation. They are voiceless or their voice is made silent, their vocal cords paralysed by fear.’ Women, often from childhood, are, in many cultures and societies, socialised or simply terrified into thinking that suffering is their place, their role in life. Disgracefully, some religious people are given to suggesting that this must be accepted, that a wife must submit to her husband, together with whatever physical or mental suffering that might entail; that this must be. The writer, a religious Sister who has worked in homeless chaplaincy and women’s spirituality teams, asserts that such religious and societal practices (the former often shapes the latter) need to be challenged. But if the church is going to do so, with any credibility, it needs to get its own house in order.
The church must do more
Sr Susan Jones writes that the Church must do more work, not only in caring for female victims of violence, but on ‘its own understanding of what it is to be a woman and accept how its understandings have shaped its teachings and cultural practices, which have left women vulnerable to violence in the name of God or religious obligation’. Citing how Jesus directly addressed society’s customs and norms, thus giving women their voice, she encourages us to think and pray about what our ‘active response’ might be to the Pope’s intention this month. Are we really serious, for example, about affording women their full voice in our official church structures? In these weeks of Lenten repentance, these are good, sharp questions for us all.
Who is the real Church?
Clericalism, for Roman Catholics at least, contributes to the problem. Wherever there is a leftover of the old notion that the clergy are the only ‘real’ church, whom the laity follow and obey, and because the clergy still are all male, there is mistreatment of the laity generally but of women particularly. Sometimes we still accept language that suggests, for example, that the priest says Mass for the people rather than with everyone. Women sometimes accept this subordinate role, too, assuming that’s just the way things are. All need to recognise that the baptised are not present at the priest’s liturgy but, gathered and assembled, they actually form the liturgy; their ministerial roles, inside and outside the church building, are not delegated from the clerics but enabled, encouraged and supported by them. It’s more than just ‘helping Father’, much though generous people, often women, gladly do so! In this light, Pope Francis’ recent text, Spiritus Domini, updates Canon Law so that women may become Lectors and Acolytes, stable ministries, properly instituted, more than lending a hand. These are ministries from which women used to be excluded. Praying with the Pope this month commits us to recognise that reality, too.
In the Pope Video for last month, January 2020, Francis explained why we find it difficult to live as brothers and sisters if we don’t know each other; that’s why he invites us to open our hearts to all. He was thinking then about being open to people of other faiths but clearly what he said is helpful more widely. Most of us have heard since childhood about looking out for others, walking in another person’s shoes, seeing the world from the point of view of the oppressed, not the oppressor. It’s a high calling, not always easy, that is addressed to us all.
Watch your language
One of the ways in which society can inflict violence on women is verbal, by our choice of the language we choose to use. And it is a choice; to fail to take care is a choice, not just a slip of the tongue. Racial profiling is similar; those who imagine themselves to be superior deepen division by choosing to use hateful or derisive language. One way of praying with the Pope this month is to commit to watching our language, particularly towards women. ‘Fraternity leads us to open ourselves to see the Father of all and to see in the other a brother or sister, to share our lives or to support, to love and to know each other’, said Pope Francis in last month’s Pope Video. His words apply this month, too.
Three proposals for the month
- Make the Pope’s Intention for the month part of our Lenten observance. Individually we could spend some time making an examination of conscience about the language we sometimes use. Do the words, phrases and images I use about women especially, show that I see in the other a sister or brother whom I want to know and love? Or is there something less sacred at work, even if that’s just not taking enough care? Pray with this.
- Read over, think about and pray with the letter of Pope Francis, Spiritus Domini, and ponder what these changes point to. Do we believe in the church as the people of God? Or do we tolerate, or even encourage, clericalism?
- In your parish, worshipping community or town, are there facilities for women and girls who have suffered gender-based violence? Take time this month to learn about such initiatives; support them, with prayer or materially, if the lockdown allows it.
A morning offering prayer
Good and gracious God, I know that you’re with me.
Here I am on this new day.
Put my heart once more next to the heart of your son Jesus.
May your Holy Spirit make me his friend, his apostle.
I put this day into your hands: my joys and my hopes, my works and my sufferings, everything I am and I have.
With Mary I offer you my day for the mission of the church and for the intention of the Pope this month.
Our Father … Hail, Mary …
- Visit the new website, www.praywiththepope.net and sign up for the new mailing list.
- Annual Leaflet giving all the Intentions for 2021 in one place. Order on the website or by voicemail. Free to UK nations (but please contribute to P&P if you can). Bulk supplies for parishes and communities easily arranged.
- Living Prayer 2021 booklet. A few copies are still available, cost £1.75 plus P&P.
- Packs of Prayer Pathway cards to guide your prayer are available, cost £1 plus P&P (UK nations only).
- Sacred Heart Messenger is the monthly magazine of the Prayer Network/AoP from Messenger Publications in Ireland; copies/subscriptions at www.messenger.ie.