I have been feeling like there is no room for me in the Catholic Church. The feeling ebbs and flows, but it has been persistent for more than a few years now.
Having moved to a new city in the wake of the Pennsylvania Report, I tried attending Mass at a local Catholic parish. In making my way there, I was keenly aware of my need for community with other Catholics, as well as my need for someone in a position of leadership in the church “to bring a word,” as my formerly American Baptist and more recently Episcopalian friend is fond of saying about poignant and challenging preaching that connects with the hearts of those who hear it. I went to Mass, in the hopes that the priest who was presiding would “bring a word” about sex abuse. I wanted him not to ignore it, to speak about it in a way that acknowledges its impact on the Catholic community, especially those who have lived through its horrors, to preach about it in a way that truly repents not only for the initial wrongdoing, but also for the system that enabled and perpetuated its hiddenness.
I encountered no such word at Mass that day. When the homily ended, I looked around the church to see that it was packed. I had arrived during the proclamation of the psalm and had snagged one of the few open seats in the wings. I saw children sitting with their parents and crawling around the pews in the very back, as well as young people in their college sweatshirts throughout the congregation, and I saw how racially diverse the parish was. I felt encouraged by the diversity I saw among the laypeople at Mass, but I could not help but wonder whether or not any one of the people sitting in those pews felt as disheartened as I had by the homily, which had had more to say about 2nd-century Corinth than it did about how what had happened in the Christian community there might equip us to deal with the challenges of the present day.
As I walked back to my car, hot tears started to sting as they formed in my eyes and threatened to roll down my cheeks. I was disappointed, and I was angry. I had needed something I hadn’t received. What I had needed had not even been put on offer.
Not long afterward, I traveled to Rome to be a part of a panel for the symposium that the leadership of Catholic Women Speak had organized in honor of the release of Visions and Vocations (Paulist Press, 2018). Both the release of the book and the event itself had been timed to take place just ahead of the Synod on Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment, which would take place at the Vatican later that week. I spoke about my essay in the book very briefly as part of a panel that included women from Scotland/Pakistan, Sierra Leone, Jamaica, South Africa, Poland, and the United States. As importantly, I listened to the comments of the other members of that panel, as well as the speakers who presented throughout the day, the vast majority of whom were women. Here was this group of women who had come from literally all over the world, and over and over again, I heard what became a refrain: I struggle to find my voice, and when I use it to speak on my own part and on the part of others who are being oppressed in the church to which I belong, rarely do I encounter an adequate response.
As I built community with the women who had gathered for the symposium, I started to realize that I was beginning to encounter the kind of ecclesial community I had sought in Austin. Halfway across the world, in the defense hall of the Antonianum, and later over rich pasta in a restaurant around the corner, I had “heard a word,” as my friend might say.
Had hearing that word been the sum total of my experience in Rome, it would have been more than worth the resources spent for me to attend the symposium. But the Holy Spirit had more to show me during my travels abroad.
A friend who is a Jesuit priest studying at the Gregorian offered to show me around a few of the churches in his neighborhood later that week. I happily accepted and followed my friend around the stone streets near the Pantheon, into the parish where he works, through the rooms of Ignatius of Loyola, including the one in which Ignatius convalesced and died, and into the Church of the Gesu, where Ignatius is buried.
Wholly unplanned, we landed not far from the Basilica Santa Maria sopra Minerva, which holds the tomb of Catherine of Siena. On we went, past where the Inquisitors had questioned Galileo Galilei, past Bernini’s last sculpture, and into the basilica, the white walls of which are nondescript from the outside. As we entered the basilica, I felt calm and quiet and small. My friend shared with me how powerful it had been for him to pray next to her tomb, and he showed me the place where she is interred. The church on its inside was just as ornate as any other we had been in that morning, but all I could take in was the statue of her likeness, which was softly lit and lying prone behind the glass.
A gentleman was kneeling at her tomb, his fingers moving gently over his rosary, the familiar words of its accompanying prayers coming from his mouth. He looked so earnest, I remember asking my friend, “Do you think it’s ok for me to kneel a little further off to his side?” I was moved by what I saw, but I was unsure of the etiquette of this place that was so new to me, and I didn’t want to disrupt this man’s prayer. My friend said it would be quite fine, and each of us climbed the steps to the kneelers on opposite sides of the man with his rosary.
As I kneeled down to pray, I made the Sign of the Cross and finally shared my wounds with God. Without a rosary to guide me, I confided in God about the pain I have felt for so long—the pain of feeling that there is not a place for me within the church to share the gifts He has given me; of feeling pushed out from ministerial work I had cherished; of feeling that what I do with my brain as a Catholic theologian should not be shared too broadly, out of fear that it could be viewed as more of a liability for my future employment than an asset to my ecclesial community. I told Him about how curious I am about what might happen if I had access to an ecclesial community that could nurture the gifts He has given me, that could give me a place to practice skills I’d like to develop to be of more use to His people.
In weeping and kneeling alongside the place where Catherine was buried, I began to feel a kinship with her. I remembered the bits and pieces I knew of the story of her life, a life that was deeply committed to God and the church in her efforts to reform the latter, a witness that was not recognized fully until after her death. And I realized that, like many women doctors of the church, she did not wait for someone else to make room for her gifts to shine. She created the space she sought. In those moments of kinship with her, I felt God inviting me to follow in her footsteps, in my own small way, to make the space I need, the space in our church I am called to occupy.