Saturday, 27 August 2011

Towards the Future in Hope: Women Remaking the Church

Last week I attended the summer school of Andante - the European Alliance of Catholic Women's Organisations. I was invited to give a paper on the theme of the future. I called it 'Towards the Future in Hope:Women Remaking the Church' - click on the link to read it.

The conference was held in a beautiful Franciscan retreat centre in Reute, Germany, and it brought together more than seventy women from all over wider Europe - defined not in terms of EU membership but in terms of a deeply rooted Catholicism which continues to melt and blur the boundaries of national identity across Europe, for better or worse. The group represented a broad spectrum of European Catholicism - from rich and poor communities, from eastern and western Europe. It included women who derive great security and reassurance from traditional Catholicism, as well as those who are frustrated and longing for change. There were young Albanian women - full of energy and conviction - who work with trafficked women and who mourn over the disintegration of their society, yet who brought an amazing vitality to our gathering. There were women from Slovakia, Latvia, Romania, Poland, Germany, France, Holland, England and Wales, holding in creative tension our many differences and our shared visions. We sometimes forget what a miracle modern Europe is. Who would have thought, thirty years ago, that such apparently impenetrable borders and divisions would have dissolved so quickly, and with far less violence than we might have anticipated with our nuclear stockpiles and cold war rhetoric?

The three official languages were German, French and English, and a group of dedicated interpreters made it possible for us to communicate across linguistic boundaries, from prepared interpretations of plenary papers, to ad hoc interpretations of the meaning of the dances we were taught by a light-footed young German nun whose habit swirled and billowed as she joyously taught us a theological language that has no need of words.

Here is something I learned from those intepreters. There's a difference between interpretation, which is about the spoken word, and translation, which is about the written word. Interpretation requires a capacity to translate gesture and intonation, to communicate the immediacy of what is being said in all its spontaneity. They were good-humoured but straightforward in complaining about my delivery of my paper. They had had the script in advance, but it was a dense paper and I hadn't realized that translating English into French and German requires more time, because the phrases and forms of expression are longer. Even although I spoke at what felt like a snail's pace in terms of my usual delivery, they complained loudly that I was much too fast! These small considerations need to be borne in mind, as we increasingly try to speak to one another across cultural, linguistic and theological differences.

We had dialogue groups of women from different countries, and every group was identified by a long velvet sash in a different colour of the rainbow. When we walked into the room every morning, the chairs had been arranged in circles, each with its sash in the middle, draped around a stone. When a woman wanted to speak in her group, she held the stone so that she couldn't be interrupted - perhaps a strategy one needs more with women's groups than men's! During the plenary sessions, the scarves were gathered up and spread in a rainbow in the centre of the room. I couldn't help comparing all this with the way men organise conferences when they are in charge. Are these aesthetic differences and preferences a mark of superficial differences between men and women, or are they simply the tip of an iceberg? Are women and men fundamentally alike in our desires, hopes, fears and ways of being in the world, or are we fundamentally different? We talked about these questions, but of course we have no answers. Only the men in the Vatican seem to have certain answers to such questions. The rest of us are more tentative and unsure.

On the last night of the conference, we had a cultural dinner to which everyone contributed something from her own country's cuisine. We had a wonderful musician to entertain us - an expert on regional musical instruments going back to the time of Christ and before, whose eclectic mix of instruments included a bicycle pump with a cork on the end, on which one of the participants accompanied him during a raucous song. He taught us a dance, and later we moved to another room where that young Franciscan sister led us in the most beautiful and serene circle dances. There was one man among us - the Franciscan priest who was celebrating Mass the next morning. I think he had a wonderful time.

One of the afternoons was set aside for activities, which included a choice of archery, dancing, pilgrimage, building a maze or preparing a liturgy. The retreat house had a maze in the grounds, and I discovered the quiet and subtle pleasure of coiling around one's thoughts, spiralling through pathways lined with fragrant shrubs and jewelled flowers, to enter into the heart of the maze with its encircling hedge, and then gradually to retrace one's path to the outer world. 

I don't want to idealise or romanticise all this. There were moments of animosity and tension. There were clearly deep cultural and theological differences which sometimes spilled over into irritated exchanges. It was hard not to be aware of the economic differences which cut deep divisions within and between European states. But none of that detracted from the sense of having joined hands with Europe's Catholic women at this time of crisis and challenge, and of having discovered so many sources of wisdom, humour and hope, rooted in a faith which unites us in spite of our differences.

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