Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Women's Cultures, Women's Stories

The Pontifical Council for Culture is holding its next Assembly in February 2015 on the theme of Women's Cultures: Equality and Difference. There is much to be welcomed about this initiative, not least because it seems that some of the invited participants are women who will challenge established stereotypes and raise issues not normally addressed at such gatherings. It is also further evidence that the more enlightened members of the hierarchy are slowly putting into practice Pope Francis's repeated insistence on the need to examine women's roles and contributions to the life of the Church.

As part of the preparations for the February Assembly, women have been invited to submit a photograph or a one minute video message to be considered for inclusion in the programme. However, the promotional video used to publicise this idea has caused considerable consternation. It is further evidence (if any were needed!) of just how out of touch Rome is with the realities of ordinary women's lives.

Yet whatever the obstacles and struggles, I am convinced that this is a vital year for women in the Church. Not only is there the forthcoming Assembly on Cultures of Women where at least there has been some effort - however bungled - to solicit contributions from women, but the Synod on the Family in October 2015 will be a decisive event with far-reaching consequences for Catholic women's lives. The Lineamenta, which is available to download on the Vatican website, includes a questionnaire that once again seeks to solicit a wide range of views from across the Church.

I believe that we women must take whatever opportunities are offered to us to respond to these invitations and to speak out in the hopes of being heard. We must also share our contributions and responses so that they do not disappear into an engulfing silence if we are saying what some of the men in Rome would rather not hear. With this in mind, I have started a Facebook group - 'Catholic Women Speak' - which has attracted nearly two hundred members in a few days. I have also spent a ridiculous amount of time putting together a video submission in response to the invitation from the Pontifical Council for Culture.

I trawled through my photographs from the last fifteen years, when my new vocation as a Catholic theologian began to jostle for time, space and meaning in the context of my more timeworn and familiar ways of living and loving as a daughter, a sister, a friend, a wife, a mother, and more recently a grandmother. I gathered together snapshots - all either taken by me or with me in them - which are simply a glimpse into the vast diversity of one woman's relationships, encounters and friendships. I decided to take a certain liberty with the time limit and to double it to two minutes, but even then I can offer only the most fragmented and fleeting images of women and girls I have had the privilege of knowing - some of whom are among my deepest loves, others whom I have only met briefly along the way.

There are photographs of my mother, my sisters, my mother-in-law, my daughter, my sisters-in-law, my daughters-in-law, some of my nieces, my most beloved friends and more distant acquaintances, my students, my colleagues and other theologians. There are pictures of women and girls on the margins whose lives have touched mine in different ways, and who have left an indelible imprint on how I do theology and how I understand my faith. There are married women and single women, women in religious orders, straight women and gay women, rich women and poor women, young girls whose lives are just beginning, and others whose faces bear the noble signs of growing old with grace and dignity. Some of these people have died since their photographs were taken, others struggle on against formidable odds. Many who should be there are not, simply because I ran out of time in looking for images to use.

I offer this as a different way of representing women and girls from that promotional video issued by Rome. There are most certainly some bubbly young blonde women in the Church - thank God - who could easily appear in advertisements for feminine hygiene products, shampoo or cornflakes. In this particular case, perhaps the model was chosen to represent 'feminine genius' - a term Pope Francis frequently borrows from Pope John Paul II. But we females come in many shapes and sizes, we represent many ages and stages in life, we come from many cultures and contexts, and we have many stories to tell. Our stories have not yet been listened to, acknowledged, respected and represented by the Catholic hierarchy and its carefully selected female spokeswomen and cover girls.

My video does not tell any story, but it shows the faces of women and girls who have stories to tell. I offer it as a tribute to those untold stories, and to the ways in which these people are part of my story, in great and small ways. Every photo here awakens a memory, an emotion, a desire, a prayer. I hope you enjoy sharing these faces of wisdom and beauty with me.


  1. "... as a daughter, a sister, a friend, a wife, a mother, and more recently a grandmother."
    What about as a tutor?...Don't forget that...as a teacher and role model to female students as illustrated on the SCM video 2012.

  2. I note the date you posted this, Tina. Jan 6th in Ireland was known as "Women's Christmas". The theory was that was the day when we put up our feet and the menfolk ran the house for the day ...

    Thanks for posting, this had passed me by.


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