He [Jesus] said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3 In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ 4 For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming. (Lk 18:2-5)
When I think of all that is being accomplished in terms of gender justice in the Catholic Church these days, I think of the many “pesky” Catholics who cared enough to be a “bother”. In the interminably slow grind toward systemic change in the institutional Church, those with authority sometimes fit Luke’s description of the judge perfectly. There are people who care little for anything other than preserving their corner on power. Yet, Luke reminds us that even those vested with authority - especially those who close themselves off, will not have the last word. Those who are vulnerable, without institutional power -- the “pesky” widows -- will come calling – causing trouble, wearing down the comfortable and disrupting systems that no longer bring life.
On May 12, 2016, in response to questions from the “pesky” women of the International Union of Superiors General (UISG), Pope Francis agreed to set up a commission to study the restoration of women deacons. And in short order by any Vatican standard, on August 2ndhe announced that the commission would be composed of six women and six men, including world renown expert, Phyllis Zagano. Good news for Catholics who are eager to see women deacons restored, Zagano is another “pesky” woman whose appointment is a sign that Francis is willing to listen, learn and explore the possibilities beyond the previous conclusions of a small group of high level naysayers within the Vatican.
Catholics received more good news on June 3, 2016, when the Congregation for Divine Worship issued a new decree at the behest of Pope Francis, raising the celebration of St. Mary Magdalene from a memorial to a feast day. That decree established her as an equal among her peers – the apostles. The news was another sign that the patriarchal norms that have governed our Church no longer suffice as a way forward. Elated Catholics around the world celebrated with a renewed sense of hope that true equality in the Catholic Church is achievable.
Pope Francis deserves credit for his decision to create a commission to study women deacons and for his efforts to officially reboot the Church’s understanding of Mary of Magdala, but honestly, he is reaping the wisdom, witness and work of many Catholic women and men who, long before his election were surfacing a new consciousness for women’s equality. They untangled the true history of women leaders like Mary of Magdala from the destructive images and tales that delegitimized their authority, reminded us of how many women feel called to be deacons, and prepared the ground for a life-sustaining future when women can lead and govern as equals alongside their brothers in the Church.
So, today, I, along with thousands of Catholics around the world, celebrate what Pope Francis has done to create a more incisive female presence in the Church. But more than that, I celebrate the vision and pioneering work of women like Sr. Chris Schenk, Phyllis Zagano, Marie Graf and the earliest dreamers, prophets and laborers who cared enough to be a “bother” and who laid the foundation for these noteworthy developments. They dreamed new dreams, healed old wounds and tenaciously carried forward the vision, even when it was lonely, so that the Church might be whole, holy and more fully equipped to carry out the work of the Gospel.