It is Sunday in Rome. The streets are crowded with smiling tourists quietly strolling hand in hand while window shopping or eating gelato. Children are laughing and miniature terriers pull at the leashes that tether them to their owners. The homeless sit along the edges with their paper cups waiting for just one generous heart. The street musicians ply visitors with their sweet melodies.
With GPS in hand, I made my way to Mass at the Caravita Community.
Caravita is an English speaking community with a special outreach to travelers. Tourists, ambassadors, prelates, journalists, religious, educators =- a whole host of Catholics — join together each week for the Eucharist.
My friend, occasional collaborator, and former FutureChurch intern, Luke Hansen, SJ, presided today. Newly assigned as an associate at Caravita, this was his inaugural Mass in this community.
Luke has been generous in sharing his journey to the priesthood. And he has been generous in his work for women’s full participation in the Church. I have watched him navigate structures rooted in patriarchy and have been in awe of his relentless struggle for integrity, as well as, his courage, skill, and insight.
So, as I sat there watching him break bread with this community, I felt a kind of pride swell up — the kind of pride that I imagine his own mother feels seeing her son become such an exceptional human being.
Still, it was his homily that surprised me.
I expected it to be good, but it went beyond that. Luke touched my sixty-two year old heart with its bruises and wounds and gave me solace in the way that I did not expect. Tears of gratitude, grief, and joy rolled down my cheeks as he spoke clearly, uncompromisingly, and compassionately to my own experience of loss and divorce, as well as to my pain of being a woman in a Church and world that still assigns men greater value than women.
The social and religious conflicts today about the relationship between men and women, and marriage, divorce and remarriage, are not new. Today’s readings touch on several contested questions: Do the creation narratives demand patriarchy and heterosexuality, or point to human companionship characterized by equality and justice? Are women created as inferior “helpmates” to men, or equal partners in personal and social relationships? And in what circumstances is divorce permitted?
These questions relate to contemporary debates and personal experiences that shape our perspective and inform our convictions: We know divorce, its complexity, the great pain it causes, but also that it can help bring about greater safety and/or be the beginning of healing. We have gay friends: some are married or seek marriage. We know that personal and social relationships between men and women continue to be unequal: not just in some cultures but in every culture. We know about the abuse and exploitation of women, in society and the church.
It is why we have the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements and religious women marching in India and women demonstrating at the Vatican and religious women leading the way in eradicating the contemporary slavery of sex trafficking.
In this context, how do we hear the Word proclaimed today? What is the social and religious context of this Gospel story? What is going on in this debate between Jesus and the Pharisees? (It is one of many debates, by the way, with serious consequences for women, where the only participants are men.)
In the first century, under Roman role, Jewish society was changing quickly, and this affected the interpretation of biblical laws. One of these contested issues was divorce. What was at stake was membership in the covenant community.
In today’s Gospel, the Pharisees press Jesus in order to test him. They want to force him to take a side. They wanted to know: Under what conditions is divorce permissible? Some argued: only if the woman is unfaithful. But others had a more permissive view: if the woman “spoils a dish,” or the man finds a more beautiful woman.
How did Jesus respond? Jesus challenges the Mosaic law (Dt 24:1-4), saying it resulted from human frailty or “hardness of heart.” For Jesus, it is not enough to quote the ancient law, and to engage in endless debates about particular circumstances, but one must go deeper. The fidelity of a follower of Christ goes beyond what is legal or not.
So what is God’s intention for relationships? Jesus invites us to look to creation itself. Men and women were created in love, in the image of God. We are created for communion, relationship. The LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a suitable partner for him.”We are created as equals: “bone of my bones” and “flesh of my flesh.” We are meant for just relationships not only with other human beings but with all of creation. For partnership with human beings, “God formed out of the ground various wild animals and various birds of the air.”
God’s intention is not broken relationships. God’s intention is for fidelity, love, commitment. And when relationships break: God’s intention is for healing and reconciliation, whenever it is possible.
With this focus, Jesus characteristically shows attention to those who are most vulnerable to abuses of power. According to Jewish law, only men could initiate divorce. For Jesus, however, a man cannot simply divorce his wife and remarry. In fact, in doing so, he “commits adultery against her.” She is a person with dignity. She cannot be disposed of. She has a claim. Jesus puts an end to a double standard. The woman is not a possession but a partner.Jesus upholds the original equality of men and women and the belief that they become “one” in marriage.
In Genesis, the man names the woman. In doing so, he is exercising power over her. Today women are doing the naming. They are naming what they see: patriarchy, sexism, abuse of power.
We need a new paradigm. In engaging with these complex questions, we need a church that listens, especially to the experiences of women. Jesus reminds us that we cannot simply debate and apply ancient law. Jesus calls us to what is most fundamental: men and women created equal and meant for love and fidelity.
I left Caravita a little lighter and with a renewed sense that the Church can be a place of healing and wholeness for women, for LGBTQI people, for those who have suffered through a divorce, and for all who have been shamed, shunned, and excluded.
There are priests who serve and who, today, heal the broken-hearted. That is the Good News.
I’ll be back at the Vatican Press office tomorrow sharing the happenings at the synod with you.