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Called to Service: Women and the New Evangelization

Cheridan Sanders

Monday, November 25, 2013

This past weekend, I had the great honour to speak at the Inaugural Women's Conference for the Archdiocese of Vancouver. It was a soulful and joyful experience to be gathered together with women of faith from all walks of life, sharing and learning together. After the talk, several women inquired if the talk would be available online. So without further delay, please find the full-text below.
Ladies, we as the Church face a big problem. I know that everyone one of you has been frustrated at one point or another.
Maybe you’re a mother and you have a teenage daughter who you desperately want to come to mass with you, but she’s not interested. You ask her to pray the rosary - she couldn't care a less. She thinks you're pious and old-fashioned. That's frustrating.
Or maybe you like me have this friend, she’s such a good person but she keeps looking for love in all the wrong places. Its relationship after relationship, and there’s so much heartache. I try to talk to her about coming to Mass but she doesn’t feel that those "church people" would understand her. Frustrating...
Or maybe you're like me, everyday on my way to work I walk by a magazine rack and on it are all these beautiful women in their underwear and I know that's not me and that's not what I look like. But there’s so much pressure to conform and that’s frustrating.
In all these cases, we’re seeing the effects of the world’s influence, forming how we perceive ourselves tying our value to how we look. All the while suggesting that life outside the Church is more exciting, more fulfilling, more real than life inside the Church.
And as mothers, friends, family inside the Church you want to reach out to them. But, truth be told, you’re struggling too, and you just don’t know how to...
So how are we are we supposed to form the next generation of Catholic young women when it seems that that's [images of magazine covers] are all that they seem to be interested in?
Here’s the problem.
There are two forces that are trying to form women today. One force is that of the world and the other force is God, which do you think is winning?
Personally, I think that for a long time the message of the world has been sold more successfully than the message of Christ.
How do we know this? Because when it comes to the Catholic Church and women – all we ever hear about is what women can’t do in the Church. I found myself in this exact situation during the papal transition when I was asked to give my thoughts on the significance of Pope Benedict’s resignation on national television. Instead of talking about the resignation and what this meant for us as Catholics, I was bombarded with questions about when will we ordain women, when will the Church change its views on abortion and contraception. It was clear that underlying all of these questions was the assumption that if the Church had a perspective on these issues much like the world we would we would be engaging young women in the Church.
So how is it that these issues came to define women’s value in society?
Because the Church hasn’t been framing the discussion, Satan has. I know what you’re thinking … whoa, whoa, whoa – Cheridan where are you going with this?!! I know, I know. Nobody likes to talk about Satan these days. But Pope Francis talks about him and in fact, in the book "On Heaven and Earth," the then Cardinal Bergoglio said, "I believe that the devil exists" and "his greatest achievement in these times has been to make us believe he doesn't exist."
So there you have it, Satan does exist – the Pope said so!.
But in all seriousness; let us take a moment to remember who Satan is. Satan was, before he fell, the most beautiful of the angels until he started to see himself as worthy of worship like God and we all know the rest of the story…
But here’s what’s important to remember: Satan was an angel and he knows the human heart and he knows we’re vulnerable to the same temptations that he himself succumbed to. Satan knows how to capture our attention. He knows how to captivate us, how to enthrall us. How to dazzle us. There’s a reason why every Lent we renew our baptismal vows by promising to reject Satan and all his works and all his empty promises. Make no mistake - it's battlefield, and its your soul that's at stake.
Because Satan knows us how to seduce us away from the path that leads us to God. How does he do it? He lies. He tells us, buy those clothes and people will respect and like you more, lose more weight and you'll be sexier and happier, sleep with him and you’ll keep him.
I’m not even going to touch gossip, envy, jealousy and the hundred other things that tear us women apart. As Pope Francis says the fruits of the devil are always destruction: division, hate and slander. And when you think about it, aren’t women under attack? Our friendships, our families, our relationships, our bodies, our souls.
So, if that's true why then aren’t women following Christ? Because, they never heard the message.
Father Cantalamessa preacher to the papal household recently shared this short story by Franz Kafka titled "An Imperial Message". Its a powerful religious metaphor and I think it perfectly characterizes the problem we face as the Church when it comes proclaiming the Good News. It speaks of a king who, on his deathbed, calls to his side a subject and whispers a message into his ear. So important is that message that he makes the subject repeat it, in turn, into his hear. Then, with a nod, he sends off the messenger, who sets out on his way. So the messenger…
"Now pushing with his right arm, now with his left, he cleaves a way for himself through the throng; if he encounters resistance he points to his breast, where the symbol of the sun glitters. But the multitudes are so vast; their numbers have no end. If he could reach the open fields how fast he would fly, and soon doubtless you would hear the welcome hammering of his fists on your door. But instead how vainly does he wear out his strength; still he is only making his way through the chambers of the innermost palace; never will he get to the end of them; and if he succeeded in that nothing would be gained; he must next fight his way down the stair; and if he succeeded in that nothing would be gained; the courts would still have to be crossed; and after the courts the second outer palace; and so on for thousands of years; and if at last he should burst through the outermost gate—but never, never can that happen—the imperial capital would lie before him, the center of the world, crammed to bursting with its own sediment. Nobody could fight his way through here even with a message from a dead man.
But you sit at your window when evening falls and dream it to yourself”.
Do you see what he is saying here? The truth of the gospel, the message that we’re trying to get out there into the world hasn’t been making it into people’s hearts. Why?
Because we still struggle to find a way of making the Christian way of life which is geared to our ultimate destiny more appealing than the world’s way of life. And unwittingly, or intentionally we’re just not cooperating with the Holy Spirit, we’re not letting the messenger get through. We’re too busy looking after our own priorities, not God’s.
So how do we cooperate with God so that it is the Christian way of life that people are seeking after and not the world’s?
I think the poet John Keats puts the answer to this question most simply – Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty.
So what am I trying to say here? Whether people know it or not what they really want are not lies but the truth, obviously. Because the truth is beautiful; and the way to reveal to people the meaningfulness of the truth is through beauty.
Ok, so ask yourself, what do we find most beautiful? What really captivates our heart? Is it that striking spread in Vogue or something like the Sermon on the Mount? Weird comparison, right? But in all seriousness, what would strike you as more beautiful? What would be more likely to captivate people’s attention?
We as Catholics know that that Sermon on the Mount is life-giving that it points to a beautiful world, a world where we all want to live in. That’s the truth. And yet that’s not the world we live in, is it? Why?
If we know that the Sermon on the Mount is the means by which we build a better world, why is it taking us so long to build a better world? I’ll tell ya.
It’s because the beauty we so often seek, doesn’t lead us to the truth.
And that begs the question: so how do we make the truth more beautiful than the lies of the world?
By placing value on what really matters.
So who do we look to as exemplars of people who have made this important distinction their way of life.
Answer: Mary and the Saints.
Mary is the icon of the Church and also the exemplar for every disciple. What is it about this young Jewish girl that makes her so very special – well, actually there’s a lot! But for the sake of this argument, I’ll distill it into this cogent saying from our Lord Jesus Matt 12 v46-50 “whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” So Mary is the person who heard the Word of God and listened to it. She said “yes” and from that moment on in the everyday activities of her life all the way to standing at the foot of the Cross she lived in profound union with the living Word of God. Mary responded to God’s generosity and love with acceptance – she said yes.
So who can we say that has lived this reality in our modern context, who has faced the challenges we all face and is counted among the saints?
First, a young Italian pediatrician and mother, Gianna Beretta Molla who died in 1962 at the age of 39, leaving behind her husband and four young children. In September, 1961, toward the end of the second month of pregnancy with her fourth child, Gianna had to make a heroic decision.
Physicians diagnosed a serious fibroma in the uterus that required surgery. The surgeon suggested that she undergo an abortion in order to save her life. She chose not to undergo the abortion and a few days before the child was due, she told the physician “If you must decide between me and the child, choose the child – I insist on it. Save the baby.”
Gianna in many ways is a woman we can all relate to because she loved culture, fashion and beauty. She played piano, enjoyed mountain climbing, attended the symphony, and enjoyed traveling.
Her decision to save her daughter at the end of her life is not the sole reason for her sainthood however. Rather her decision was the natural culmination of an extraordinary life of virtue and holiness, selflessness and joy. From a very early age Gianna was involved in Catholic Action, and charitable work with the elderly and needy through the St. Vincent de Paul society. After medical school she established a clinic which gave special attention to mothers, babies, the elderly and the poor. Her whole life was lived in a way that spoke of a consistent ethic of life, of everyday holiness. St. Gianna is certainly not the first laywoman and mother to be canonized, but the fact that she lived in our times, and that she was a mother and women like one of us makes her witness real. It means something – it makes holiness desirable and a plausible way of life. The beauty of her life makes the truth that guided her life accessible for the rest of us.
The second example I would like to hold up to is Dorothy Day.
She is a remarkable woman of our times. Born in Brooklyn, New York at the turn of the century Dorothy wasn’t baptized or raised in the church. After dropping out of college, she pursued the radical causes of her day: women’s suffrage, free love, labour unions, and social revolution. But when a decade of protest and social action failed to produce changes she sought she converted to the Catholic Church. Her life was filled with friendships with famous artists and writers. But like so women today, she also suffered terribly. She experienced failed love affairs, an abortion and a suicide attempt.
The triggering event for Dorothy’s conversion was the birth of her daughter, Tamar in 1926. She viewed the birth of her daughter as a sign of forgiveness from God…and in response to this profound experience of God’s generosity, love and mercy Dorothy converted. For 50 years, Dorothy lived with the poor, conducted conferences, and published a newspaper. She dedicated her life to fighting for justice, defending life, and was co-founder the Catholic Worker Movement. She established seventy-five houses of hospitality during her lifetime. Dorothy was a modern day women, who made many of the mistakes that modern women make, but her story speaks volumes about God’s mercy and forgiveness and the power of repentance and conversion.
And the third example of women whose witness can inspire us, is closer to home. But I don’t want to talk about their story … let me show you.
The Marian Centre in Edmonton, Alberta helps us to enter into this new way of seeing and a bold encouragement to go out into the periphery, to the margins.
As beautiful as their witness is, it’s equally important to celebrate and take inspiration from those around us who are not yet saints but have made the brave choices and are trying to live their life in a way that makes the new evangelization a reality for all of us. The first is Sara Michel a regional animator for Development and Peace for the Alberta/ Fort McKenzie area. I heard Sara Michel’s testimony while attending the Nothing More Beautiful series in Edmonton. During her talk, Sara Michel shared how she left a lucrative and high-paying job with the Government to work for Development Peace and she told of her accompanying faith journey. As a peer, I was evangelized and inspired by her example. Here’s someone who is struggling with the same questions and pressures that I am but is bravely trying to live this reality in a way that makes sense.
Another person who I think is putting the new evangelization on the map is Alicia Ambrosio, a fellow producer at Salt + Light, and a local Vancouver girl. Raised Catholic with a passion for journalism and for the Church she has in her own way decided to bridge the gap between what the Church says and how it’s perceived. This past year, she launched a weekly show called Vatican Connections. On this show she helps demystify the Vatican’s inner workings. Interestingly enough, she has since been called upon regularly by the secular media to speak to important Vatican questions. And so, she’s helping to reshape the conversation about the Church and also providing a powerful witness to those inside and outside the Church. Her innovation in this area is that she’s the only female Catholic reporter doing this in Canada, and that she’s been able to establish good relations with both catholic and secular news outlets. All this means, is that the message is going to get out sooner. And it’s working, because the show is so popular now that it we’ve got French and Chinese versions (the Chinese version being watched in mainland China- which in itself is miraculous). Something every woman (and man) in this diocese can be very proud of!
So how can we likewise contribute to reshaping the conversation about the Church – how can we become new evangelists? Truth be told, this requires some savvy and one of the leaders in the new evangelization is Fr. Robert Barron of Word On Fire Ministries and also the Rector of Mundelein Seminary in Chicago.
Here are 7 traits of the New Evangelist.
Father Robert Barron show us how we can adopt the traits of the new evangelist. But there’s more, we also as women have unique role in the new evangelization.
Pope Francis said recently when addressing the Women’s Section of the Pontifical Council for the Laity that there are two dangers when it comes to talking about women and her vocation. Both extremes destroy her vocation. The first is to reduce maternity to a social role so that although noble, women are set aside and are not valued for their contribution to the building of community. The second is a reaction to the first and it’s the promotion of a type of freedom which says that in order to be equal we must assume the same roles as men and we must behave like men, requiring us to abandon the traits that make us feminine.
We can see how neither way of speaking of women is life-giving and tapping into the full potential that we have to offer as women. So how does the Church understand her daughters?
Let me read you the opening lines of the Closing Letter to Women from the Second Vatican Council
"… As you know, the Church is proud to have glorified and liberated woman, and in the course of the centuries, in diversity of characters, to have brought into relief her basic equality with man. But the hour is coming, in fact has come, when the vocation of woman is being achieved in its fullness, the hour in which woman acquires in the world an influence, an effect and a power never hitherto achieved. That is why, at this moment when the human race is under-going so deep a transformation, women impregnated with the spirit of the Gospel can do so much to aid mankind in not falling."
How’s that for a mission statement? – it concludes saying that it is up to women to help make the truth sweet, tender and accessible…
And why is it important to make the truth sweet, tender and accessible? Sr. Mary Lou Wirtz of the Franciscan Sisters Daughters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary and President of the International Union of General Superiors had this to say at the recent Synod.
"Today there are people of our Catholic faith and tradition who are hurting. Some have already left our institutional church because they cannot find a place to belong, or they no longer find sufficient meaning for their lives. Others remain within the church, but are also struggling and searching for something that nourishes their soul, for a pastoral presence to help them work through the challenges of today’s world. …How can we meet the needs of our society today if we are not open to listening to those among us who are hurting, and to those living on the margins? …When Blessed Pope John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council he said that the church was to become 'more pastoral and merciful'. Yet today, some who when they turn to the church in the midst of their pain, are alienated by judgmental attitudes or issues of power and control. This only pushes them further away. Can we allow ourselves to enter into the pain of our people?"
So that’s our challenge. As lay women, women religious, consecrated virgins, wives, mothers, young girls, we need to reach out, to love without measure, to invite and make the truth accessible, sweet and tender. We’ve got to turn to those in need and enter into their pain - and with compassion, joy and tenderness show them The Way. Then will we know who we truly are, who we are destined to be.
Or to borrow some words from, Sister Gill Goulding a professor of theology at Regis College, University of Toronto another expert at the Synod “the new evangelization brings to life the central message of the Second Vatican Council, this universal call to holiness” and I quote “and it’s not a universal call to holiness because I need to follow x-number of rules, but it’s a call to respond in love to the Lord who loves” That’s what lies at the heart of the New Evangelization.
And here I want to speak specifically to lay women. The Second Vatican Council’s call to universal call to holiness is for me and for you, and if the secular world keeps imagining the Church as just the hierarchy of men then it’s because we need to promote our vocation as women and as lay people more. And its not just me who is saying this, take a listen to this:
The importance of women and the promotion of the lay person go hand-in-hand.It’s time for us to love the Church back to life, and in doing so love society back to life.
So how do we get our daughters, and girlfriends, and our families back? Let me sum it up for you: show them what constitutes real beauty; and in that they’ll find the saving truth Jesus Christ proclaims.
Three million people attend World Youth Day closing Mass on Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro
But if you ever find yourself doubting whether or not the forces of good will triumph over the evil, look to examples like World Youth Day where I saw millions of young women focused on the source of all beauty: Jesus Christ. Young women who yearn to be saints; young women who are in love with the truth; young women committed to this new evangelization.
Polish pilgrims react as pope announces that Krakow will host World Youth Day 2016
Photo credit: CNS

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