By Marnie McAllister, Record Editor
FERDINAND, Ind. — When Pope Francis called for “a more incisive female presence” in the church in his 2013 apostolic exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel,” women in the church took notice. And a handful of women in Southern Indiana took action.
They began organizing a conference focused on female leadership in the church and brought it to fruition Oct. 7 to 9. About 250 women and a handful of men — including more than a dozen people from the Archdiocese of Louisville — gathered for the “Women of the Church” conference at Monastery Immaculate Conception Church in Ferdinand, Ind. The event was sponsored by the Benedictine Sisters of Ferdinand and St. Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology in St. Meinrad, Ind.
While participants were interested in fostering female leadership in the church, the focus of the weekend steered clear of female ordination. Instead, the conference buzzed with the notion that leadership in the church flows from baptism.
Conference co-chairs —Benedictine Sister Jeana Visel and Dr. Kimberly Baker, both on the faculty of St. Meinrad — pointed to the Second Vatican Council document “Lumen Gentium” to explain this notion. Chapter IV, which focuses on the laity, explains that lay faithful “are in their own way made sharers in the priestly, prophetical, and kingly functions of Christ; and they carry out for their own part the mission of the whole Christian people in the Church and in the world.”
Pope Francis also discussed this in “The Joy of the Gospel,” in which he points out that the reservation of priesthood to men “can be especially divisive if sacramental power is too closely identified with power in general. It must be remembered that when we speak of sacramental power ‘we are in the realm of function, not that of dignity or holiness.’ ”
Baker, an associate professor of church history at St. Meinrad, said, “This isn’t new, but the message isn’t out there. It flows very naturally from Vatican II. It’s something the church has been speaking about for a long time. I think Pope Francis has given a fullness to the message.”
Echoing the pope’s message, conference speaker Dr. Kathleen Sprows Cummings posed this question: “Do ordination and leadership need to be fused the way they are?”
Cummings, a historian at the University of Notre Dame, was one of three keynote speakers during the conference. She was joined by Dr. Carolyn Woo, the outgoing president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services, which is the international aid agency of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The conference’s final keynote was presented by Dominican Sister of Peace Mary Catherine Hilkert, a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.
Woo, whose talk centered on her own journey as a female leader in the church, noted that she had trouble imagining herself as a church leader because she had few examples to follow. She drew strength and inspiration, she said, from the Maryknoll Sisters who taught her in Hong Kong, where she was a refugee from China.
Sister Hilkert repeated the emphasis on the baptismal call and encouraged her listeners also to draw strength from the gifts of the Holy Spirit. She noted that throughout Scripture, God entrusted his word to the entire church — men and women. For the church to be whole, she said, all people must be able to share their gifts.
Sister Visel, conference co-chair, said in an interview after the conference ended that she and the other organizers “are so grateful for the work women have done (in the church) and the way they have paved the way for us.”
While all of the keynote speakers were female, a handful of men had a voice at the conference. One of the break-out sessions was led by Dr. Edward Hahnenberg of John Carroll University in Ohio. And two prelates took part in a question-and-answer session — Bishop Charles C. Thompson of the Evansville, Ind., diocese and Cardinal-designate Joseph W. Tobin of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.
The cardinal-designate’s appointment to the College of Cardinals had not yet been announced when he appeared at the conference Oct. 8. He and Bishop Thompson answered a variety of questions related to the role of women in their dioceses and in the wider church. The questions were culled by conference organizers from about 40 queries submitted by conference participants.
Both men acknowledged that there was room for improvement in their dioceses and in the church. Cardinal-designate Tobin encouraged his listeners to help church leaders recognize ways women can and do contribute to the church. “We don’t always see or hear what’s there. Point it out. Sometimes we’re not aware,” he said.
He also encouraged women to enroll in programs like St. Meinrad’s lay degree program, where they can receive the training they need to earn leadership roles in the church, he said.
Janet Millen, who helped organize the conference and also serves on the staff of Catholic Charities of Louisville, graduated from St. Meinrad a couple of years ago with a master’s degree in pastoral theology.
After graduating and beginning her job search, she said, “I was trying to find a place to be welcomed.” She soon became frustrated, “feeling the doors were closed.” But then she became involved with planning the Women of the Church conference.
Millen said she felt affirmed and supported by the women she encountered in planning and executing the event.
“It’s been a process of healing,” she said, adding that her job as the volunteer coordinator at Catholic Charities has also been affirming for her.
More than anything, she added, “It’s powerful to find out there is another level of educated women” in the church, of whom she wasn’t aware. “It’s been really eye-opening to see what women are doing.”