Yesterday 70 people, mostly women, gathered at Our Lady of the Rosary parish centre, The Entrance to particpate in the Magdalene Foundation's Dignity of Women Day.
The proceedings began with an address by the National Coordinator, Mrs Jane Wilks (address see attached) who dwelt on the many teachings of John Paul II on women and marriage. She called on women in the family to heed the message of Novo Millennio Inuente to "put out into the deep" by making their homes "schools of prayer".
She also rejected the notion that "women had to imitate masculine spirituality in order to become strong and holy women". Labelling such a notion as misogynist, she instead called on women "to celebrate and explore their own feminine spirituality" which is closely linked to the service of others.
Fr. Colin Barker gave a scholarly and inspiring address on the Person and Nature of Jesus Christ, pointing out that we could learn from the heresies of the past by insisting on a balance between the Divinity and the Humanity of Jesus Christ.
The day concluded with an address by Mrs Christine McCarthy from the Society for Eucharistic Adoration. Christine explained the inspiration for her book I the Lord Am With You Always which she has just reprinted. She spoke of the deep spiritual benefits to the individual, the Parish and the Church than come from contemplating Our Lord in the Blessed Eucharist. She encouraged us all to make time for Our Lord in this way every day if we can. Her book, which many people were able to buy on the day, provides endless points for meditation in front of the Blessed Sacrament - such a useful antidote to our busy and active lives.
It was then fitting that all those assembled adjourned to the adjacent Church of Our Lady of the Rosary where the Parish Priest, Fr. Bill Stevens said Benediction.


GK Chesterton once noted that when feminism sought its objectives it destroyed the woman not the oppression. Applying this notion then to Christian feminine holiness perhaps it is time, after decades of feminist influence to rebuild the notion of what it is to be a Christian woman. So what does this really mean?

In 1995, in the International year of Women John Paul II challenged Catholic women to reflect carefully on what it means to speak of the genius of women (LTW, pt.10). The Holy Father dwelt on this concept of genius in the context of the Book of Genesis where femininity is from its inception intrinsically linked to the service of others - if you remember woman was created to be a helpmate for man and Our Lady herself at the dawn of the New Testament called herself the "handmaid of the Lord". The Holy Father then linked this notion with the key teaching from the Second Vatican Council document Guadium et Spes which said that man "cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of self". He concluded his letter by calling upon ordinary women to reveal the gift of their woman hood by placing themselves at the service of others in their everyday lives.

Yet this notion of service has caused scandal to many, particularly feminist writers who reject the notion out of hand that they should be styled as hand maidens. Instead they call for positions in the Church which, as they would have it, contain decision-making and power.

There is a feminist myth, which says that women can only become strong women by imitating men. This can be seen when there are proposals aimed at women taking over priestly functions. I think most women have moved on from this view and now see that being a strong women is about becoming truly feminine and that we do not have to view the world through masculine structures or access those structures in order to become strong and Holy women. For far too long some feminists have slavishly assumed that masculine spirituality was the only and best model while traditional feminine roles were by definition inferior. This notion has always struck me has being deeply misogynist.

Instead, women need to celebrate and explore our own truly feminine lay spirituality. The time has indeed come for the New Evangelisation, which means for women that we throw off the dress of the old rhetoric and clothe ourselves in the New Holiness. We respond best to God's love when we are loving Him with our feminine nature (just like St. Mary Magdalene) rather than trying to construct a way of being that is not true to that nature. In St. John's Gospel, St Mary Magdalene is told by Our Lord, after the Resurrection, that instead of clinging to him that she must go and tell his brothers these words "I am returning to My Father and your Father, My God and your God". Here Our Lord revealed and entrusted to St. Mary Magdalene the three great truths of our Faith: The Blessed Trinity, The Incarnation and the Redemption. Her role in the apostolate is indeed one of great honour and privilege and at the same time consistent with the original role of the woman Eve - to be of service to men as well as fulfilling the new commandment to proclaim and bear witness to Jesus Christ.
At the centre of all of this misunderstanding is the confused notion that equates service with servitude and inequality. The assumption seems to be that those who serve are less prestigious or valuable than those who make decisions or exercise power. Hence we have the feminist disparagement of that quintessential feminine manifestation of service - that of motherhood.

Yet this confusion is not peculiar to the 21st century. The Christian Faith has always been full of challenges and paradoxes. Even St. Peter at the Last Supper found it hard to comprehend the notion that Our Lord should be the one to wash the feet of his apostles - yet by doing so Our Lord turned our human hierarchy of values around and replaced them with his own. Henceforth, those who serve others are the greatest in the Kingdom of God. Yet the failure to acknowledge this teaching is central to many of the confused ideas surrounding the role of women in the Catholic church

This afternoon I would like to speak specifically about three of these areas of confusion: that of decision making, authority and power before concluding with some remarks about the vocations of the Priesthood, Marriage and motherhood.

The three words decision-making, authority and power are usually linked in the same breath. While these terms were frequently employed during discussions and media coverage in the wake of the Church's enquiry into the participation of women, they, like participation, have much the same meaning for the faithful, irrespective of gender, age or race. From the age of seven all of us make countless moral decisions every day and the extent to which we make right moral decisions is the extent to which we build up the mystical body of Christ. In every interview I gave in the wake of the publication of Woman and Man; one in Christ Jesus I was asked whether women should have more decision making power in the Church. I often flippantly replied that as a mother of seven I didn't particularly want any more decisions in my day! The exasperated response to my reply however revealed to me that the normative view of the Church for many people expressly excludes the family and the vital role that Mothers play. But lets examine this notion more closely.

Perhaps this point is best illustrated by a specific example. I serve as a member of my Parish Pastoral Council and together we recently approved the construction of a new Parish Centre, which involved the expenditure of a considerable amount of Parish funds. When the term decision making in the Church is used I suspect that this sort of decision, which I took jointly with the other PPC members, is the sort of decision that is meant. Certainly the heady mix of power and money were involved. Yet in contrast there were other decisions I made in the last hectic half hour before rushing out the door to get to the meeting on time. There were the decisions to turn off an inappropriate TV show, to remind one of my children of their responsibilities and to make the time to say some bedtime prayers with my two youngest children so that God will be the last person they think of before going to sleep. In worldly terms, the decisions at the PPC meeting would be rated more highly, maybe even chalked up as a victory for women, since there is a gender balance on our Council.

Yet how does God view this? I have no hesitation in saying that the decisions I make in relation to my vocation as a mother carry more responsibility and therefore more merit than does anything I may decide at the PPC meeting. God has entrusted the souls of my children to my care and I am answerable to Him as to how I have discharged that responsibility. Also, I hope that by nurturing the spiritual development of my children I am making a greater contribution to the life of the Church than any Parish Centre will ever do. Although I hope our new Parish Centre will bear the sorts of spiritual fruits that one can expect from a building. However, it is only human persons who have eternal value and only persons who are ends in themselves - everything else will eventually pass away.

Authority is another misunderstood word. The real purpose of authority is "to teach" yet too frequently it is associated with an abuse of power. Sometimes when I read yet another critical article about the present Holy Father and his teaching on particularly, contraception or abortion, I think that people must think of him as waking up every morning and dreaming up another new rule which has as its prime objective to stifle people's freedom. Of course the reality is completely the opposite. It is only the truth that can make us free and it is only the truth which the Holy Father speaks. The Holy Father has his authority from God and it is, in a sense a delegated authority whereby the Holy Father must discern what God wants of His Church and then put that will into practice. It is not an autonomous, capricious authority based on the personal opinions or likes of the Holy Father. Indeed, many times he no doubt exercises his authority in a way, which causes him great personal pain and suffering - yet like all of us at different times of our lives he prays "not my will but yours be done". In this sense, all authority be it that of the Holy Father, the Bishops, the priests or parents is a duty from God rather than a privilege over which we fight and argue. It has nothing at all to do with that other word that is often used in conjunction with authority and that is power. Power in a worldly sense has nothing fruitful to achieve in the Church because the process of salvation is intimately bound up with human freedom and cannot be accomplished through force or manipulation. I was stumped once when a journalist asked me where I thought the power was in the Church and at the time I said I didn't know. Yet upon reflection it occurred to me that the only power that does exist in the church in a genuine sense is that of the power of the Holy Spirit and or course for that there is no earthly equivalent.

I will now conclude with some remarks about the Priesthood, marriage and motherhood.

Some Catholic women have recently had something to say publicly about the ordained Priesthood. I would like to state publicly and emphatically here today, as the National Coordinator of a group of Catholic women, the Magdalene Foundation, that we give our complete assent to Catholic teaching that the ordained priesthood be reserved to men alone.
There is indeed much misunderstanding of the nature of the priesthood. A dogmatic pragmatism is evident in calls by some for women to hear confessions and administer the last rites, some recently going so far as to claim that they are already doing so. The argument goes that insufficient priests are causing people to die without an opportunity for the last Sacraments and therefore women in roles of hospital chaplaincy should be free to provide these services. Similar arguments are put in favour of priestless parishes and the conducting of weddings and funerals by women.

In response to these suggestions, what must be made clear is that the office of the Priesthood is not merely a collection of functions which can be devolved onto another duty statement as we may do in a corporate situation for reasons of efficiency. The Priest has the character of his soul changed at ordination such that he can act in the person of Christ. His very being has been altered and as St Thomas Aquinas has taught our "being" precedes our actions. He is a Priest not because he administers the Sacraments but because he was ordained. The Sacraments are not just a series of holy words and rituals but are in essence the transmission of grace from God to a particular soul which is why only a Priest who is acting in the Person of Christ, can authentically administer the Sacraments. This is not in any way to devalue the wonderful custom of the laity and religious prayerfully supporting a dying person or others in need and indeed we have all heard accounts of the particular expertise which religious typically have in guiding such pious efforts.

We need to be able to be very clear when doing apostolate on this point with our friends and family. It would be an injustice indeed if there resulted in a certain casualness about the importance of ensuring that a dying person has the benefit of the presence of a priest.

So what does the call to holiness mean for women in marriage? The Book of Genesis tells us that God entrusted man, the pinnacle of all his creation, to the care of woman. This privilege and responsibility is given to every married woman. Guadium et spes referred to the "outstanding courage" required of spouses "for the constant fulfillment" of their responsibilities in marriage (Part Two, Ch I, n.49) whilst the Cathechism of the Catholic Church (n 1648) also noted the heroism required for this vocation.

For this reason the best preparation for marriage is a generous heart and an endless capacity for hard work, which is in essence what is required for any vocation. The secret to a happy and lasting marriage is to ensure our hearts stay truly generous and the best way to ensure this, is to take regular advantage of the Sacraments of Penance and Holy Communion. In this way God will always supply what is lacking in our own efforts. A marriage without God is a marriage without Love. Bishop Fulton Sheen in his book Three to Get Married wrote powerfully of the connection between the love of husband, wife and God and that of the Blessed Trinity. Familiaris Consortio (n.13) meditated on the connection between Christ's Redemptive Love and married love whereby "spouses are the permanent reminder to the Church of what happened on the Cross".

Mulieris Dignitatem (n.18) reminded us that motherhood is "the fruit" of marriage. Children are entrusted by God, to the care of women, in a similar but more demanding way, as was man from the beginning. The Holy Father has described the role of mother as the "most demanding part" of parenthood for which the father "owes a special debt to the woman"(Ibid.). In a similar way we all owe a debt to Our Lady who chose to give us the chance of Eternal Life

Motherhood, more than any other vocation brings with it the greatest range of emotions and challenges. There are no guarantees when participating in the creative process. Children always bring joy and love, but they can also bring exhaustion, frustration and disappointment. Many times they fall ill and sometimes they die. Motherhood requires an immersion into the mysteries of life with a complete abandonment to Divine Providence. In a society so dominated by science, certainty and self-determination, this abandonment is something, which we must continually cultivate in the loving embrace of Our Lord.

Children and our spouses are the only things on earth we can take with us to Heaven, precisely because they aren't things at all but persons with eternal souls. There can be no greater role for a mother than to help her children come to know, love and serve God.

In Novo Millennio Inuente, The Holy Father has asked us all to put out into the deep and I think by this we all understand that he is asking us to move outside our comfort zone and come closer to the person of Jesus Christ. What can this mean specifically for Catholic mothers?

 I feel that our homes must become what the Holy Father has called schools of prayer and not just shallow prayer lest as the he says, we lapse into alternative religions and superstitions. Mothers can take advantage of the ordinary rhythms of life to introduce prayer into the Family. Meal times, bed times, car trips and commuting to and from school all lend themselves to prayer. Our family is in the habit of saying prayers to the Guardian Angle, to St Michael and Our Lady as we head out of the driveway every morning to school. I know one mother who reminds herself to pray everytime she opens the fridge door or turns the ignition of the car. If you are finding it hard to find time to say the family Rosary I suggest you ask Our Lady to help you find that time - she will be able to find what you cannot.

The other point that mothers can think about in Novo Millennio Inuente is that every family must have a bible. There are bibles that are specifically aimed at very young children with lots of pictures to capture their interest. Consider marking your child's passage into the teenage years with a Daily and Sunday Missal as well as a personal bible. If we only ever give them gifts of T shirts and CD's what sort of message are we sending them about the essential values of life. Anne Manne once wrote that she could not protect her children from life but what they might grow to love would protect them.

 The decisions a mother makes about the spiritual and moral formation of her children will always be of greater moral worth than any other decision she could make in relation to her work outside the home, no matter what it is. For this reason Familiaris Consortio(n.23) called for an overcoming of the "mentality which honours women more for their work outside the home than for their work within the family". Twenty years later this call has yet to be heard both within the Church and without.