Dear Pope Francis,
When I heard that you were planning to visit the United States next year, I was almost as excited as I was to hear about the synod on the family, currently meeting in Rome. Thank you for being present to your people, in our needs. I have a few suggestions about what you, the Argentine pope with the hipster glasses, might do as next year’s trip draws near.
First, please know how moved many of us here in the States were as we read last year’s interview with America magazine. In it, the translation quotes you as saying this in response to the magazine’s question about the role of women in our church:
“It is necessary to broaden the opportunities for a stronger presence of women in the church. I am wary of a solution that can be reduced to a kind of ‘female machismo,’ because a woman has a different make-up than a man. But what I hear about the role of women is often inspired by an ideology of machismo. Women are asking deep questions that must be addressed. The church cannot be herself without the woman and her role. The woman is essential for the church. Mary, a woman, is more important than the bishops. I say this because we must not confuse the function with the dignity. We must therefore investigate further the role of women in the church. We have to work harder to develop a profound theology of the woman. Only by making this step will it be possible to better reflect on their function within the church. The feminine genius is needed wherever we make important decisions. The challenge today is this: to think about the specific place of women also in those places where the authority of the church is exercised for various areas of the church.”
Women theologians are doing the very thing you describe abound in the US, as well as in other parts of the world. To that end, I’d like to share reading with you that has been integral to my own formation as an aspiring practical theologian and practicing lay ecclesial minister in the US American context. A few of those theological texts include Elizabeth Johnson’s She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (Crossroad Publishing, 1992), Latina feminist theologian María Pilar Aquino’s La Teología, La Iglesia, y La Mujer en América Latina (Indo-American Press Service, 1994), and womanist theologian Diana Hayes’ Madaleva Lecture, Hagar’s Daughters: Womanist Ways of Being in the World (Paulist Press, 1995). These writings are hardly machista, but rather, in their particularity, they hold in common the ability to look at the church and the world from the perspective of women and seek to offer ways of engaging with injustices within them that are liberatory for all people. As mujerista theologian Ada María Isasi-Diáz has explained in her work, what is liberatory for Hispanic women will not be oppressive for others, but rather, what truly lifts up those who are oppressed will be liberatory for all people. The writings of these women remind me of the need to listen to those on the margins of our church and of our global society and to heed their needs.
When you arrive, I hope you will spend time with lay women in formation at seminaries and divinity schools around the country. Young and old, married and single, from a number of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, coming from across the spectrum of sexual orientations, these women share a desire to be of service to Christ and his community. They have a deep love for our church and a zeal for its people. I encourage you to sponsor listening sessions with them—to learn more about the “deep questions” they are asking and to share the gifts of your own experiences of gender with them. In addition, I hope you will visit our local parishes with the intention of getting to know the folks in the pews, as well as their pastoral leadership. In addition to making time for those men who have access to ordination, I urge you to hold listening sessions with those lay women leaders who are pastoral associates and catechists in parishes across the country. They serve the faithful in more capacities than I can enumerate here, and they have experiences of the ongoing conversion that is born of commitment to working so closely with the sheep of your flock to share with you.
You know well that churches in Europe and North America are losing young people with increasing rapidity. Seek them out, Holy Father. Visit public high schools, as well as those run by the dioceses and orders that serve our church. Talk with them. Learn about their hopes and dreams for their futures, as well as the grave disappointments that often have led to such distance from the practice of our common faith. Their stories of alienation and even abuse are important for you, as well as anyone in ministry in our church, to hear; they can convert us to the faith with which we sometimes struggle. We have much to learn from our teenagers and our children.
I know that you have a heart for the economically poor. Thank you for being such an outspoken advocate for their needs and for bringing conversation about the preferential option for the poor to a more central place in the Catholic community. I hope you will spend time with the poor in Catholic Worker houses and Catholic Charities offices across the country. They, too, have stories to share with you from which we all can learn and be converted.
Lastly, before and after your visit, I ask you to continue to hold the church in the United States in your prayers. In many ways, we are still reeling from the pain of sex abuse, and we are in need of the kind of ecclesial accountability that can lead to our communal healing and renewal of trust. Know how grateful we are for your ministry, how high our hopes are for your work in the church and in the world, and how close to our hearts you are as we hold you in prayer, as well.
Peace be with you,