When the Association of Catholic Women was started more than 20 years ago, it was partly in response to the sense of confusion created by the strident campaigning of some extreme feminists. There were repeated and insistent statements that “Catholic women”—by implication, large numbers of us—were hurt, angry, and frustrated by the teachings of the Church. We were endlessly told that women felt unloved by the Church and marginalized in Catholic life.
I can still remember the sense of enthusiasm in the room when a good number of us came together to talk about what we really believed concerning these things. We looked at Church teachings in a number of crucial areas, notably those concerning marriage and family life. We talked about the state of religious education in Catholic schools, about liturgy, about how to pass on the Faith to the next generation, about the reality of living as Christians in the rapidly-changing culture of Britain. The Association of Catholic Women came into being with an affirmation that we as women “give our glad assent to the teachings of the Church.” We all felt a strong sense of wanting to spread the Faith, and to communicate the beauty of Christ’s message. We didn’t believe that the Church undervalued or despised her daughters. We wanted to develop our knowledge and understanding of what it truly meant to be a Catholic woman in today’s world—and tomorrow’s.
From the start our meetings, pilgrimages, conferences, and various projects have had a feeling of passion and vigor. In those early years, however, we did seem to spend a good deal of time denouncing extreme feminism and worrying about its influence on Catholic groups, on bishops, and on religious education in Catholic schools. We wrote letters and argued at meetings. I think that, alas, we often simply came across as annoyed—and annoying.
Things are rather different now. In the last few years, the strident voices of feminism within the Church have been much less evident.
But we in the Association of Catholic Women have, in any case, taken a very different approach, and it has grown from strength to strength, with activities widening and deepening year on year.
Everything is really centered on prayer: we undertake to pray together, and individually. Our major events and meetings always, of course, include Mass and the Rosary. We begin our committee meetings with prayer—including the Angelus, which has come to have a special importance for us. We don’t have a regular membership fee—we ask people to keep in touch, to send whatever money they can from time to time, and to say the Angelus every day! We have a prayer newsletter that keeps everyone in contact, and we rely heavily on the prayers of our older members who cannot get out to our meetings but who pray at home.
There has been concern for a long while about the quality of religious education in Catholic schools. We decided to stop complaining about things and start being part of the solution. We began a Schools Religious Education Project, offering prizes for children in Catholic primary schools (ages 5-11) for essays on specific topics. This was started on a small scale—we bought a trophy, produced a brochure to send to schools, organized teams of judges, printed some certificates. It grew rapidly. We needed another trophy as we divided the children into age groups. We held prize-giving ceremonies—I remember one at the Catholic Central Library, and another at one of our annual meetings at St. James Church in London’s Spanish Place, with a bishop making the presentations. It all got bigger and bigger—we had the idea of teaming up with the Catholic Truth Society, Britain’s main Catholic publishing group, which for more than 100 years has produced books and pamphlets (and now DVDs and more) on the Catholic faith. They are magnificent, and every year offer cash prizes for the winning schools, plus a wonderful range of book prizes, gift certificates, and hardback copies of the Catechism of the Catholic Church for all the runners up, as well as beautiful holy cards for all the children.
The Schools RE Project is now a massive nationwide event which involves a team of us working at the CTS office mailing out brochures, relays of judges reading the essays, and a busy time in the summer organizing prize presentations, visiting schools, and wrapping up parcels.
In the year of Pope Benedict’s visit to Britain we invited the children to study the papacy, St. Peter, and the relevant Scripture passages. They also wrote prayers for the Holy Father, and in some cases letters to him. Many of these were just too good to keep to ourselves, so we published a small booklet. My personal favorites include the child who warmly invited the Holy Father to tea at her granny’s house in Manchester, and the children in Glasgow who wrote at length about all that the Pope was going to do—meeting the Queen, celebrating Mass at Bellahouston, lunching on haggis—before grudgingly adding “the Holy Father will also visit England.”
We run pilgrimages—our most recent to the convent at Minster in Kent which has connections going back to Saxon times. We hold a Day of Recollection each Lent, and conferences with guest speakers—last September this included a talk from a senior doctor on “Blessed John Paul and medical ethics” and a wonderful documentary film John Paul the Great.
We write, lobby, and take part in meetings with government and other authorities on topics of current concern—notably the current (ghastly!) plans announced by the Prime Minister to create same-sex marriage, the continuing pressure for euthanasia, and the continuing promotion of abortion and contraception through public funds. We are members of the “Care Not Killing” alliance fighting to defend human life.
We are one of the main organizers of the annual Towards Advent Festival of Catholic Culture, which has now been running for more than 10 years at Westminster Cathedral Hall. It began with a small gathering of representatives of some Catholic organizations, including the ACW. This year we are teaming up with EWTN to bring Marcus Grodi from the Coming Home Network to be a speaker, and will also have a celebration of the anniversary of Blessed John Henry Newman’s famous “Second Spring” sermon, led by a group from Oxford.
The ACW also supports Catholic teachers. Our popular “Days of Art and Music” for teachers at Catholic schools include sessions on Gregorian chant, led by Jeremy de Satge, himself a professional musician and singer, and lectures by Dr. Lionel Gracey of the Maryvale Institute showing some of the world’s glorious art with commentaries explaining how these images teach us central truths of the Faith. The study days always conclude with Mass, at which the chant is sung.
Perhaps the single most important thing that we do, however, happens in Holy Week each year. At Westminster Cathedral, as the priests of the diocese walk in procession for the Chrism Mass, they are met by a group of us with a big placard that says, “Thank you to our priests.” Each priest receives a holy card with a prayer and a message of thanks. We are joined in this by a team of young people from St. Patrick’s Church, Soho Square. We have had a wonderful response from the clergy—gratitude, sometimes even tears of thanks.
It actually began as a sort of opposition to feminist campaigners who used to turn up at the cathedral with a banner demanding the ordination of women. They don’t come any more. The “thank you” idea started independently in the diocese of Southwark—the ACW took it up in Westminster and it is now a major part of the annual Chrism Mass tradition. In ways that we could never have imagined, it has become really important: priests today face so many challenges and badly need to know that we are with them, and praying for them
Looking back, I think we wasted a certain amount of time in indignation in the very early years. It is much better just to find out what is good and useful to do, and then do it with joy and with big hearts. We certainly have plenty of plans for the next months and years. Links with the new Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, continued expansion of our work with schools—someone has suggested a possible annual award for Catholic teachers that would recognize good work and express our thanks—our website, our booklets, our quarterly review…
There is a genuine debate and discussion about the role of women in the Church. Some of the feminists have raised good questions—but haven’t listened to the Church’s answers, and don’t seem interested in dialogue. Blessed John Paul’s Mulieris Dignitatem is a crucial document which points the way ahead. I am grateful for having been challenged, more than 20 years ago, by ardent feminists, to think about what it really means to be a Catholic woman.