Women in the Church, and conversations that evangelize

Author Carrie Gress discusses a “theology of woman,” practical approaches to evangelizing loved ones, and her new book on John Paul II’s Krakow.

Carrie Gress is a rotating co-host of EWTN’s Morning Glory radio program and the former Rome Bureau Chief for Zenit’s English Edition. She holds a doctorate in philosophy from the Catholic University of America, and is a former Research Fellow for the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Her writing has appeared in leading Catholic publications, including Catholic World Report, and she is the author of two new books, Nudging Conversions: A Practical Guide to Bringing Those You Love Back to the Church, out this month from Beacon Publishing, and City of Saints: A Pilgrimage to John Paul II’s Krakow (Image), which she co-authored with George Weigel. She lives in Virginia with her husband and three children. Recently, I had a chance to speak with her about the Synod in Rome, her current writing projects, and her outlook on the Church in the contemporary world.

John Paul Shimek, CWR: As a Catholic academic and mother, did you follow the Synod of Bishops on the “Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and the Contemporary World” that took place last month in Rome? What are your thoughts about Pope Francis’ repeated calls for the development of a “theology of woman”?

Carrie Gress: Yes, I have followed the synod discussions. My initial thought about Pope Francis’s calls for a “theology of woman” when he first mentioned it early in his pontificate was simply, “Hasn’t John Paul II already covered that subject?” However, the more I have thought about it, prayed about it, written about it (I have a book on the topic coming out next year), it is clear to me that there is a lot of ground yet to be covered. I think Pope Francis sees that there is a crisis among women—he isn’t pandering to us—but recognizes that little has been done to clarify exactly what our vocation is. For the last four or five decades, the culture has pushed us in the direction of simply trying to be like men. As a result, if you ask most any woman, she would be very hard pressed to tell you what is specifically unique to women in their vocation in the world or spiritually in her relationship to God.

German philosopher and Catholic convert Edith Stein (later St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross) explained that women have a deep desire to bring wholeness to themselves and then share their gifts with others. Of course, sin and abuse can affect this desire, but in a healthy woman, this is the general hallmark of the genius of woman. It epitomizes motherhood, both spiritual and physical. Maria Montessori is a great example of this feminine genius; by using her gifts as a doctor, she was able to teach the unteachable—young, impoverished, mentally-challenged boys. Not only did they flourish in remarkable ways, but she revolutionized the way children around the world are now taught. Of course, the best example, which Stein uses over and over again when speaking of the genius of woman, is of Mary at the Wedding Feast of Cana. Quietly, before any of the guests know there is no more wine, she remedies the situation. No fuss, without drawing any attention to herself, she takes care of the problem. These are examples of women using their gifts and sharing them with others in their attention to detail and compassion.

There is also a connection between motherhood (spiritual and physical) and how our souls relate to God: the feminine spiritual vocation mimics the physical model of motherhood. Over and over again in Scripture and the lives of female saints there is an initial sense of mission that comes before the mission happens; a seed is planted. And then, over time, slowly, God reveals the full truth of the work he planted in the heart of the woman years, or even decades, before. Certainly, we see this in spades in Mary, the perfect woman, both in the Annunciation and Simeon’s prophesy: “A sword shall pierce your heart” (Luke 2:35). Mother Teresa had the sense decades before moving to India that God had a particular mission for her that would eventually blossom. This “seed planting” requires that a woman has the heart to hear God and then the time and patience to let it fully come to life—much like pregnancy. This very different than, say, the insights St. Joseph received through dreams, which required immediate action and not a long period of gestation. Of course, every person is different, but a theology of woman could look more deeply into these sorts of patterns.

Rather than shun these gifts, these uniquely feminine ways of relating to God and the world, women need to come to understand them and find specific ways to apply them in their own lives.

CWR: At the synod, Archbishop Paul-André Durocher from Quebec, said that he favors considering the ordination of women to the diaconate. What are your thoughts on the role of women in the Church? 

Gress: I think this is another symptom of the same problem—ignorance of the vocation of women. While this may be an earnest effort to try to include women more in the leadership of the Church, it is misguided because of the fact that it simply overlooks the feminine vocation. We don’t need to borrow anyone else’s—just discover our own.

Unfortunately, men—priests and bishops in particular—are in something of a no-win situation. If they suggest to women what their authentic vocation looks like, they will likely be accused of sexism (since it doesn’t accord with our culture’s notion of women as independent, assertive, outspoken). But if they don’t do anything, they are accused of being negligent or misogynistic. It is really a tough place to be, particularly when so many men and priests are acting with the best of intentions. Much of this will really have to come from women. And in fact, there are a lot of women doing good work, such as ENDOW (Educating on the Nature and Dignity of Women), and scads of women blogging and writing on the topic of what it means to be a woman in the Church.

Throughout history, Christian women have been evangelizing the world, particularly through their families. The Spanish even have a saying: “An ounce of mother is worth a pound of priests.” French priest and Scripture scholar Father Andre Feuillet said that this era is the age of the Christian woman, particularly because of the heavy emphasis the last several popes have placed upon Mary’s role in the Church and women’s ability to be present in times of suffering. Pope Francis’s own devotion to Mary and his frequent remarks about women and motherhood emphasizes the point. The world needs the balm of motherhood. Perhaps this is why women’s vocation has been so attacked for the last five decades?

Christian women shouldn’t need to reinvent the wheel. The Church has rich resources to tap into and although they may go against the grain, many women are open to them because they have already tried everything else and not found the promised happiness. Clarity about our own vocation—particularly for women who are already living the faith but want to go deeper—could go a long way in evangelizing our culture.

CWR: Do you have specific recommendations for family prayer?

Gress: My children are all still very young (the oldest is six), so I feel like family prayer is something I’m learning to integrate as we go. However, since we were married my husband and I have prayed a daily Rosary together. It is a ritual we have maintained with our children, applying different expectations as they grow. I think the Rosary is truly the gift that helps us keep our life in order. It has also been a joy to pass this gift along to my children and to see them absorb the prayers and meditations little by little. Yes, there are some evenings when things don’t go well because of fatigue or toddlers being toddlers (I have a basket of 10 rosaries in various stages of disrepair), but those things seem to get better with time. I also have an antique crucifix I purchased in Poland years ago that holds two candles we light when praying. I try to have the candles match the liturgical season to give the children a clear sign of the year’s religious rhythm.

I have found that, whether it is intentions for the needs of others, prayer before meals, the Rosary, prayer before bed, because we do it on a regular basis as a family the idea of talking to God has become something ordinary and familiar for my children—not stiff and foreign. God and the saints have a real presence in our home because we invite them in all day long.

CWR: During the synod, there was much discussion of two approaches, one emphasizing teaching, the other focusing on dialogue with the world. Your book Nudging Conversions is about evangelizing conversations. How do you balance these two approaches?

Gress: That is a good question. I think many people think of evangelization as a teaching or selling type of enterprise. While teaching is very important, you have to have someone with ears to hear before you can teach them anything. Real teaching about our faith, I am convinced, can only come when there is already a relationship of love and trust. We aren’t selling a product—but imaging God’s love.

My own experience of trying to bring my immediate family members back to the Church taught me a lot. After my reversion back to the faith, I expected that since I had the right teaching it would be a snap to convert them. Instead I saw that my efforts seemed to only push them further away. Our relationships became brittle and pained because I was selling, but they weren’t buying.

In frustration, I went to prayer and begged God, “Change their hearts!” After imploring him this way for some time, finally, I had a new insight: “God, you love them more than I do. You can take care of this.” In this peace, I returned to these relationships with the simple focus of loving them as best as I could; to listen to them, to appreciate their gifts, to encourage them, to just be with them. There were enough signal changes in my own behavior that they knew something was different; rather than a nag, I was recognizable as the sister/daughter they had known before. Only then, little by little, did things change. After time (and a lot of prayer, novenas, and fasting for them), they started paying attention to what was different, and it was then that they could finally receive the teaching. The relationship, the trust was already there, so it was easy for them to begin to see that maybe I had more to offer.

I think this is some of Pope Francis’s appeal to many Catholics who are rediscovering the Church through him. He offers us the example of “encounter” evangelization—loving people just where they are and not waiting for them to change before we shower them with our love.

CWR: You have another book coming out this month, City of Saints: A Pilgrim’s Guide to John Paul II’s Krakow, which you co-authored with George Weigel. What do you think this book offers that other books on St. John Paul II haven’t already given us?

Gress: The book is really a guidebook for those who plan to attend World Youth Day in Krakow July 2016, although it is also a great read for others who won’t make the pilgrimage to Poland.

I initially worked on a guidebook similar to this in 2005, shortly after John Paul II died, but ultimately gave up on it because I though there just wouldn’t be an audience. I recently discovered a journal entry from a research trip I took to Krakow asking God to find an audience for the book. When Pope Francis announced that the next World Youth Day would be in Krakow in 2016, I realized that suddenly, there was an audience for it. I contacted Weigel and he suggested we do the project together—which is what the finished product is. George wrote about the significance of each place on the life of Karol Wojtyla and I wrote the historical notes of the 25 or so places that left their mark on the future pope. (This was certainly a case of a feminine vocation that I discussed above, of a seed being planted and, even though I had given up on it, God bringing it to fruition.)

City of Saints makes clear that Wojtyla’s vocation did not come out of thin air, but was truly the culmination of his life experiences in Krakow. There are a lot of beautiful new stories not found in other biographies of John Paul II. The locations in and around Krakow—with their fascinating, dramatic, and sometimes tragic histories—ground him in a real place surrounded by real people and serve as a reminder that God works through the ordinary to create great saints.

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About John Paul Shimek 0 Articles
John Paul Shimek is a Roman Catholic theologian and a specialist on Vatican affairs. In March 2013, he reported from Rome on the election of Pope Francis, the first Latin American pope in the history of the Catholic Church.