As a young boy I was fully inducted into my privileged state in the Catholic Church. I was a altar server which meant I had access to the sacred in ways that my revered grandmother would never know. I was taught the ritual language of Latin and dressed in robes that marked me off from others in the Church.
The elite male caste of clericalism is one that can easily trap a young boy with religious interest, imagination and dreams of adventure. Although I had my share of comic book heroes, some of whom were military monsters, I also read of the martyrs and wonder workers of my faith tradition who ranged from the hard working to the eccentric. Few of these stories were of women whether in comic books or biographies of saints.
I spent a number of years as a young adult within this culture of male clericalism. I learnt much from this experience. My choices meant that I lived in a multicultural religious community of men. This nurtured a new appreciation of cultural diversity that has stayed with me since.It also gave me insights into masculinity that have led me to a new understanding of my sexuality as a gay man.
My passion for social justice led me to an awareness that at the core of my life was a deep injustice both personal and systemic. It was an injustice deeply rooted in the very culture I had taken on board as my source of meaning and fulfillment.
Patriarchy is the elephant in the room of Catholicism and much of Christianity. In my younger days I took it for granted that males had rights and privileges.When I was a young altar boy there was one Sunday in the year when girls took centre stage in the Church.
The annual crowning of Our Lady’s statue was a high religious festival in May. It involved flowers, lyrical songs and young girls dressed in white strewing rose petals on the nave of the Church, There was even a “WHS” factor ignored at the time, when one special girl in full white wedding gear had to climb a ladder to place a wreath of flowers on the head of the statue. Many observers would see the day as a bit of Goddess worship Catholic style where women had their 15 minutes of religious fame. But after all the processing and drama of the crowning we went back to hearing a male priest tell of the glory of Mary.
In 2012 the NCR published one of the best pieces of writing I have ever read by Sr Joan Chittester : Silence about the global treatment of women is disquieting. Chittester concludes this item with this call:
From where I stand, it seems to me that male “protection,” paternalism and patriarchal theology are not to be trusted anymore because the actions it spawns in both men and women have limited the full humanity of women everywhere, and on purpose.
Isn’t it time for us all to really be converted, to say the real Truth about women from our pulpits, from our preachers, from our patriarchs, until both they and we finally believe it ourselves? Then surely the actions that make it real will follow.
I am all for keeping May as a month of “woman awareness”. I believe we should rediscover the mythology and person of Mary of Nazareth in our day. My preferred text for such an approach is Marina Warner’s “Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and Cult of the Virgin Mary“. It speaks with far more religious and feminine insight the Louis de Montfort’s True Devotion to Mary.
I have my own Marian Shrine in my front courtyard.. “Our Lady of the Milk Crate” is a local devotion inspired by the appearances of Mary at Coogee Beach. Readers may be surprised to know that the Virgin Mary had made an earlier visit to Coogee in 1911 to a young woman, Eileen O’Connor who founded Australia’s Brown Nurses.
On a practical and pastoral response perhaps our Churches could begin by recognizing May as Domestic and Family Violence Prevention Month with the same enthusiasm that goes into devotions to the Fatima visions.
My many women friends continue to challenge me into the full maturity of my masculinity. I recall with gratitude the women of global influence I have been privileged to meet or know online and through their writings. I honour the work of Dorothy Day, Jean Houston, Helen Prejean, Pauline Coll, Julia Cameron. Marina Warner, Janet McKenzie, Mirium Therese Winter, Odetta, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Maureen Watson, Oodgeroo Noonuccal Mirium Rose Ungunmerr Baumann and so many more.