Women, Wisdom, Witness

by Tefi Ma’ake

Perhaps it was the excitement and anticipation of the release of this book that had me fired up, but I found myself at the Wisdom and Witness NCEA conference at the University of Notre Dame last week hypersensitive to the place of women, or lack thereof for that matter. I spent the first couple days of the conference upset and angry, and constantly holding my tongue, until I couldn’t help but open my mouth.

Two hours after arriving on campus, I emerged from the Basilica after the 9pm Sunday liturgy with two of my colleagues. “Wow! Just wow!” the first managed to spit out. Inside I reminded myself to smile and keep walking. “That was a beautiful liturgy,” the second one states. We continue our stroll back to the dorms and gratefully I make it back to my room without saying anything negative…until the liturgy comes back up over our midnight pizza (no we weren’t trying to get in touch with college culture, we were still on California time and hadn’t yet eaten dinner…thank goodness pizza can be delivered to a college campus at all hours of the day and night!). At first I don’t say much, and then I can’t help myself any longer. “You know,” I begin, “there were so many things I didn’t like about that liturgy, but there was one big thing that really bothered me!” One of my colleagues takes a guess. “No,” I say, “this was just a normal Sunday mass, right?” I question, without waiting for a response. “Did you notice how many vested priests processed in?” It isn’t until then, that they stop and try to remember. “Five! And three male acolytes!” I exclaim, bothered not only by the absence of women, but also by the question this absence prompts of our place at the table to begin with.

The next day, I find myself distracted during prayer, only able to focus on the fact that the presider, the cantor, and every reader is male. I look around the room, everyone else seems to be engaged in prayer, which only makes me wonder why I’m so upset. However, upset isn’t even close to explaining how I feel the next morning when a certain bishop responded to a question about the elimination of inclusive language in upcoming high school textbooks. “Oh, of course,” he stated, “for twenty years we threw out certain language, but we need to return to the true liturgical and biblical language so to not confuse them [students]…we’re not going to rewrite the liturgy or the bible, to fit the trends of the time!” Now, I’ve never been one to label myself a feminist, however much I may lean in that direction, but I do firmly believe in equality and social justice, and being referred to as a “trend of the time” really makes me mad. I start to shut down and tune out the words of the bishop, but not before I catch him pull rank with one of the women courageous enough to go toe to toe with him as he firmly reminded her that “the bishops are the primary teachers.” End of discussion.

I leave the session, my mind racing. I walk to lunch, the bishop only a few paces ahead of me. I’m so lost in my thoughts that it isn’t until I hear “Ms. Ma’ake!” that I snap back to the present. Among the thousands of people in the Notre Dame cafeteria, a group of my high school students run up to me. My girls, I found out, are on campus, for a youth leadership conference with their parish youth group. I couldn’t be more proud that so many of the girls I work with have given up a week of their summer to nurture both their leadership skills, and the Catholic faith they love…the faith I love. They buzz excitedly telling me about the people they are meeting, the “awesome” mass they celebrated at the Grotto, and how cool it was that they had dinner with Matt Maher. I smile as I leave them. My girls, and their passion, I tell myself, are far from a “trend of the time.”

Later that evening, we are lucky enough to listen to Sr. Helen Prejean speak. She is a firecracker, overflowing with energy and passion and grace as she speaks of the ministry that found her unexpectedly. Tears fall down my face as she recounts her words, “let me be the last face you see and I will be the face of Christ for you!” I go to sleep that night with these words fresh on my mind, indeed Sr. Helen is the face of Christ…a female face of Christ. I sleep a little easier that night.

I wake up a little more hopeful and head to the auditorium to hear our next speaker, one I soon can’t believe I’ve never heard of before. Immaculee Ilibagiza, a survivor of the Rwandan genocide, is a beautiful woman, inside and out. Immaculee tells her story of faith and reconciliation. For three months Immaculee and seven other women hid in a tiny bathroom, unable to even speak for fear that they would be found by the rebels who ransacked and searched houses daily. Again tears flowed, as Immaculee tells of how prayer strengthened and sustained her during her 91 days of hiding. She prayed the rosary for hours on end, because it was the only thing she could bear to do. Immaculee explains the struggle she faced when she really thought about the words of the Our Father she prayed over and over — how she considered skipping over the words, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” because they didn’t make sense to her. She continued, explaining how Jesus’ words on the cross, “Forgive them for they know not what they do,” eventually transformed her as she realized that hating those who hurt her, who killed her family and friends, did nothing, but that praying for them to change does do something. I’m a mess of tears when she finally finishes and she thanks Sr. Helen for the work she does. Through blurry eyes, my heart jumps a little as Sr. Helen and Immaculee embrace. A young man approaches the microphone and thanks both of them for being the face of Christ for all of us gathered for the conference, giving voice to the emotions behind the tears that roll down my face.

A week has passed since I left Notre Dame and I find myself still processing and struggling with all these emotions and experiences. I’m grateful for the angry fire that stirred within me the first few days, and even more grateful for the Witness of my students – the young women already willingly stepping up to take leadership in our church that is so often frustrating and wonderful at the same time – and the Wisdom of women such as Sr. Helen Prejean and Immaculee Ilibagiza that remind me that the face of Christ is so much more than male or female.


6 Responses

  1. I had a flashback of my personal college experience as I read your blog. I am now in my thirties and the mother of five. I could write a novel on my experience in attempting to make sense of my “feminism” and my Catholicism. I’ll spare you the details, and take satisfaction in the fact that if you continue to pray and focus on our Holy Mother and her Divine Son, you will someday realize that one “ism” surely outweighs the other. I highly recommend The Privilege of Being a Woman by Dr. Alice Von Hildebrand. Here is a glimpse


    God bless,


  2. I can really relate to this– I have had many similar experiences, of being struck (in the slap-in-the-face kind of way) by the absence of women in church ritual, but also of realizing how second-nature this absence is to me, to the point where often I do not actually notice it.

    Luckily, my home church has always been very proactive about inclusive language, enough to make me very clear about the fact that non-inclusion *is* exclusion, and to begin to realize this about groups and terms from which I am not excluded (i.e., those which exclude on the basis of race or national origin, as opposed to on the basis of sex).

    This Good Friday, though, I attended a service presided over by a woman (which of course worked out because it was not a Mass), and I was startled by my own reaction, which was to look around in puzzlement, wondering who was presiding for a few minutes, even though this woman was very clearly doing and saying everything that presiders do.

    There’s a price we each pay for what is not said, and who is not present, even if it’s not a visible price, and sometimes it suddenly becomes perceptible in nagging discomfort, anger, and confusion.

    Thanks for thinking, struggling, seeing, and speaking up! As a Catholic feminist who is often struggling, it really makes a difference to hear.

  3. Here, here! Thanks for your post, Tefi. Like Becky, I so appreciate hearing other people’s experience of being feminist and Catholic…it’s a juggling act & I’m always pleased to be reminded that other folks are up for the struggle.


  4. I would like to encourage you to seek the truth, but always be mindful of the Church’s teaching authority and the peace contained within it. After spending my undergraduate years restless and in despair clamoring to reconcile gender equality and social justice issues, I have found peace in the simplicity of the truth contained within the teaching of the Church.

    The lives of the saints contain so much wisdom and inspiration that will aid in attempts to seek peace. My personal devotion to St. Therese has provided me with the ability to lovingly work for the dignity and respect of all persons through the intercession of one 24 year old women that legions of modern feminist could never emulate.

    Peace be with you.

  5. Thanks for your thoughtful words, Tefi. They convey some of the same pain and disappointment I often feel, which is the why I accepted the vocation as a lay preacher. The voice of the laity needs to be heard in our Church, within the context of liturgy and in other arenas. Thanks for voicing your truth here.

  6. No, we are not the “trend of the time” but with continued efforts and witnessing of strong leaders like you, we are the “voice of the time.” God bless your work with the girls, may you continue to be the face of Christ to them.

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