Partners missing from debate

By  Maria Di Paolo, Catholic Register Special
  • June 8, 2007
{mosimage}Catholic Women in Ministry: Changing the Way Things Are by Marie-Louise Ternier-Gommers (Novalis, 216 pages, softcover, $21.95).

“The laity, however, are given this special vocation: to make the church present and fruitful in those places and circumstances where it is only through them that it can become the salt of the earth.” - Lumen Gentium, 33

The Second Vatican Council document, Lumen Gentium, defines the special role of laypeople in the church. It is now more than 40 years since the Council told the laity to make its contribution to “the sanctification of the world,” and the response has been monumental. It is everywhere around us — in volunteer ministry in our parishes and in professional ministry where the shortage of priests has created opportunities for laypeople to exercise their gifts in hospital, prison and school chaplaincy, in pastoral work in parishes and in education, music and liturgy.
Marie-Louise Ternier-Gommers is one of the untold numbers of women who have responded to these new opportunities to serve. Years of volunteer ministry in her parish led her to enrol in a Lutheran seminary (the nearest Catholic theological school was a four-and-a-half-hour drive from her home in rural Saskatchewan). There, to her surprise, after reluctantly taking a course in homiletics she recognized she had a calling to preach the Gospel. This was the beginning of a long journey that has turned out to have some bitterly frustrating moments, and some deeply rewarding.

Along the way she discovers it can be very difficult for a woman to find an appropriate outlet for her calling within the Catholic Church. Her experience and her encounters with other professional women lay ministers led her to write Catholic Women in Ministry: Changing the Way Things Are.

{sa 2895078394}On the one hand, the issues Ternier-Gommers identifies are difficult for the church and need to be raised in a public forum. It is telling that none of the 26 women she interviewed felt free or confident enough to speak openly about their experiences, and Ternier-Gommers relates their stories anonymously.

However, the book is weak because, by relying only on the experiences of these women, she leaves out the other partners in the debate — the church, the priests with whom the women work and the people to whom they minister. Furthermore, she never attempts any analysis. All we are left with is speculation.

Her style is also problematic. She weaves her personal story of call to ministry with those of the women she interviews. Something someone says reminds her of an event in her life, etc. The women’s stories are chopped into small chunks, which makes it hard to keep track of the different stories.

Having said that, one of the strengths of this book is the honesty with which Ternier-Gommers and the women relate their stories — “their joys and the sorrows, their hopes and dreams.” All of these women feel a strong call to serve God through pastoral ministry, yet each of them expresses similar feelings of frustration and rejection at not being able to exercise their gifts fully and at the absence of the church’s formal recognition and validation of their positions. Ternier-Gommers writes that “there is so much wisdom in gifted women that is being ignored, wasted and undervalued.”

Her own story is a case in point. Her preaching is obviously a very important part of her call to ministry, yet she does most of this outside the Catholic Church — in Anglican and Protestant churches where she is invited to preach regularly.

For a few of the women their frustration with the Catholic Church eventually led to the difficult decision to join another Christian denomination where they felt their calling would be allowed to flourish. Ternier-Gommers, with her passion for preaching, has been asked a number of times if she would be interested in changing denominations but, so far, has never been tempted. However, the question is left open for her as she contemplates the possibility that at some time in the future, she may also be drawn where her gifts lead her.

The role of women, and the non-ordained generally, in ministry is a burning issue for the church as the number of priests continues to dwindle. Ternier-Gommers makes an attempt at addressing the issue in a wider forum and she makes some sensitive and important points. But much more work needs to be done to deal with it adequately.

(Di Paolo is a freelance writer in Toronto finishing her Master of Theological Studies degree at the University of St. Michael’s College.)

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