Benedictine sister's witness a turning point in struggle for women's equality in the church

A great woman has gone from our midst. Her name is Christine Vladimiroff, and we who are passionate about church reform owe God profound thanks for the gift of this woman's life.

At age 17, Christine joined the Erie Benedictines because the nuns in her high school "were the most happy and competent women I had ever seen." She finished college and earned a doctorate at the Universidad International in Mexico City. She served as secretary of education for the Cleveland diocese, a college professor, and the executive director of Second Harvest, a national network of food banks, before she was elected prioress of her community in 1998. She died in the arms of her sisters on Sept. 25 after an extended illness.

During her eight-year tenure as head of the Cleveland Catholic school system, Christine was affectionately known around town as the "czarina." Clevelanders quickly discovered she possessed a backbone of tempered steel. This strength served her well when, in March 2001, the Vatican ordered her to "forbid and prohibit" her fellow Benedictine, Joan Chittister, from speaking at a Women's Ordination Worldwide conference in late June in Dublin.

What then transpired would become a turning point in the contemporary struggle for women's equality in the church.

It would also lead to a renewed understanding of the nature of religious obedience, especially among those socialized into the "pay, pray, obey" ethos endemic to Catholicism.

Christine, you see, was not about to grovel.

In ensuing months, she consulted bishops, canon lawyers, Joan herself, her own sisters, and other Benedictine communities. She journeyed to Rome on a mission to help Vatican officials understand why she could not do what they asked of her. She addressed them with the practiced professionalism acquired from navigating many a board meeting in church, nonprofit, and academic settings. Oh, and by the way, she did it in fluent Spanish. All of this helped quite a bit, since most Vatican males have scant experience dealing with multilingual professional females possessing backbones of steel.

But in the end, it was not Christine's professionalism or her backbone that won the day. It was the incandescent truth to which she witnessed in her official response to Rome:

There is a fundamental difference in the understanding of obedience in the monastic tradition and that which is being used by the Vatican to exert power and control and prompt a false sense of unity inspired by fear. Benedictine authority and obedience are achieved through dialogue between a community member and her prioress in a spirit of co-responsibility. The role of the prioress in a Benedictine community is to be a guide in the seeking of God. While lived in community, it is the individual member who does the seeking.

Christine's refusal to be used by the Vatican "to deliver an order of silencing" encouraged Catholics the world over. It's hard to say what effect it had on Vatican officials, though all the dire penalties previously threatened mysteriously melted away.

I like to think that her witness made our brothers in Rome reflect again about where true authority originates in the church. Hint: It isn't in canon law.

True authority in the church begins with the Spirit of God, at work in the hearts of the People of God. Hearts like Joan Chittister's, who, as her sisters and prioress wrote, "has lived the monastic life with faith and fidelity for fifty years, [and] must make her own decision based on her sense of Church, her monastic profession and her own personal integrity." Joan's discernment to speak publicly about women's roles in the church was not, Christine wrote, a "source of scandal to the faithful." Instead, she said, "I think the faithful can be scandalized when honest attempts to discuss questions of import to the church are forbidden."

How will we ever know about the leading of the Spirit in the hearts of the faithful if we are forbidden to freely discuss and test it with other believers?

Christine's and Joan's powerful witness about the nature of Benedictine obedience energized all those who, like me, were laboring for reform in a church whose leaders preferred to silence us rather than listen to us. Their witness helped us understand at a very deep level why our work was so important.

Our decision to work for reform had emerged from the holy ground of our encounters with the Spirit -- our own 21st-century burning bush, if you will. Like Moses and Miriam, we could not flee from the truth of our experience. Among other things, we could not deny that women are equally called to priestly ministry, even though at times, we wanted to run the other way.

Christine's refusal to be complicit with an unhealthy understanding of obedience that stifles the Spirit helped us remember that the truth can never be silenced. This is because the Spirit of God, who witnesses to the truth, can never be silenced. (Trust me, this is beyond comforting to those of us who are regularly reviled or thrown off church property for being obedient to the Spirit's leading.)

A March 3 homily by Pope Francis points to a similar dynamic about the saving mystery of Jesus, so often welcomed by the people of God but resisted by what he calls "the ruling class":

It is the ruling class that closes the doors to the way in which God wants to save us. ... The people of faith, however, understand and "accept" the salvation brought by Jesus. Their leaders, on the other hand, reduce salvation to the fulfillment of the 613 commandments they have created through their intellectual and theological fervor. ... They believe in everything being settled, well organized, clear-cut. This is the drama of resistance to salvation. This drama exists within each and every one of us.

Pope Francis clearly understands that God's saving wisdom is bigger than our human rules, however theologically profound they might appear. How great would it be if our church adopted the wise co-responsibility governance model of Benedictine prioresses like Christine Vladimiroff? This model respects and trusts the adult faith and spiritual maturity of committed believers.

Perhaps then, Pope Francis would take seriously the thousands of Catholic women who experience the Spirit's call to proclaim Jesus as deacons and as priests.

Could ordaining Catholic women be one of the ways God wants to save us?

Polls show the People of God accepted women's priestly calls long ago. But "the ruling class," which, sadly, includes Pope Francis, is still closing the door on that discussion.

So, I'm thinking, we'll just have to put Christine to work on opening that door from heaven. I seriously doubt that even God can long resist the prioress with a backbone of tempered steel.

[A Sister of St. Joseph, Sr. Christine Schenk served urban families for 18 years as a nurse midwife before co-founding FutureChurch, where she served for 23 years.]

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