A celebration of the Voices of Young Catholic Women project

by Jennifer Mertens

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"The pope cannot hear unless we speak," St. Mary's College student Kristen Millar exhorted today's young Catholic women.

At an April panel discussion celebrating St. Mary's Voices of Young Catholic Women project, Millar articulated well the challenge facing her millennial generation. Marking the 30th anniversary of the Madeleva Lecture Series, the panel testified to the college's longstanding commitment to the theological formation of women. Most recently, this commitment inspired an exchange with the pope himself.

Between August and November 2014, St. Mary's students and the Center for Spirituality invited millennial Catholic women to share with Pope Francis their love for the church and the unique challenges facing young women in contemporary society. The project collected 225 letters and pieces of artwork from women across the United States. On Nov. 26, the contributions were personally delivered to Pope Francis by Bishop Kevin Rhoades of South Bend, Ind.; St. Mary's College President Carol Ann Mooney (St. Mary's class of 1972); and students Millar (class of 2015) and Grace Urankar (class of 2014).

Such opportunities for engagement provide vital support to younger generations of American Catholics. Panelist and Indiana University professor of sociology Patricia Wittberg highlighted their significance in light of the historic drop in religiosity among today's young Catholic women. Although women have long formed the bedrock of American Catholicism, Wittberg discussed how young female participation is rapidly declining. Already, the General Social Survey indicates that nearly 35 percent of U.S. millennial Catholic women no longer identify as practicing Catholics. And with current trends exhibiting no sign of reversal, the future of American Catholicism remains painfully uncertain.

As millennial women navigate their relationship to the Catholic tradition and its ecclesial structures, the project has enabled a unique glimpse into some of their personal journeys. In particular, valuable insights have emerged to suggest why young women may choose to remain actively Catholic. Many contributors expressed deep love for the tradition, the sacraments -- especially the Eucharist -- and their faith communities. Frequently, these women articulated a profound belonging in the church as "my home."

Such a personal connection, particularly with faith-filled female mentors, can provide much-needed support to young Catholic women. This need was highlighted by letters in the project that detailed the tremendous cultural pressures facing women today. Through personal narratives and prophetic calls for action, writers addressed a host of issues, including sexual violence, bullying, low self-esteem, demeaning media images, pornography, persistent gender-based economic inequities, and the rise of hook-up culture. Collectively, their sharings attest to what Pope Francis terms a "crisis of commitment and communal relationships." For a young woman in particular, this crisis can fuel a painful experience of herself as powerless, highly objectified and alienated from her God-given dignity.

Fortunately, as the Voices of Young Catholic Women project has invited women to speak out, its impact is already beginning to resonate among a few church leaders. In nurturing the formation of a faith community more responsive to the needs of young women, the project offers a future vision for the American church.

One church leader and key project supporter, Bishop Kevin Rhoades, earnestly shared how the women's testimonies "opened my eyes to some things" and left him "deeply moved." Speaking as a panelist, he expressed a commitment to addressing these concerns in homilies and highlighted women's dignity as vital to the new evangelization. Rhoades additionally emphasized the need to recognize women for their "agency" in the church and to understand the experiences of Catholic women globally.

The panel also included responses from two female leaders in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Both discussed the presence of female mentors as a decisive influence on a young woman's choice to be actively Catholic. Bethany Meola, an assistant director of the Secretariat of Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth, emphasized the particular role of godmothers as a "natural fit" for mentoring, likening her own to a "spiritual sister and mother."

Similarly, USCCB Secretary of Communications Helen Osman reflected on the power of a "strong and deep sisterhood in the faith that is all around you." Describing this sisterhood as "primordial and physical," "highly intuitive" and "emotionally intelligent and spiritual," she called for an "audacious" commitment to strengthening intergenerational relationships among Catholic women. Meola and Osman also discussed the critical role of media literacy, all-girls' educational environments, and youth outreach on domestic violence and sexual abuse.

Such conversation -- indeed, the project itself -- powerfully embodies Pope Francis' vision of "church" as articulated in Evangelii Gaudium. Concluding the panel, Kristin Colberg, an assistant professor of theology at the College of St. Benedict and St. John's University, described the project as evidence of a church "in motion." For Colberg, the enduring hope expressed by young Catholic women propels the church toward an experience of Spirit-led community characterized in "active terms." St. Mary's project not only envisions this future, but "actualize[s]" and is itself "a sign of structural change and the openness to it."

As Colberg notes, the church is undergoing a profound turning point in its history. At once daunting and exciting, initiatives such as the Voices of Young Catholic Women project can offer valuable guidance for discerning a path ahead. In this, the project's greatest contribution lies in its invitation to dialogue with young women -- celebrating, especially, the mutual gift of millennials and the church to one another.

The value of such a "gift exchange" was evident last fall in the enthusiasm of my high school students to participate in this project. As a Catholic millennial woman, I also experience such opportunities as incredibly meaningful to my faith journey. Indeed, the invitation to speak -- to freely contribute one's voice -- is a welcome that young Catholic women seldom receive. As the project witnesses, even a single heartfelt invitation can unleash a tremendous level of creative energy and a greater openness toward the church.

As Catholics venture further into an uncertain future, the church's relevance -- indeed, the vibrancy of American Catholicism -- lies in our capacity to engage the hopes, struggles and experiences of young Catholic women. Certainly, an ongoing need exists for dialogue among millennial women, the church hierarchy, female mentors and the academic community. In the end, only our sustained, collective commitment to such dialogue can offer our church a viable path forward. Hopefully, the church's future is one in which we are each willing to invest.

[Jennifer Mertens recently completed her Master of Divinity from the Catholic Theological Union. She teaches religion at a Catholic high school in Cincinnati.]

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