Catholic group calls for more women in Mass texts

A letter was sent from Ohio to Vatican City this month with a message for Pope Benedict XVI backed by thousands of women from around the world.

"We want women to stop being invisible in the church's proclamation," said Sister Christine Schenk, executive director of Cleveland-based FutureChurch. "If you try to make it look like God likes men better than women, people just aren't going to buy it."

FutureChurch, an independent Catholic renewal group that counts some 5,000 members worldwide, is broadcasting a plea ahead of a key Vatican meeting this October. The group wants more Bible passages featuring women to be read at Catholic Masses throughout the world.

So far, FutureChurch has sent more than 18,000 e-mails and letters to bishops, including Benedict, who will preside over the synod on "The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church."

"When we heard that the synod was going to focus primarily on Scripture we knew that we had to raise awareness about the hidden women of the lectionary," said Schenk, a member of the Cleveland-based Congregation of St. Joseph.

The body of scriptural texts read at Mass every day, known as the lectionary, is determined by the Vatican. For churchgoers who seldom read the Bible, those extracts may comprise their only knowledge of the holy book, Schenk said.

And women are conspicuously absent from the lectionary, she added.

"When you can show a systematic exclusion of biblical women leaders in the text," she said, "it sends a really unhealthy message to our daughters and our sons."

Schenk's argument appears to be bolstered by a 1996 article in the American Benedictine Review. The article's author, Sister Ruth Fox, cites Mass readings that stop just before a woman's vital role is mentioned, or leave her out altogether.

For example, Fox writes, take Exodus 15:20-21, in which Miriam, sister of Moses and Aaron, is identified as a prophet and leads a liturgy of thanksgiving after the crossing of the Red Sea. That passage is not in the lectionary.

And Phoebe, a woman who in the Greek translation of the New Testament is called a "deaconess," does not appear once in the daily readings.

Likewise, the role of Mary Magdalene, who according to the Gospels is the first to witness Jesus' resurrection, is never recounted on Sundays, Schenk said, while "we hear about doubting Thomas every single year."

At a time when women hold powerful political offices worldwide, the lectionary seems, at best, outdated, the sister said.

The one woman the lectionary does mention is Mary, the mother of Jesus, who, as a virgin and a mother, is "a pretty hard act to follow," Schenk said. "And it's not all women can be. We also need to hear about women leaders who evangelized, proclaimed the gospel and founded churches."

Monsignor Anthony Sherman, of the Secretariat for Divine Worship at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said FutureChurch is not alone in questioning the Mass readings.

The world -- and the status of women -- has changed drastically since the current lectionary was approved in the 1960s, Sherman said. But the lectionary has not. "It's been around for 40 years, since Vatican II. A lot of people have problems with it."

He said FutureChurch has a shot at achieving its goal, as long as bishops are persuaded to speak.

Schenk said most bishops have responded positively. Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz., met with FutureChurch women, she said, and other bishops say they are interested. None, however, have committed to bringing the topic to the synod.

Even if the issue gets play in October, Sherman said, rewriting the lectionary is a "monumental" task. But that doesn't mean the Bible's women will necessarily go unheard.

As Sherman pointed out, "There's nothing preventing Catholics from owning and reading a whole copy of the Bible themselves."

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