Synod: Interview with Chris Schenk of \"FutureChurch\"

by John L. Allen Jr.

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Interview with Chris Schenk of "FutureChurch"
October 14, 2008

A bit like Washington when the Supreme Court is in session, a meeting of the Synod of Bishops in Rome always brings out voices from across the spectrum who hope to make themselves heard. Some groups that dot the Catholic landscape are represented inside the synod hall itself; the heads of movements such as Sant’Egidio and Focolare, for example, are official “auditors.” Others, especially those espousing various reforms they would like the church to adopt, find themselves on the outside looking in. They, too, are part of the sights and sounds that surround the event.

One such voice during this synod belongs to “FutureChurch,” a U.S.-based group that has come to Rome to request greater attention to women – especially restoring women’s stories to the Lectionary, the collection of Bible readings for the Mass, and more space for preaching by women. Chris Schenk, a Sister of St. Joseph from Cleveland, is representing "FutureChurch" in Rome while the synod is in session, and she sat down on Tuesday for an interview.

The following is a complete transcript.

For those who may not be familiar with “FutureChurch,” can you briefly describe it?

We’re a group of parish-centered Catholics that got started in 1990, when a Parish Council [in Cleveland] passed a resolution saying access to the Mass is the most important, pressing need in a time of priest shortages, so they called for opening ordination to everyone called to it.

By that, you mean married men and women?

That’s right, as well as welcoming back men who have left the active ministry to marry. Since that time, it’s proved more prophetic than I ever anticipated. We knew we had this priest shortage train wreck coming at us in the United States. Right now on my laptop, I have folders from forty dioceses that are reconfiguring or downsizing some 500 parishes in the United States. In my own diocese of Cleveland, where we began, we’re looking at losing more than 40 parishes. We’ve done a lot of raising awareness about what was going to happen, and now it’s happening.

Our mission is geared to two areas. One is doing priest shortage awareness, and supporting parishes that are vibrant, vital, and solvent, and who are resisting efforts to close them by using their canonical rights and responsibilities. We also do a lot of work on optional celibacy, which was our main focus when we were here in 2005 for the Synod on the Eucharist.

Was that the first synod you attended?

Yes, it was.

The other foot on which we walk is raising awareness, or perhaps it’s better to say, retrieving memories of early women leaders in the church. We do this particularly through our Mary of Magdala celebrations, which we have done for eleven years now. Anywhere from 250 to 400 of these happen in the United States and around the world each year. A Biblical scholar gives a presentation that Mary of Magdala wasn’t a prostitute, but was the first witness to the resurrection. Then a woman – a competent, prepared woman – leads worship. She preaches and presides at a prayer service.

You don’t call it a Mass?

Obviously, if it were a Mass, we couldn’t have the visual of a woman leading prayer and worship. That’s the other thing about FutureChurch: We are very committed to working within the existing teachings and structures of the institution.

Do you have links with any other reform groups?

Certainly we communicate, we connect with them. There are some we link with more closely than others. Right now we’re developing very good relationships with Voice of the Faithful, and historically Call to Action has been a major partner because so many of their chapters have allowed our programs to flourish.

Where does your funding come from?

Our funding comes primarily from our donors. We’ve got 5,000 donors nationally and internationally. We get some grant funding, though that goes up and down depending on the year. Then we have some major donors who have committed anywhere from $5,000 a year over a three-year period to $15,000 a year over a three-year period.

What kind of grants do you get?

We got on the map originally because of grants from two Catholic-related foundations in Cleveland. One was the Tooey Foundation, which has also funded John Carroll University. We would not be where we are if it were not for the Tooey Foundation. We had personal links … the pastor at the Church of the Resurrection had personal ties to the two women who were instrumental in getting us our original grants. Grant funding is not available, generally, for church reform groups, so this was pretty miraculous. We have been very lucky.

What’s the message you’re bringing to the synod?

It’s the need to restore to our Lectionary the women leaders who were there, but whom nobody knows about. Many people believe that St. Paul was anti-woman, when in fact if it weren’t for Prisca, and her husband Aquila, Paul would not have been able to carry out the mission to the gentiles in Corinth, Ephesus, and Rome. Priscilla founded house churches. If it weren’t for Lydia, Paul would not have been able to spread the mission in Macedonia. He called Junia and her husband Andronicus, “first among the apostles.” If it weren’t for Phoebe, we don’t know if the Letter to the Romans would ever have gotten to the Romans, because she was the envoy to Rome with that letter. Part of the reason we don’t know about these women leaders is because the readings that tell us about them – especially Romans 16 – only show up during the week, on weekdays.

What else beyond Romans 16?

Paul’s second letter to Timothy, for example, also mentions early women leaders.

Then we get to Jesus. Certainly, the other big untold story is that there were women in the Galilean discipleship with Jesus. Most Catholics believe that Jesus and 12 men went around Galilee doing good. We’re glad for the men, of course, and we love Jesus, but most Catholics, and certainly most women, are unaware that it wasn’t just a one-gender operation that Jesus was running. Luke 8:1-3 tells us that Joanna, Susanna, and Mary of Magdala, and many other women, accompanied him around Galilee and supported him. That reading also shows up only during the week, on weekdays, when most Catholics never hear them.

Then you have women from the Hebrew Scriptures who just never show up at all. Shiphrah and Puah were two Hebrew midwives who disobeyed the pharaoh’s order to kill the firstborn male. Had it not been for those two women who chose life, Moses would never have grown up and become the liberator – with his sister Miriam, and Miriam is another woman from the Hebrew Scriptures who is downplayed in the Lectionary.

It’s not because of any ill will on the part of anyone, but it was just the lens that was in place when the selections for the Lectionary were made. Certainly the work of women Biblical scholars has shown that the same lens was in place for those who redacted the text over the years. It’s very painstaking, but very exciting work that’s coming forward.

How did you bring these concerns to the attention of the synod?

We had a postcard campaign. We estimate that at least 20,000 electronic and ‘snail mail’ postcards were sent. They’ve been coming in for two years. A friend told us that the office of the Synod of Bishops had gotten lots of them. We got a very cordial letter back from Archbishop Nikola Eterovich, the secretary of the Synod of Bishops, saying that this was being taken into account and was being rolled in. We feel it was effective. The postcards, by the way, went not only to Archbishop Eterovich’s office, but to every U.S. bishop-delegate who we knew would be going to the synod. The original set went to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and to the Pontifical Biblical Commission. Of course, at the beginning we didn’t know who the delegates [to the synod] were going to be, because we started this two years ago. We were very eager for our own bishops, in each of their dioceses, to have a sense of the importance of this for women around the world.

If there’s anything that our Mary of Magdala celebrations has taught us, it’s that this is an extremely important thing for women and men. I have a background in community organizing, and I have to tell you that I am amazed that this program has lasted as long as it has, that people do this every summer. My own background was as a nurse-midwife before I started doing this, so I worked with many low-income women. During the first Mary of Magdala celebration we had in Cleveland, a friend brought a busload of 12 women, and they were in tears the whole time. I think it was at that moment I realized that this is touching something far deeper in the psyche of women than even I had realized. Part of that had to do with the recognition that, ‘Oh my gosh, we really were there. This is part of who we are.’

Have you met with any bishops since you’ve been here?


Have you tried?

Yes, we’ve been in communication. Because the first week [of the synod] is very intense, we haven’t been successful yet. We were told before we left the United States by two bishops from the United States, one from England, one from Ireland, and one from Australia that they’re open to meeting with us here, provided that there’s time. I’m hopeful. We’re just early into the second week.

During press briefings reporters have occasionally asked if anyone in the synod has mentioned women in the Lectionary, and so far as I know, it hasn’t come up. Is that frustrating?

At one level, yes, of course it is. It should be part of the conversation. But, you know, Rome wasn’t built in a day. We sent packets to 20 English-speaking bishops, and two of the delegates from the United States said they had read every bit of it. One of them said that he would speak about it to Cardinal [Francis] Arinze [a Nigerian who serves as Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship.] He himself did not expect the Lectionary issues to come up [at the synod], because they’re at such a level of complexity. Our feeling, however, is that it’s not rocket science to just put back in the women who have been deleted.

Cardinal Philippe Barbarin of Lyons, France, did talk about scripture passages that don’t appear in the Lectionary, but not the ones with which you’re concerned.

No, that’s right.

Are you hoping it may come up in the small group discussions?

I expect that’s where it will happen. Certainly in the Synod on the Eucharist, the real intense discussion on a married priesthood came in the small groups.

Why is what the Synod of Bishops does important to you?

First of all, while we obviously hope something happens here, where the rubber really meets the road is what happens back home. We encourage people to take a look at Sr. Ruth Fox’s wonderful article on women in the Lectionary, which details the women who were outright omitted – like Phoebe, who was blanked out of the Letter to the Romans. Mary of Magdala’s commission to go and tell my brothers that I have risen … she’s the first one who received an apostolic commission, but it’s never read on any of the Sundays of Easter. The woman who anointed Jesus in preparation for his passion, and who really seems to understand him best … he says of her, ‘Wherever the gospel is told, this will be told in memory of her.’ In reality, it’s never told in memory of her. It’s deleted.

We have developed a packet of materials, downloadable from our web site, full of concrete things you can do in your parish to change how we do this. For example, during Holy Week, when the women were so prominent in their faithfulness to Jesus through his death, burial and resurrection, we have a whole bunch of materials people can use to raise awareness. Ruth Fox’s article has a list of ten different ideas of how we can get these women known out there. So, it’s not just coming to the synod and doing this fairly high-profile thing over here.

You see this as an opportunity to raise awareness, that may lead people to ask what they can do in their home environment?

Exactly. I think we’ve been very pleased with the project so far. We have a college in California, for example, that’s going to do a weekend workshop on the “Women of the Word.” We’re working with pastoral ministers and other women on a schedule for next June. We think this is one of those ‘doable’ things. We can restore women to the Lectionary, we can give greater attention to Jesus’ and St. Paul’s inclusive practice, and we can expand opportunities for women and men to preach. In fact, our first goal, which was to get more women at the synod, was already taken care of before we got here! [Note: For the first time, a slight majority of the observers invited to the synod are women – 19 out of 37.]

I’ve asked a couple of bishops about lay preaching. Their basic position is that it’s impossible in the Eucharist, but they’d love to see other opportunities for it. How do you react to that?

I think it’s a matter of interpretation whether it’s impossible in the Eucharist or not, just given what the canons are.

The General Instruction on the Roman Missal seems pretty clear.

There are canonists, however, who say that the General Instruction can’t overtake what’s in canon law. In any event, that’s under dispute, but it’s not something ‘doable’ for us right now.

During the synod, however, I’ve been reading the interventions from the bishops from the Philippines, from Africa, from Brazil, from Paraguay, with beautiful passion, about the laity … for example, the base communities, the ecclesial communities. In Brazil, 70 percent of the people do not have access to the Eucharist. What they have is access to services of the Word. Who’s preaching at those services of the Word? They’re women. I know from my own experience of having been in Nicaragua for a short time that many women are the animators of those communities, and they are very powerful, powerful preachers.

I hate to say it, but as the priest shortage in the United States deepens – and that’s the environment I know best – I see us moving more and more to these sort of communities. I don’t think mega-parishes with 10,000 families are going to really feed the souls of most American Catholics.

You believe that regardless of decisions made on a theological or canonical level, the changing sociology of the church means that lay preaching is going to become more common?

That’s right, and that has a whole other set of issues attached to it. I have to say that I was moved by Cardinal [Marc] Ouellet’s opening speech, when he talked about how Dei Verbum’s understanding of the “relational and dialogic” nature of scripture really hasn’t taken hold yet. Part of his hope for the synod was that it would give an impetus in that direction. It was interesting hearing the interventions from the bishops from the developing world. Dei Verbum took hold a whole lot in those oral cultures of poor people, who connects with their experience – in many ways, much more than in the developed world. I think we in the developed world have a lot to learn. I’m sure those folks never heard of Dei Verbum, but it’s changing who they are. As a bishop from the Philippines said, it’s leading them to challenge in their small way the materialistic culture of the developed world.

I think the Word of God is very alive and well and active, but it’s not where you’d think. It’s mostly in those poorer communities that Jesus spoke to, and here’s the thing: The poorest people in the world are women and children. That brings us back to the value of raising awareness of early women leaders, because women do connect multiple levels with scripture. One is from the situation of being oppressed, because many women have experienced that in spades, so they understand the Jesus message in a different way from men, or from others who have not experienced oppression. At least in my experience as a mid-wife, the downside of oppression is that you often internalize it in very low self-esteem. That’s why I love this project, because it’s another way for women to recognize that they’re equally valued, loved, called and summoned by God to be about proclaiming the Word.

One of the other things I do while I’m here is tours of the sites of early women leaders in the church. They’re just wonderful friezes of fourth century women leaders with a codex, a book, in the teaching stance, surrounded by the Biblical stories. At least for me, it is very affirming to know that I’m part of a long line here.

Of course, some Catholic women who have felt the sense of oppression or alienation you describe have simply walked away. Why is it important to you to work with the official leadership and structures of the church?

I think we’re very rooted in the institutional church. We had 28 parishes that supported our initial resolution. The other thing is, how are we ever going to have the church change if we don’t engage the leadership? I’ll be real honest, sometimes I’ve been pretty turned off by the leadership. A turning point for me was when Bishop Geoffrey Robinson came to Cleveland to speak about his book on the sex abuse scandal in Australia. It’s a very powerful book. He also gave an inside look at the difficulties bishops face, the kinds of things they deal with both from below and from above. I got a whole new picture. So many times, these guys are just as caught in an unresponsive and, in some ways, mechanistic system as the rest of us.

Like it or not, this is part of the family. I didn’t resign from my family because my dad was an alcoholic. We worked together, we worked it out. He was a much happier man when he died, and I had much greater love for him, than I would have had I walked away. It’s terrible, but many people describe the current decision-making structures in the church as dysfunctional, and I think they are. I don’t think they’re going to get any better, however, if people like me just bail. I’m not about to bail. There’s something about the church I love. That’s part of our motto at FutureChurch: ‘We love the church, we’re working to make it better.’ Loving the church, however, doesn’t mean we’re blind to what needs to change. We also know it’s never going to change unless we keep working at it.

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