Last week the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women concluded a two-week session which dealt with protecting women and girls against violence in the modern world. I was embarrassed to read in The New York Times that the Vatican delegation sided with Russia and several Muslim countries in blocking one of the declarations for women’s protection.
I am aware that the Vatican opposition is sometimes due to the wording rather than to the proposal itself. But I wish they could be more careful in their objections so as to avoid always appearing opposed to something which most people consider right and just. This is particularly true in regard to the rights of women, since the Church has the reputation of wanting to keep women in a subordinate role.
Unfortunately there is a basis for this reputation, beginning with the words of Saint Paul in his letter to the Ephesians where he wrote that wives should be subordinate to their husbands in everything (5, 22-24). He continued along the same line in his letter to Timothy where he laid down rules about women’s hair-styles, and then forbade that women be allowed to teach or have authority over a man (1 Timothy 2, 9-12).
This basic teaching of women being subordinate to men was taken up in later centuries and put forward by Scholastic theologians as a reason why women could not be admitted to priestly ministry in the Church. This reason no longer has any acceptance, but the Church authorities continue their opposition to women priests on the basis of what the Popes now call “theological anthropology” (Angelus Domini Paul VI Jan 30, 1977; Ordinatio sacerdotalis John Paul II May 22, 1994).
Whatever about this new concept of theological anthropology, I am convinced that the Vatican delegations, which give the impression of opposition to women’s rights at international meetings, are not representative of the Catholic Church. They are called delegations of the Holy See which represents the Vatican City State at international meetings. The Vatican City State came into being in 1929 from a Papal agreement with the government of Italy.
The Holy See or Apostolic See is a term that came into use in the 4th century in reference to the diocese of Rome, the primary diocese of the Roman Catholic Church. Modern Church Law describes the Holy See thus: “The term Apostolic See or Holy See refers not only to the Roman Pontiff but also to the Secretariat of State, the Council for the Public Affairs of the Church, and other institutes of the Roman Curia, unless it is otherwise apparent from the nature of the matter or the context of the words” (Canon 361). In other words the Holy See is not the Catholic Church, but the central administration which has shown itself to the world in recent times as totally dysfunctional with its in-fighting, corruption and intrigue.
In future I will console myself with the thought that the Holy See delegations at international meetings represent only the Vatican City State and not the Church founded by Jesus Christ who taught us that authority is given not to dominate or control but to share and to serve. Our new Pope Francis is showing the way.
Two days ago, on September 8, 2012, I attended an anniversary celebration in Boston, Massachussetts. It was the 40th anniversary of the official opening of Sancta Maria House, the first overnight shelter for homeless women in Boston.
The celebration took place in Holy Cross Cathedral in downtown Boston. There were about 200 people present, including Cardinal Sean O’Malley the Archbishop of Boston, and Mary McHale, the prime mover in acquiring the shelter 40 years ago.
The celebration consisted of a concelebrated Mass followed by sharing refreshments and memories in the community hall attached to the Cathedral. I was invited to the anniversary by Mary McHale because I was with her in the events which led up to the founding of the shelter.
In 1963 I was assigned to teach theology in one of the Boston colleges preparing young men for the priesthood. I had spent the previous 7 years as a missionary in the Philippines where I worked as spiritual advisor to the members of the Legion of Mary. The Legion of Mary is an organization which trains Catholic men and women to bring the message of God’s love to those who may not be aware of it.
When I was assigned to Boston to teach, I wanted to find an opportunity for pastoral work in the wider community, so I sought out the local Legion of Mary. At one of the coordinating meetings of the Legion I met Mary McHale. Together we formed two new groups of the Legion. One group was to staff a religious book-barrow Saturday afternoons on the street in Roxbury.
A few years later we formed a second group, composed entirely of women, to work at night in the “combat zone”. Their purpose was to seek out and befriend young women who were at risk, walking the streets in the hope of earning something by being engaged as an escort for the night.
This second group soon alerted us to our need for a house or a shelter. We needed a place to bring any of the women who were persuaded to leave the dangers of the “combat zone”. In 1970 I received a new overseas assignment, but Mary and the other members of the group continued on with their street work and also continued in their search for a suitable house. It was difficult to find a suitable place at a suitable price, and it might have proved impossible if divine providence had not intervened.
The Legion of Mary has a saying, “Every impossibility is divisible into 39 steps, each one of which is possible”. Just when it seemed impossible to get a suitable house at a suitable price, Mary McHale met one of the local landlords. In their conversation he told her he was getting too old for the business, and asked her if she knew anyone who wanted to buy a house. Mary told him she was in the market for a house, and he promptly offered her his house at a price that she and the Legion of Mary could afford. That was June 1972.
Within three months the house was ready, and on Friday September 8, 1972, it was blessed by Archbishop Medeiros and officially opened. Sancta Maria House declares as its mission to “Provide a safe haven each night for 10 women in need, a place where they know they will be treated with respect and courtesy. Sancta Maria House is a place to rest and renew body and soul in a home-like atmosphere, free of judgment”.
The House is managed by a Director and two women volunteers each night. This is the way the Sancta Maria House website (sanctamariahouse.org) describes itself: “Sancta Maria House is a safe place for homeless women in Boston, that provides everything for our guests – a light meal, a refreshing shower, a change of clothes, and a clean bed in which to have a peaceful night’s rest, safe from the dangers of the city’s streets”.
The house is available to guests from 7 p.m. to 8 a.m. It is not a permanent residence for anyone, but rather an emergency shelter for 7 consecutive nights while guests are being helped to make provision for a more permanent place to stay
Since its opening in 1972, Sancta Maria House has provided overnight accommodation for more than 120,000 guests. This is a remarkable achievement considering that it depends entirely on private donations for its financial support. Tradesmen and construction companies have been generous in helping freely in the maintenance and repair of the building.
In a recent interview Mary McHale was asked if she had any favorite memories from Sancta Maria House. She replied that what gave her most joy was to see how the guests helped one another, and shared with one another. It was as if the kindness which they received at Sancta Maria House was contagious, and inspired them in turn to be kind to one another.
It gave me great pleasure to re-connect with the few remaining members of the original team, and to see how they are being replaced by members of the new generation of the Legion of Mary. Some of these new members were not even born when the original project began. Their active presence in this ongoing service is living proof that the seed sown in Boston more than 40 years ago continues to bear fruit today.