I have always thought it strange why so many women feel isolated from the Catholic Church, when it has at its centre a woman, Mary - the Mother of God. It is not right that many women feel they are ‘second class citizens’ within a church that attempts to reach out to all. Surely without Mary, the New Testament would be worthless. Surely after the Nazarene Himself, the Mother of Jesus, who is venerated by the Catholic and Orthodox churches, is the first and greatest saint in heaven. Mary is revered by all Christian churches, and honoured by Islam. At the very first council of the Church, at Ephesus four hundred years after Christ, she was declared to be the Theotokos, Mother of God (the actual God bearer ). But even before that her image, holding the Child, was etched into tombs in the Roman catacombs. Being the Theotokos, Mary could have become remote, unreal from the human experience. After all we are told that she was born free from Original Sin, which as a total ‘theological illiterate’ I don’t fully understand; but I accept the logic that if Mary was not the mother of God, then Jesus was not God. I believe that He was. Yet despite the supreme position of Mary many women feel isolated, uninvolved, as if they have no contribution to make.
This is all the more surprising to me when, despite this extraordinary role that she was called upon to play, Mary is not remote. She is regarded as a compassionate mediator between our humanity and her son Jesus. At the marriage feast of Cana, Jesus performs, in many ways, a meaningless miracle: turning water into wine. But what is important is that when Mary asked Him to do something about there being no wine, He protested and said that His time had not yet come. “Leave me alone”. Yet she persisted, and He consented. Talk about a mother’s influence!
And then that amazing scene on the cross when she watched in terror as her son slowly died. According to the New Testament (John: 25-27 ) .. ‘ Jesus saw his mother. He also saw the follower that he loved standing there. He said to his mother: “Woman, here is your son.” Then to the follower: “Here is your mother.” Which to an ignorant theologian like me, must mean that Mary is offered as a mother to all.
When she was pregnant she, like any women, rushes off to tell her family her wonderful news. As she approaches her cousin Elizabeth (who is herself pregnant although she was regarded as being past childbearing ), she calls out to Mary: “Blessed are you among women”, and “Who am I that the mother of my Lord would visit me?”
But perhaps we see Mary at her most human when she gives birth to her son Jesus. Thanks to St Francis of Assisi, the image of the birth at Bethlehem was brought home in a most natural way that wonderful Christmas Eve 1223. A man and a woman laid their child on straw, among live animals in a crib at his church at Greccio. Seeing the helpless baby Jesus suckled by his mother, surrounded by the breath and smell of animals, brought the nativity into the hearts and homes of us all.
As if to reinforce her role as a mediator between God and man, and as if offering herself to play that role, there have been remarkable appearances of Mary at various times around the world. Perhaps the most famous in Europe is the sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes, France. Others include the basilica of Guadeloupe in Mexico City, Our Lady of Fatima in Portugal, Loreto, Italy, the Black Madonna in Czestochowa, Poland, Our Lady of Good Faith at Tamil Nadu, India, and closer to home The Basilica of Our Lady, Queen of Ireland at Knock, Co Mayo. Other reported apparition sites include Medugorje, which is not recognised by Rome at the moment, yet it receives thousands of pilgrims every year.
Lourdes is impressive. Anyone who goes there cannot but be moved by the sick, especially by the children; and the atmosphere around the grotto, where ‘a small young lady’ appeared to the child Bernadette Soubirous over a period of months in 1858. Poor Bernadette had a hard time convincing people to believe her, and suffered humiliating interrogations until she was believed. The apparition was immediately recognised as being Mary. She spoke, in the native Basque tongue of southern France and northern Spain, urging people to pray and do penance. Lourdes, with a population of around 15,000 people, receives about five million pilgrims every year. Within France only Paris has more hotel bedrooms.
Twenty-one years after the apparition at Lourdes, Mary appeared at Knock, accompanied by St Joseph and St John on August 21 1879. This time Mary remained silent. Two women, Mary Byrne and Mary McLoughlin, were the first to see them on the gable of the church. They rushed off to get others to witness the event. Mary McLoughlin was the local parish priest’s housekeeper; he was a well respected man in the area. Fr Cavanagh, however, refused to go and see what the girls saw. Nevertheless following two investigations, Knock gradually gained official recognition from the Church, culminating in the papal visit of 1979. It is not unusual for 20,000 pilgrims to attend ceremonies at Knock today.
A central role
Many churches in Galway have special Marian shrines. Perhaps the best known is the dedicated altar at the Church of St Mary-on-the-Hill, Claddagh. The painted wooden statue is of Mary standing holding the child Jesus at her left, while on her right she holds a mother of pearl rosary beads (presented by a Claddagh fisherman ). The statue is dated 1698, and was buried for many years when the Dominicans fled the city at the approach of Cromwellian soldiers. At its installation on May 22 1922, it was carried in procession through the narrow cobbled streets of the old Claddagh. Every house had been repainted with white or blue wash, and every family, wearing their best clothes, was represented in a public display of real devotion and joy. It stands today against an attractive deep blue mosaic of Galway Bay.
I say all this because I was surprised twenty years ago, when newspapers jostled one another for photographs of the bishops’ quarterly meeting at Maynooth, or some such occasion, to see that there were no women present. I did not expect women to be bishops or indeed priests (that eventuality is several generations away ), but I wondered why, when Mary holds such a pivotal place in the Catholic Church, women have not been allowed to reflect that position. I wonder why even more today when women have occupied the highest positions of leadership in the country, they have still no place at the table when it comes to decision making. Looking back, I wonder if a Nuala O’Luan was at the table when some bishops were shuffling a paedophile from parish to parish, what would have been her reaction....I can quess that it would have been discussed for one-half second, before being shot down.
The Christian church rightly prides itself on its traditions. Jesus, it says, only had men as his disciples. That is true. Even today, women in the Middle East are obliged to keep a low profile. In Jesus’ time it would have ended His mission, and caused outrage, had He included women among his followers as they moved from town to town. He was radical enough without that!
Especially in the last 20 years, the position of women in our western society has totally changed. Yet in the one organisation, where a woman had a central role in its founding, where women could have expected to have been embraced, involved and valued; many feel now they have been effectively ignored. They are disillusioned by the mess the Church has made of itself in recent times. They recall the devotion of their mothers and grandmothers to the Church, which was one of total acceptance in difficult times, and a belief that the Church would not let them down. Yet many women feel they have been pushed aside, that the feminine nature in our world has little or no place in guiding the church.
Now an 80-year-old woman, Jennifer Sleeman from Clonakilty, Cork, is calling for women to boycott Mass this Sunday “ to let the Vatican and the Irish Church know that women are tired of being treated as second-class citizens”. She said:“ Whatever change you long for, recognition, ordination, the end of celibacy, which is another means of keeping women out, join with our sisters and let the hierarchy know by your absence that the days of an exclusively male-dominated Church are over.”
Someone remarked to me that Ms Sleeman was “ nothing but a crackpot”. Personally, I do not want to boycott a Mass, which is a special gift to us all; but I support Ms Jennifer Sleeman.