Columbus, Ohio — On the Feast of Saint Catherine of Siena, the 14th-century saint who since 1970 has been known as a doctor of the Church, I was surrounded by Dominican friars, priests who have dedicated their lives to God, praising God for the gift of her. Remembering her, we sang: “No earthly pleasure, bodily adornment, nor fleshly beauty, satisfied your longing; every enticement to a life unholy, always avoiding.”
One of the remarkably things about Catherine, which may be lost on many, is that she wasn’t a religious sister. She was a laywoman who found that the fullness of joy in this life comes in realizing that freedom is seeing your life as a gift from God to give back to Him, every day of your life. Freedom is in obedience to God’s will. And it brought her joy, even in suffering. Humble perseverance was her way, encouraging people of all states of life — and even a pope.
The friars let me into a little window into their lives, as they prayed vespers in their priory chapel, as they always do, just yards from Saint Patrick’s parish church, where there is a shrine to Saint Margaret of Castello, a newly canonized saint. She was born blind in the late 13th century, with a severe spinal curvature. Her noble parents were horrified by her disabilities and believed it would have been better had she had never been born. (How many people today think this about themselves? It has to be one of the cruelest lies we can inflict on another’s heart and mind.)
Margaret spent years of her childhood locked away, so she could not be seen. For the first six, she was sent to live with the servants, but after that she was locked alone in a cell near the house chapel. Being near the most sacred part of the house made a contemplative out of her. But there’s particularly brutal scene in a tapestry beside a relic from her heart at Saint Patrick’s, where you see a riderless horse between her two parents. Around the age of 16, they took Margaret to a shrine, hoping for a miraculous healing. When it didn’t come, they abandoned her. She became a beggar, but some locals filled with a spirit of charity took her in. Ultimately, she would challenge those who considered themselves holy and draw others into her joy as she served the outcast, having experienced the worst of our throwaway tendencies, cast aside by her own mother and father, whom she forgave.
My time at Saint Patrick’s coincided with some online discussion of an article that appeared in the Washington Post and elsewhere. Headlined “Barring women as leaders in church may be bad for their health, new study finds,” it began: “Going to church is generally touted as good for the soul. But there is also evidence church attendance can be good for your health — unless, that is, you are a woman at a church that bars women from preaching or other leadership roles.” The study it refers to is “When Religion Hurts: Structural Sexism and Health in Religious Denominations.” A critique of it published by the Institute for Family Studies points out what should be common sense, though, and common ground: “Every effort ought to be made for women to thrive.”
For men and women alike. During these pandemic times, it’s infuriating to hear the claim that religion is unhealthy. Religion is essential for women and men alike. And I have no need to be a priest to be nourished by the Catholic Church, despite all the imperfections — and sin and scandal — humans cause in it, because Christianity isn’t sin and scandal and mistakes and missed opportunities. It’s Jesus Christ. He is what the sacraments are about. He’s why virtual isn’t enough. He’s why the woman wearing the “Faith not religion” T-shirt on the plane ride here doesn’t know the riches she’s missing.
What I’m struck by in my near half-century of lived Catholicism is how the Church exalts women. Among many others, there was that message issued by Paul VI at the end of the Second Vatican Council, and reissued by Pope Benedict XVI, to all the women of the world: “At this moment when the human race is undergoing so deep a transformation, women impregnated with the spirit of the Gospel can do so much to aid mankind in not falling. . . . Women of the entire universe, whether Christian or nonbelieving, you to whom life is entrusted at this grave moment in history, it is for you to save the peace of the world.”
Now you could tell me that’s too much pressure, but it may just be the healthiest thing ever said about women. It’s a challenge to both women and men, to live with an appreciation that we need one another and our gifts.
There are women in the Church who leave men of tremendous scholarship speechless, longing for the conviction and passion of faith that you find in very different women such as Catherine and Margaret. Elizabeth of the Trinity, also comes to mind. The list goes on. That a woman can’t be a priest is not an impediment to sanctity — or to health, for goodness’ sake. Look to women like Catherine and Margaret, and see the boundless possibilities for a woman’s life in the Church. They are two laywoman who continue to lead today. And they are far from alone in what we call the communion of the saints, or cloud of witnesses. Maybe we religious believers should just get with actually living faith? That might just be a Godsend for those who have been made to feel like unwanted burdens.
This column is based on one available through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.