In his March 27, 2020 extraordinary message Urbi et Orbi, Pope Francis insisted that the time of coronavirus was “not the time of [God’s] judgement, but of our judgement: a time to choose what matters and what passes away, a time to separate what is necessary from what is not.” The injunction “to seize this time of trial as a time of choosing” offered by the Pope came at what may have been a providential time for egalitarian Catholic women’s movements. As the pandemic closed church buildings worldwide, and both the women and the priests went home and on line, the effect was to energize and unite the former while isolating the latter. As priests celebrated mass alone, women organized worldwide mixed sex, women-centered participatory Zoom liturgies, and worshipped in house churches and in communities of nuns without benefit of clergy. The choices made during the pandemic may have lasting consequences for both the clergy, who may find it increasingly difficult to overcome their isolation and reconnect with their flock, and the women and their supporters, who seem increasingly disinclined to go back rather than forward.
Two video images capture for me the stark choice offered to Catholic feminists in this time of choosing. The first is of Pope Francis, alone in the middle of a vast, fenced-off, rain-drenched St. Peter’s Square delivering the afore-mentioned Urbi et Orbi blessing to the city of Rome and to the world. He is flanked by a holy icon of the Virgin and a crucifix, and accompanied only by a handful of male clergy. The singing that accompanies him consists exclusively of male voices, reminding the listener of longstanding bans on women’s singing in church. Visible in the distance, pressed up against the gates, are a small number of the faithful (or merely curious) sheltering under umbrellas. This brought back the memory of other occasions when women were literally as well as figuratively fenced out. For example, in 2018, during the Synod on Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment, several dozen women and men protesting the failure to grant voting rights to any woman at the synod stood outside the gates that led to the synod hall, chanting “Knock, knock.” “Who’s there?” “More than half the church.” Their protests attracted the direct attention of more police than synod fathers.
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