Here is the church,
here is the steeple,
open the doors
and see all the people!
The old finger play nursery rhyme begins with deceptively tidy church-door thumbs and steeple index fingers from which active, vibrant “people” burst when the thumb-doors open.
It’s wisdom from the mouths (and fingers) of babes. Both we LGBTQA Catholics and our critics cite “the Church” and its teachings on sexuality frequently—inaccurately shortening “the Roman Catholic Church” to “Church” as if it were the whole of Christianity. So do the media and Catholics of all stripes, as we demand action from “the Church” to hold “itself” accountable for sweeping sexual abuse and harassment under the carpet. I’d be dishonest if I didn’t admit that I’ve been more tempted than ever to walk out of “the Church” and slam the door.
But along with the memory of this old finger play, a group of women religious has called my bluff. The weekend before Thanksgiving, 35 vowed sisters from 19 congregations gathered at the tenth Womanjourney conference sponsored by New Ways Ministry. Vocation directors and congregational leaders, as well as lesbian sisters engaged in every ministry imaginable, came together to pray and to reflect on how to lead holy, genuinely loving lives. Around the edges of our conversations, our various ministries emerged: teaching, hospital chaplaincy, advocacy, social work, other kinds of direct service, “all the people” doing the work of God in the world.
To be sure, “the institutional Church” was with us in the form of the lovely Siena Center, the Dominican Sisters’ retreat center in Racine, Wisconsin, and in the priest who presided at Mass for us all on Sunday. Otherwise, we were a group of women ministering to each other, being Church in the nursery rhyme’s sense.
Our conversations, too, were church-ly in that “here comes everybody” sense. Frank reflection on the importance of honestly acknowledging the power and energy of sexuality felt like an antidote to the echo chambers of secrecy and shame that have encouraged sexual abuse. Our thoughtful dialogues on healthy mentoring yielded real safeguards against inadvertently asking the people for whom we care to carry emotional baggage that we should be handling in healthier ways. Decades of wisdom gleaned from navigating life in community reminded us all that, even in the best of circumstances, collaborating happily requires humility, forbearance, genuine appreciation of others, and sometimes even an external consultant. “Church” was in and with us, abundantly.
The conference reminded us that “the Catholic Church” is not bishops. It is not the curia. It is not St. Peter’s Basilica, built in part with money gathered in questionable indulgence sales (see Martin Luther’s 95 Theses). It is an institution in some respects, and it does include its ordained leaders. But it is overwhelmingly composed of laypeople and vowed religious (who are considered laity in canon law).
Like other Christian communions, the Catholic Church is people of faith, gathered in prayer, encouraging each other, doing the work of the Gospel. It goes where we take it. If we stop, it ends.
Need a further argument? Look no further than another classic children’s song:
The church is not a building;
the church is not a steeple;
the church is not a resting place;
the church is a people.
I am the church! You are the church!
We are the church together!
All who follow Jesus,
all around the world!
Yes, we’re the church together!
For more information about New Ways Ministry’s programs for lesbian nuns and all women’s religious community leaders, click here.
To see a sample copy of our Womanjourney Weavings newsletter, click here.
Cristina Traina, Northwestern University, November 28, 018