More than the backbone, the whole skeleton

Delia Henry says the contribution of women to the life of the Church has been undervalued for too long.

I encourage you to look around your congregation and ask yourself: “Are there more women than men here?” I know at my church the majority of Mass-goers are women and I don’t doubt that this is replicated across Scotland.

In my parish, during Covid, we would not have been able to function without 70 volunteers, more than 60% of them women.

I mentioned to a friend that this really showed how women are the backbone of the Catholic Church, to which she replied ‘No, we’re the whole skeleton!’

The more I thought about it, the more right she seemed. After all skeletons are usually invisible but if they collapse so does everything else.

Recently my parish was hosting a group of international Catholic visitors who needed to stay overnight in Glasgow.

In true Scottish fashion, we wanted to be the best hosts. The call went out for parishioners to clean the church hall and to bring a bucket and mop.

That call was answered by a dozen women, who willingly volunteered their time. It may not be glamorous but they were putting their faith into practice.

My question on the night was: where are the men with their buckets and mops?

This may seem a small thing, but during the pandemic, the reopening of the churches depended on an army of volunteers to scrub, wipe and clean every pew. There weren’t a lot of men in that army.

For 2,000 years the culture of the Catholic Church has been that men are at the forefront and men make the decisions. Yet behind the scenes it’s always been Catholic women who make things happen.

Today the tasks range from managing the parish, delivering events, organising volunteers, writing newsletters, banking collections, dealing with HMRC on gift aid and making financial contributions. The list is endless.

One of my contributions is reading at Mass, which I’ve done for more than 20 years.

So I was astonished to discover that as recently as 2021 Pope Frances found it necessarily to formally announce that women could officially participate in the liturgy.

“Jesus treated women with open- ness, respect, acceptance, and tenderness,” the Pope said then.

“In this way, he honoured the dignity that women have al- ways possessed according to God’s plan and in his love.”

Two thousand years on, it is natural to ask ourselves: How much of his message has been heard and acted upon?

The fact that just last year the Pope had to say women could take formal roles in the liturgy, where previously it was at the discretion of local bishops, suggests not enough.

I have worked in the charity sector for more than 25 years and completely understand the critical role volunteers play in a community.

However, I have always been conscious that volunteer roles should not be taken for granted or exploited, and if the work crosses over into what should be a paid role then a rethink is required.

How much of women’s contribution to the Church has been taken for granted over the years?

For 2,000 years the Church has been dominated by men. I would humbly suggest that their record has not been flawless. Are we using all the gifts of the people of God?

I have seen strong women who would challenge very difficult issues in other areas of their life being deferential to a priest simply because of their position and that is not serving us well.

I know that this is a difficult issue to address but it cannot be avoided any longer. Younger women’s expectations of equality are rightly higher than those who went before them.

I believe that having the conversation about women and the major contributions they make to the Catholic Church in Scotland and across the world is the start of the journey.

All well-run organisations look strategically at what they need to deliver change and what will be required to survive into the future.

Key to that approach for the Catholic Church is the recognition on the ground that women are the Church’s skeleton and without a healthy skeleton we’re not going anywhere.

Delia Henry has been the Scottish director of two major UK charities that delivered services to vulnerable adults and children, over a period of 25 years.

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