The Church Needs to Wake Up
“Describing women who desire leadership as “power hungry” is an unfair characterization. We do not say the same about bishops or priests who lead our dioceses and parishes. Leadership enables us to make an impact.” Sr. Terry Rickard, OP is the President of RENEW International, a ministry of New Evangelization that has reached over 25 million people in 160 dioceses with its innovative formation processes for small Christian communities.
The heart of the mission of RENEW International is to renew the church and to engage laity in its leadership. Sr. Terry Rickard, OP explains: “We are in a critical time in the Church. Organizations like Renew International are innovative. We are committed to spiritual renewal both personal and pastoral – renewing parish life to make it more vibrant, welcoming and create a greater sense of belonging. We do that through the vehicle of forming small Christian communities that meet in people’s homes.” Parishes need resources and training more than ever as clergy continue to age and some parishes serve large communities with perhaps 10,000 or 20,000 parishioners. “Maintenance is not enough,” believes Sr. Rickard, “we are losing people who want to have a connection. The Church needs to wake up!”
Seventy percent of the participants in the programs of RENEW International are women. The programs give women an opportunity to share faith and participate in leadership training. Sr. Terry points out “the central idea of our work is faith-sharing, giving people the power to articulate their faith from their experience. I think that it is particularly important for us as women to not allow others to articulate our faith for us but to include our own experience. It is an opportunity for women to read and pray the scriptures and interpret the Word through their own lives and then move to action.”
Through her work, Sr. Rickard sees that many staff positions in parishes in the United States are filled with women but these women have only limited access to leadership: “Parishes flourish when women are truly partners and are able to use their gifts and talents.”
Sr. Rickard describes how after the Second Vatican Council, more positions became open to lay people, including many women, especially religious sisters at the diocesan level up to the level of Chancellors of dioceses. Then religious sisters began empowering lay women to study theology. But as the number of women religious is declining and they are aging, they seem to be getting replaced not by the women they mentored but by deacons.
Sr. Rickard observes: “I have seen a shift in that, in the last ten years, you see very few women who are Chancellors or taking some of these positions that canonically they can take. That is what Pope Francis has been talking about but we are not seeing it yet at the local level. Two recent Chancellors in our diocese were women but that is not true now. I feel that we have taken a step back.” Sr. Rickard concludes: “The goal is men and women working together but the Church is heavily dominated by men because of ordination so the Church has to be particularly intentional about including women in leadership positions.”
Sr. Terry perceives an unfair criticism directed towards women in leadership. “When a man aspires to be a leader he is looked up to. It is an unfair characterization to say of women that they are power hungry. Are priests and bishops power hungry, is that why they became priests? If you want to make a difference, you want to have an impact. I didn’t come to RENEW International to be the president. I wanted to do the hands-on work but what I came to see is that I can have a bigger impact as a leader.”
Further, Sr. Rickard believes that limited access to leadership causes particularly younger women to not consider the Catholic Church as a place where their talents can blossom. “A lot of women, if they had an opportunity to be leaders, would stay in Church work. But because there is no opportunity to use their leadership, they are a president of a college or the head of a charity organization. There is a whole generation at stake. You are not going to recruit younger women because they can be leaders and evangelizers anywhere. We see it happening already. Statistics show us that women in greater numbers are walking away from the Church now.”
So what does Sr. Rickard suggest? According to her, the Church has to quickly learn to be intentional about attracting women and offering them leadership roles. “In the past, women were taken for granted and we cannot take women for granted anymore.” The Pope has spoken about the need for women in all levels of church leadership. Now “the Pope can model that for the church.” That is Sr. Rickard’s passionate plea for a change that many hope to see.