Are there limits to speaking with parrhesia? By Sister Madeleine Fredell OP

By Sister Madeleine Fredell OP, Sweden

Delivered at Voices of Faith ‘And You Sister… What Do You Say? October 3rd 2019. Biblioteca Vallicelliana, Rome.

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Do you have faith to move mountains? That is, the dynamic and strong faith which is needed of us women and sisters to make our voices really heard in the Catholic Church today. It is the kind of enthusiasm that was the order of the day when I was a young adult in the beginning and middle of the 1970’s. We actually achieved some unity between the different ecclesial communities, partaking in one another’s eucharistic celebrations. We actually did give the homily during mass in many Catholic settings. As a Dominican I belong to the Order of Preachers, Ordo Praedicatorum, and my principal mission is preaching. Preaching certainly comes in a variety of ways, but there is no valid excuse for us sisters not being able to give the homily. I still consider my vocation to be that of preaching the Word of God and to do that in the form of the homily.

Many women in the Catholic Church, and not least religious sisters, feel enthusiastic about Pope Francis’ encouragement to speak with parrhesia, openness, frankness and boldness. But how far will this parrhesia take us? I meet numerous women, lay and religious, who have become discouraged by years of being silenced and treated as second best. Until the middle of the 1990’s not a few of us sisters still had the occasional possibility to give the homily in some parishes. But all of a sudden, the pulpit was not open to us any longer. There are several reasons why this backlash happened, but I would say that a tendency towards legalism, an unhealthy centralism and a new form of clericalism started to reinforce its way during the middle of the 1990s. 

Sometimes we were still allowed to give a kind of homily with the priest introducing us to the pulpit with the words “Now, Sister will share a few words on today’s readings with us …” I don’t accept that kind of treatment any longer. Or when I had been asked by the parish priest to give the homily at Sunday mass because the celebrating priest didn’t know sufficient Swedish and the latter asked to go through my homily before mass and said that it had to be preached at the end of the celebration. Needless to say, I refused to give that homily and told the congregation why. Of course, I am not alone to have been ignored, denounced and silenced in my diocese and out of discretion I will only mention some of my experiences. Once they wanted me to answer for my alleged heresy to a group of five priests! I couldn’t help my quick answer to that: “Do you really need five priests to defend catholic doctrine against me?” Almost end of story, I only had to meet with one of them! Or when I was assigned the prestigious task to give the speech in the Lutheran cathedral of Stockholm at the annual opening of the Swedish Parliament in 2017 and the Catholic diocese kept absolutely silent about it. To try and make my speech insignificant, the catholic magazine published a homily that the bishop had given at least ten years earlier …

So how far will this parrhesia take us? Many of us are prepared to speak with parrhesia, but is that enough to change the deep-rooted, male, hierarchical culture that is imprinted in the leadership of the Catholic Church?

Pope Francis’ invitation to speak with parrhesia has already removed some of the bumps we have had on the way since the hopeful decade after the Second Vatican Council. For example, I suppose that the so called “definitively held propositions” that were put forward in the apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis in 1994 and made its entry into the Canon Law through the motu proprio Ad tuendam fidem in 1998 must be at least somewhat less definitive if we are really invited to speak with parrhesia. The very least parrhesia must mean to be allowed to put forward arguments for alternative propositions without being deemed a heretic!

Encouraging us to speak with parrhesia, Pope Francis is at least not afraid of an open dialogue. What is important at this particular moment is that we have got the microphone back, even if giving the homily in the pulpit still seems to be somewhere in the future. However, I wouldn’t consider it too bold a suggestion to open the pulpit to religious sisters and lay people to give the homily during mass. 

We women, lay and religious, are not only tired of indefensible documents and statements, but above all many of us are bored at listening only to male interpretations of biblical texts, ethics and ecclesial life. Sunday after Sunday, we are exposed to faith experiences made only by men, or interpreted by an only male priesthood. Not to talk about the exclusive male language in liturgy, prayers, hymns. Yes, there are editions with inclusive language but they are hardly used in parishes. Abuses of all kinds have come to the fore in the Church, sexual abuse, economic abuse, abuse of conscience, of power, and so on. There is also the abuse of the silencing of women’s experiences, women’s interpretations of life and faith – the silencing of women’s voices. There is also the abuse of an only masculine language.

And you sisters, what do you say? Today, we are focusing on women who have given their lives to the Gospel in a great variety of ways, on women who have vowed their lives to proclaim the good tidings to humanity as a whole. Religious sisters have all through the ages moved mountains, and they still are, because they are filled with a transformative, dynamic faith. But we are not allowed behind the pulpit to give the Sunday homily, to share our faith experiences, our biblical interpretations. We are silenced.

As baptized, we are Christ, but as women we are not recognized to represent Christ, at least not publicly during mass. There does not exist one single valid argument why this is so. And we are not even allowed, according to Canon Law, to proclaim the Good News in form of the homily during mass. I don’t think there are any valid arguments why this is so either. Despite the fact that women – and religious sisters – have been silenced and banned from the altar and pulpit we have still found creative ways to proclaim the good tidings. Sometimes the hierarchical Church has told us women and sisters to take on the Marian face of the Church. Well, let’s do that, we want to take on the active, courageous and revolutionary face of Mary of the Magnificat! And let us consign the image of Mary as a passive introvert to oblivion once and for all! 

Pope Francis, if you really want to be bold and creative, and invite religious sisters to a meaningful service in the Church, open the Sunday mass’ pulpit to us! Grant us the right to give the homily! In the Swedish Lutheran Church, there is the institution of giving the “venia” to a lay person which means the right to give the homily. It wouldn’t take long to introduce that institution into the Canon Law. 

We have our role models as women apostles. Mary Magdalene and Junia are just a few, but well known. The pulpit won’t just be handed over to us women without struggle. History, whether secular or ecclesial, has taught us that power is nothing that those who have it will share with those who haven’t. However, we do not claim power. Power always makes you corrupt. What we want is to be respected and listened to, publicly, behind the pulpit because of our authority. Authority is never something you can claim. Authority is given by others to those who are truly proclaiming good tidings, hope, faith, love and solidarity through both words and action. It is time to give us religious sisters this recognition! That would truly be an act of parrhesia, openness, frankness and boldness. 

As baptized, both women and men, we are baptized to be Christ. We are all equal, all of us are representing Christ to the same extent and with the same authority. We are living in a world threatened by the collapse of democratic systems, grave economic injustice and climate catastrophe. The Church has something important to say here but I am convinced that it will only be trustworthy if its’ representatives are both women and men on all levels. If we have faith, we will move mountains. Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and enkindle in them the fire of your love and fill us with your blowing dynamism!