Dear Pope Benedict . . .

We asked a distinguished group of commentators to write an open letter to the new pope: past winners of the U.S. Catholic Award for Furthering the Cause of Women in the Church. Here’s what these award-winning women would like the new pope to know.

Sister Joan Chittister, O.S.B., Activist, author (1992)
AT TIMES OF GREAT CHANGE—times awash with new findings in science, new information about culture, new insights into history, and new policies in economics—every institution and all people are required to rethink everything they've ever thought, every organizational principle they've ever held, every practice they've ever assumed to be either right or absolute.

So it was when we discovered that we were not the center of the universe. So it is now that we know that we are a dot of a galaxy in a sea of galaxies. "Who is this God?" we are asking again. "What is truth?" "Who has it?" We are at a crossover moment in history. We will all come to it slowly, with more or less reluctance, with more or less insight into the meaning of it for us in the here and now because people develop at different rates as a result of different experiences.

I want to tell you that in periods such as these, we may all stand at different points on this continuum of growth and development. But wherever we each stand, we stand there because we love the faith, love the tradition, love the Spirit who works in the dark to give us light.

All of us do what we do, think what we think, precisely because we love the church and we want to see her sail safely and strongly through this sea of change.

Do not then, Your Holiness, make enemies of us. Do not allow us to see one another as enemies. Love us all so that we can love one another. Love us all until together we each see the light of the Spirit through the eyes of a common faith.

Diana Hayes, Theologian, author (2001)
I would like to invite you to openness: one receptive of the perspectives of others, especially those unlike yourself, whether by race or ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, class or language.

Be open to the reality of women and their gifts, which encompass motherhood and much more. They, too, have received gifts and callings from God, gifts of intelligence, talent, and leadership.

Be open to sharing responsibility, to true collegiality, not just with other bishops but with all of the People of God, for we, too, are the church in its fullness. Acknowledge and encourage the many educated men and women who are leaders in their cultures and societies and work with them to move the church forward.

Recognize that the church does need updating—not in trendy ways in response to modernism or postmodernism—but in ways that enable it to be a critical commentator on contemporary society from within those societies. The church must teach respect and equality but must also model it from within.

Remember that we are a global church, gifted by many cultures and styles of prayer and worship. Help us to know each other by recognizing there is more than one way of being Catholic.

Dolores Curran, Author (1996)
What I'd like you to know:

1. That we yearn most of all for a happy, joyful spiritual leader who listens to and enters into dialogue with all of us and not just those who surround him; who sees the world as good and life as worthwhile; who affirms, supports, and occasionally praises our efforts rather than blames, scolds, and depresses us about the state of the world. He models hope and proclaims the Good News as good news.

2. That all Americans are not materialistic warmongers but that many of us are compassionate Catholics who care deeply about global poverty, environment, justice, peace, and ecumenism.

3. That God created women with special gifts to offer a more humane and spiritual church and that their gifts are undervalued and ignored by our church leadership.

4. That the prevailing church image of women as temptresses, manipulators, and troublemakers is obsolete—that today's women find the world open to them and the church closed.

5. That these women are rearing the sons who do not want to be part of the church's outdated discrimination against women—hence, the lack of vocations.

6. That it is good to apologize for past church errors such as the treatment of Galileo and inaction during the Holocaust but better to avoid the need for future apologies for the treatment of women, homosexuals, and priests who leave to marry.

7. That we hope you will be more responsive to the sensus fidelium, or sense of the faithful, as a source of truth, including the growing concensus of the faithful on issues such as married clergy and contraception.

Jeanette Rodriguez-Holguin, Theologian, author (2000)
First and foremost, I would like to tell you that the Catholic people want to support and accompany you on this most difficult task. We recognize the immensity of your new role and want to remind you that you are not alone.

Our conflicted world needs a figure of peace and reconciliation. Someone has to stand up for peace. Someone has to stand up for life. Someone has to stand up for nonviolence and alternative ways of responding to difficulties in the world.

As someone with ties to Latin America and committed to racial and economic justice in the United States, I am very concerned about the rights of the poor, the marginalized, and women. My hope is that you will resurrect the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, a spiritual renewal that encouraged the full participation of all members in the church, including women.

In the spirit of Oscar Romero my hope is you will carry on the prophetic tradition of our church, stand up for life, and denounce the idols of death.

Donna Hanson, Catholic social worker (1988)
As you begin your pontificate, I urge you to recall the words of the prophet Micah when asked what is required of us: "To act justly, to love tenderly, and to walk humbly with your God."

To act justly: I pray that you will be collaborative and inclusive, that you will surround yourself with competent women and men. Each of us has a "piece" of the wisdom, and only when we can speak our truth are we free to share the secrets of our heart.

To love tenderly: I pray that you will be innovative and courageous, that you will take the theme "to serve in love." With that motto, no one will need power or control. Rather, peace with justice for all God's people will be the goal, and our decisions will be guided by the response to the question: "How will what we are about to do have an impact on those most vulnerable, especially the widows, orphans, and aliens among us?"

To walk humbly with our God: I pray that you will invite people of all faiths to prayer and reconciliation and that you will often say, "I am new and I need your help." Be "Abba," listening with your heart and your head, so that with God's grace we truly can change the world.

Elisabeth Schussler-Fiorenza, Theologian, author (1987)
What advice could one give to the newly elected successor of John Paul II, if the Catholic imagination remains in Roman captivity and is unable to envision a different leadership? For it is laudable but not enough to confess the past sins of the church, as Pope John Paul II has done, while continuing to practice them in the present.

True, popes no longer call to crusades and holy wars against the infidels, but Islam and other religions are still deemed to be inferior to Christianity. True, they have tried to repent racism and colonialism, but they still treat churches in the developing world and their leadership as second-class citizens. True, they have acknowledged women's rights in society but continue to justify the exclusion of women from ecclesial leadership and sacramental powers in and through a dual-nature theology.

I urge you to lead the church out of its bondage and captivity to imperial powers and oppressive traditions. We pray to Divine Wisdom that she will grant you the grace and freedom to articulate a new vision of Catholic identity with integrity and courage. This will be possible if you situate your work not in hierarchically controlled institutions but among the People of God. To do so you must insist on intellectual freedom and integrity and withstand the Roman exclusivist rhetoric of absolutism and censure.

May she grant you the grace to gather her people who are from all the ends of the earth, from all religions, races, classes, and genders. Divine Wisdom has called you to inspire them to do justice and to promote the well-being of all, to guide the nations in peace and justice, to nurture a church of full equality and responsibility, to care for the earth and its inhabitants with equity and tender love, and to practice and proclaim the loving kindness of the Holy One, Blessed be She.

Sister Elizabeth Johnson, C.S.J., Theologian, author (1994)
There is a piece of pressing, unfinished business that needs your attention. When John Paul II first visited this country in 1979, Sister Theresa Kane asked him to "listen to the cries of women for full participation in the ministries of the church."

Because this did not happen, the church is in poorer shape today. Parishes without Eucharist, only male voices interpreting the scripture in homilies even where Eucharist is celebrated, the hemorrhaging of respect for church authority over the sex-abuse crisis, women excluded from decision making—the picture is one of diminishment. Worst of all is the subliminal message sent to women that because of their embodiment as female, they are not worthy to represent Christ.

Remember that the Pontifical Biblical Commission, asked by Pope Paul VI to study this question, reported that there is nothing in the New Testament that would prohibit women's ordination. Remember, too, that Vatican II emphasized the ancient biblical truth that Baptism gives each person a share in the priesthood of Christ, transforming them into images of Christ.

It is blazingly evident by now that women are capable of serving in this ministry. Many feel called by the Spirit to do so. The church at every level is in dire need of the healing and infusion of new life this would bring. Perhaps cultural inhibitions prevent this from being done in every country at once. But a start can be made where both women and culture are ready. For the flourishing of the church in the next generation, do not quench the Spirit.

Rosemary Radford Ruether, Theologian, author (1983)
As a theologian I regard myself as an ecumenical Catholic Christian, concerned that the gospel manifest in the church be seen as a sign of justice and peace to all peoples. For me the papacy can and should be an important sign of truth-telling and witness to peace and justice in the world. I rejoice when a fearless witness comes from this ancient seat of the church in relation to war and peace, justice in the Middle East, and the evils of consumerism and unjust wealth. Unfortunately in many other areas the papacy has seemed to speak a diplomatic language more concerned with keeping good relations with the powerful than with speaking truth to power.

There is also the lingering bias of old social forms of patriarchal domination, which has been a major failing of the Catholic leadership for these several decades. Women have found their voice theologically and socially as daughters of God. Both men and women increasingly recognize the historic mistake of regarding males and females as complementary opposites, rather than full human beings in mutual partnership. The arguments against the ordination of women ring hollow when most churches have rethought these views. They are not made more convincing when the response to these questions is to forbid the discussion.

I would appeal to you to respond with rejoicing rather than fear to these new currents of creativity birthing in the Catholic community.

Sister Christine Vladimiroff, O.S.B., Benedictine prioress (2002)
"Listen," the first word in the Rule of Benedict, sets a marker for you, Pope Benedict XVI. St. Benedict meant no ordinary listening but a profound attitude to life and to the God who speaks through people and the events of the day.

The present model of church governance sets up barriers to hear the Spirit speaking to the church. It excludes and marginalizes most from the decision-making process. With competence you need to lead us to question the acquired forms, structures, institutions—from the Roman curia, the College of Cardinals, and national bishops' conferences, down to the diocesan and parish levels. They are accretions from the past. They are human constructs and therefore neither absolute nor eternal. They are provisional and imperfect and remain behind the full demands of the gospel, and therefore are open to reform.

It is my hope that you will listen to the voices of all the People of God, not disregarding opposing opinions and not silencing the differing view and voice. Benedict of Nursia instructs the abbot or prioress to call the community to counsel when anything important needs to be decided. The church must fashion new structures that foster a culture of dialogue, that make available the wisdom and insights of all as we address issues of our day.

Patricia Livingston, Inspirational speaker, writer (1990)
Your challenge, called to assume the papacy after John Paul II, could be nothing less than daunting. The outpouring of global grieving at his death demonstrated that the pope is no longer only pope of the Catholic Church but pope of the world. It seems clearer than ever that the plea of Jesus to feed his lambs means feeding them all, all his beloved ones of the human family, who are so hungry for love, for mercy, for inclusion, for creative spiritual leadership.

What I would like you to know is that we are with you. We are in this together. Let us help you with our strong hope and the wisdom of our experience. Together let us keep the joy of Easter alive in our hearts so that we do not lose our way in the valley of tears, so we do not let fear and mistrust control our actions and dreams, but listen together to the voice of the Spirit at Pentecost speaking in many tongues but just one voice of Love.

Together let us feed the lambs with the Bread of Life. We are with you heart and soul. Coraggio!

Sister Theresa Kane, R.S.M., Theologian (1980)
It is my deep conviction that the threefold call for our church community in the 21st century is to hear and respond to the voices of women, the cry of the poor, and the quest for peace and nonviolence coupled with deep respect for our earth and the environment.

Reports have indicated the College of Cardinals elected you because of your concern and their concern for a growing secularism and materialism. My deep concern is for the billions of our human community who live in utter poverty and desperation. I urge you to give your energies and commitment to work with the many religious and human rights groups who are striving to eradicate poverty in all its forms and to eradicate the growing militarization of our planet.

I have pondered and appreciated the powerful message of Pope John Paul II on the eve of the U.N. Conference on Women in 1995: "Without the contribution of women, society is less alive, culture impoverished, and peace less stable. Situations where women are prevented from developing their full potential and from offering the wealth of their gifts should therefore be considered profoundly unjust—not only to women themselves, but to society as a whole."

I urge you, Pope Benedict, to take this powerful message of your predecessor and begin immediately to realize it in Catholic Church structures and systems as well as in society. Otherwise we as a Catholic community will risk dispiriting myriads of women and ceasing to be a credible influence for good. A Synod on Women in the Church and Society, with women being the predominant members, is a deeply urgent need of our church at this moment.

As we begin this new journey together, I am confident that our loving God is ever present with us. This is holy work, God's work, and we are God's messengers. Like Mary, we magnify our God; God has done great things for us.

Sister Agnes Cunningham, S.S.C.M., Theologian (1978)
The title is yours now: a reminder of your response to a call to "profess the truth in love and grow to the full maturity of Christ" in ways you have never imagined.

I hope that, like Augustine, you will be a bishop for us because you are a Christian with us: serving the gospel with humility; teaching and showing us how to be both Catholic and catholic; and making decisions with wit and wisdom.

I pray that you will not be seduced by pomp or politics: faithful, like Irenaeus, to the living tradition that comes from Jesus and the apostles; creative in affirming that unity of faith does not require uniformity of praxis; courageous to stand alone in defense of truth, integrity, and justice; and being true to yourself and to the gifts that make you the person you are.

I hope and pray that your heart will be broken with compassion for the sorrows and sufferings of today's martyrs, whatever their creed, nationality, gender, or race; sympathizing with those who have clay feet; never doubting that the One who has begun the good work in you will carry it through to completion; finding strength in the conviction that the Spirit has chosen you for this ministry in the church, at this time in history.

Remember that you are carried in the prayers of those who know you are God's gift to us. Thank you for saying "yes."

Margaret Farley Theologian, Catholic Theological Society of America (1998)
I'm hoping you will be wise, intelligent, compassionate, and won't divide the church any further.

I would like you to listen, especially to the voices that are not often able to be heard in Vatican City. And if you travel, may you listen to the multiple voices of the people where you go.

I would also hope you would pay attention to those who are suffering and not marginalize them any further. I'm thinking of women, those who are divorced and remarried, gays and lesbians, and people who want desperately to support the church's social teaching but who also need to be heard themselves. There are many Catholics who are not in an identifiable oppressed group but who want the church to relate to all its members.

If you will listen and pay attention to the suffering of the People of God, then there will be hope that the church will not only be compassionate but also probe its teachings that need to be modified to meet the needs of the contemporary world.

 This article appeared in the June 2005 (Volume 70, Number 6; pages 35-38) issue of U.S. Catholic.

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