Standing with our courageous mothers

“Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.” -Matthew 15:23

Today’s Gospel has some of my least favorite words in it. It’s a portrait of Jesus that cuts against the ever-welcoming, ever-merciful, ever-loving image that we evangelize and encourage children to come to know in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd.

Here, Jesus who meets a woman desperate in her need. And his first response is silence. His closest friends tell him to send her away. And when we expect Jesus to refute them, what instead comes from his mouth is: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

In Matthew’s telling, this brave woman responds, “Lord, help me.”

Her daughter is tormented. She would go to the ends of the earth to try and assuage her daughter’s pain. 

She is our mother. 

At our first “Gathering the Fruits” session last week, 20 leaders from around the country came together to share the key themes and insights that emerged in 50+ house meetings in June and July on women and the diaconate. 

One young adult participant shared the significance of intergenerational community in Discerning Deacons.

“Until now, I didn’t really know the women who had come before me. These women have been carrying this cause humbly and courageously for decades, to seek the full dignity of women within the structures and life of our Church.” 

I would echo this. I am humbled to come to know our mothers. I think of Gladys Whitehouse, Phyllis Zagano, Anne Hansen, Sr. Donna Ciangio, O.P., and others. And Svea Fraser, who I finally met in-person this week, after over a year of Zoom meetings!

Svea is shepherding a growing “Deacon Circle”, a group of women from Montana to Boston to Los Angeles to Virginia. Before, they were alone and isolated. But slowly — as this discernment in our Church has brought them together — they are becoming a circle, a community. Together they pray, share their stories, learn about the history of women deacons and about the ministry of deacons today. They inspire each other toward greater service, offer encouragement and commit to spreading the good news about this living discernment. One woman, inspired by all this talk about diaconal vocation, took the leap to go help meet the needs of migrants at the border. Collectively they have engaged hundreds of people in our summer of house meetings. 

Svea is no neophyte to lay participation. A founding member of Voice of the Faithful, her love of the Church radiates from her. As she showed me her library, the stacks of books that document the work she helped lead for our Church’s healing from clergy abuse, she is more proud of the embroidery she received as a gift from a friend when she finished seminary (yes, seminary).

She shared stories about facing down her worst fears (ever been out to sea, at night, in a storm?) and the sense of Jesus’ peace, protecting her heart and comforting her even in the most tumultuous of times. She’s filled with the joy of the Gospel. At 75, she is full of life. I was deeply moved when she shared, “This is my life’s work”, referring to her leadership in Discerning Deacons. And then she gave me a blessing as we parted ways.

Svea is the face of the mother in today’s Gospel story. 

This particular Gospel story speaks to our work in Discerning Deacons. Even when I wish it wasn’t the story that most clearly reveals what our work is. Because there is so much pain in this encounter. 

Each week in this project, I meet more mothers, ready to endure. Also, painfully, I meet and remember daughters who are tormented. As they share what they have suffered, or how they are called by God, how many are silenced and not believed?

We come in need, keenly aware that too many of the daughters walking on the earth still do not know themselves as equally beloved by God as men are. 

How many of today’s disciples — so close to Jesus everyday — are still unable to see the witness of such mother-advocates. Wanting to shut down the dialogue. Close the door to the conversation. Lock it up and throw away the key. Afraid of any change. 

Because of the living context both then and now, this is a truly revolutionary Gospel story.

In her bravery, wit and quick thinking, this woman turns Jesus’ words of hurt back on him: 

“Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.”

She does what I am not sure anyone else does in the Gospels: She leads Jesus to a conversion, a change of heart. In this encounter, Jesus is moved by her. He is forced to see something he couldn’t see before: that his mission and purpose is wider than he and his friends thought.

His healing is for all those with faith. The daughter is healed “from that hour.” And her mother is offered the fullness of recognition and praise for the faith that her bravery and wit and urgency bear witness to.

Some days, we might just feel that we are being sent away. 

We are invited to stand with this mother and with so many of our mothers who endure the ridicule, who endure silence in the face of our pleading, and who refuse to move because the faith that has brought us here now gives us the courage to remain steadfast. 

Our daughters’ healing and freedom is on the line. What wouldn’t we give or endure?

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“We raised so much awareness from our event, of both the ongoing Synod and of St. Phoebe and her ministry. Together, we learned of the power of the intercession of St. Phoebe, and how significant her feast day can be to carry the message of women’s roles in the Church.”
The Church of St. Francis Xavier
New York, NY
“The most meaningful parts of our celebration together included a standing ovation following the witness reflection, the power and strength of the reflection itself, and the procession at the start of mass. In the procession, young women carried in and presented symbols of St. Phoebe including an icon, the commission of St. Paul, a deacon’s stole and a pitcher of water to symbolize our shared baptism.”
St. Barnabas Parish
Chicago, IL
“Preaching on the Feast of St. Phoebe, and supporting and training other women to preach, was a joyful and invigorating experience. It is beautiful to see women claim the truth that they are called and gifted, and equally beautiful to see the People of God’s receptivity to women’s preaching, ministry, and leadership.”
Rhonda Miska
St. Phoebe Day Witness at St. Thomas More Catholic Community in St. Paul, MN; Founder and Co-convener of the Catholic Women's Preaching Circle; Catholic Women Preach Advisory Board Member

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