Jesus Was a Feminist

According to the New Testament, women disciples followed Jesus and listened to his teachings, shoulder to shoulder with their male counterparts. Jesus raised one woman from the dead and saved another -- a woman dragged out of her lover's bed -- from death by stoning.

Women accompanied Jesus to his death, standing at the foot of the cross, anointing and burying his body, discovering the empty tomb and finally witnessing his resurrection before his male apostles did.

When I was growing up in St. Joseph's Parish and parochial school in Oregon, my mother taught CCD classes to high school and college kids. She served as a Eucharistic minister, feeding the Body and Blood of Christ to her fellow parishioners at mass and coffee and donuts to them afterward in the church's cafeteria. She could minister to the young, the sick and the hungry. But she couldn't perform the sacraments or lead the flock.

I believe Jesus was a feminist. I'm still waiting for the Catholic Church to realize this. Now the church is acknowledging the transgressions of some of its priests, even confessing and asking for forgiveness. Maybe sexism will follow suit, and women will break through the church's ancient stained-glass ceiling. Or maybe the priest-shortage problem -- only tangentially related to the current troubles -- will become so dire that the church will have to ordain women.

The first nun I try to interview to discuss these questions laughs at me, says she won't talk to me and tells me to call a priest. (I'm back in fourth grade, stinging from Sister Susan's infamous ear-lobe pinch, and from the guilt of saying something I wasn't supposed to say.)

Several more women won't return my phone calls or talk to me on the record without prior approval from the Diocese spokesman, a priest. One kind Sister wants to meet, but she's leaving town and won't return until after my deadline.

The one woman who is able to talk to me is a laywoman, Martina O'Sullivan, executive director of Catholic Charities of Monterey County, a non-profit agency that serves the poor and homeless who are facing eviction, utility shutoff, or who need money for rent or food. O'Sullivan is also a wife, a mother and a lifelong Catholic.

Sitting in her tidy office, O'Sullivan proudly shows off a framed picture of her three grown daughters. She prefaces many of her statements with "I'm not a theologian; I'm just giving you this Catholic woman's perspective."

O'Sullivan believes women should be ordained, although she wouldn't want to be a priest herself. She's more satisfied living her faith at the helm of her social justice ministry than she would be at the head of the institutional church.

And while she's saddened and horrified by the sex-abuse crisis, she believes that a deeper spirituality will emerge from its ashes.

"I think what this crisis is doing is indeed offering us a chance to look at what is happening right now within the institutional church, and for the leaders of the church to say, 'Look, there have been mistakes here, but let's face those mistakes openly and make decisions about doing things differently,'" O'Sullivan says. "But I don't know that the institutional church will connect, for instance, involving a stronger role for women in the church with this crisis. It's going to take many years. It may take another something like Vatican II."

And although many organizations, such as Women's Ordination Conference and Catholic Network for Women's Equality, continue their call for ending the traditional, all-male, celibate priesthood, O'Sullivan, 54, doesn't foresee any women priests in her lifetime.

"Although clearly you've got precedents for there being a larger role for women in the Catholic Church," she says, pointing out that women have been disciples, prophets and founding sisters of religious communities. "But the church is not unlike what society has been, in that if you look at the Constitution, or the Bill of Rights, it says all men were created equal.

"I guess what we can't lose sight of is that the basis of our faith, the basis of my faith, doesn't lie in the men that are in the leadership of the institutional church or in the parishes. The real basis of my faith lies in the truth of what I believe about Jesus and God.

"The roles of men and women in the church have not been equal. That is a truth. But are you going to let that stop you from using the gift that God has given you?"

O'Sullivan hasn't. She follows Jesus' teachings of inclusion. She feeds the hungry, clothes the naked and shelters the homeless, regardless of their skin color, religious affiliation or gender. She works for justice and equality in spite of the current sex-abuse scandal and the age-old disparity between the brothers and sisters in the Church.

And that gives me hope.

Jessica Lyons is a staff writer at Coast Weekly.

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