Move over, John Paul

We canonize great men and forget quiet female heroes


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There’s a story I tell when I preside over the funerals of women who’ve loved and been loved well, who’ve known well but not been well known.

It’s about a conference I once attended where we were asked to call out the names of men who’d had a significant effect on our lives. The names of the famous were shouted: Gandhi, Martin Luther King. Now I’m sure some would add John Paul II. These were men who’d no doubt accomplished much on the grand stages of our world and filling newspaper columns with well-deserved attention.

Then we were asked to call out the names of women who’d changed our lives. Twice as many, no, three times as many names were called out, none of them famous. They were the names of sisters, mothers, grandmothers, teachers, nurses, aunts, friends, mentors, editors, religious women. Women who had ironed for, fed, cleaned for, nurtured, inspired, put words into the mouths of and loved not only the participants at that conference but also all those great men.

It’s at moments as this, when the mainstream media are falling over themselves to canonize yet another great man, that those women rise in my consciousness. I dedicate this to them.

Sue Fleming, who went from our church to Malawi to work with AIDS orphans, told me a story of how the wife of the Presbyterian minister in charge of the orphanage was expected to crawl on her knees toward him and all men and whites.

Malawi is a country like most countries where women have little control over contracting AIDS. Their husbands bring it home, and no condoms are available. A woman who asked her man to use one would be branded “loose” and shunned.

The churches preach celibacy or monogamy, neither of which works when a woman has little control over her marriage or her future. John Paul II at a speech to the United Nations in 1994 condemned the use of birth control. An AIDS activist interviewed shortly thereafter said this would directly condemn hundreds of thousands to death, many of them women and children. Fleming quoted one of those women from Malawi, who said, “The men are killing us.”

A block down the street from our church on Roncesvalles, a golden statue of John Paul II is covered in flowers and candles from folk, many of them Polish and other Eastern Europeans, for whom he was a powerful symbol in the resistance against totalitarianism.

The churches were where people gathered – workers, intellectuals, students – to combat a repressive regime. Yet in Rwanda, where the repressive regime had a Roman Catholic face, the churches became killing grounds, and a faithful Roman Catholic Christian man, Roméo Dallaire, watched, unable to do anything but watch. No help came to him from any of the world’s great men.

In the United States, over 11,000 cases of sexual abuse at the hands of almost 7,000 priests are before the courts. Bernard Law, the Cardinal of Boston, the scandal’s epicentre, who was forced to resign, was simply transferred to Rome, where he will be one of the cardinals responsible for electing the next pope.

I remember reading the story of one of those cases, that of a young boy who repeatedly told adults he loved and who loved him about the abuse. “They did not believe me,” he said, “My priest was charismatic and spiritual, and our church was overflowing with people who respected him. He was about to be made a bishop. ‘Father would never do something like that,’ said my mother. ‘He is a great man. ‘”

In this season are told the stories of Jesus’ death and resurrection. We are told how only a handful of people, mainly women, followed Him to the cross. How only women saw the tomb empty and told the world of the miracle. We are told how Christ was recognized in the faces of ordinary people – the gardener, the breaker of bread, the wounded one. He did not appear in the palaces or in the forums.

His life and death were inconsequential to every famous person and historian of his day. Those who loved Him told the stories of the miracle of his existence to one another. They kept Him alive. Nobody for generations thought or perhaps was able to write any of it down. They were the life that kept Him alive. He became the poor, the worker, the wounded, the women. The followers, like Him, were silenced.

When I was in business walking down the halls of banks and multinational corporations, I marvelled at the faces immortalized in the paintings that hung in foyers and boardrooms. Overwhelmingly male, they gazed at some distant ideal or future that I, as a woman, had little idea about.

The Church, of course, is the same. Men in photographs look out on generations of parishioners, always and everywhere mainly women, who look back. The First Commandment says to have no other God but God. The condemnation of idol worship, whether of statues or men, was a core tenet of Israel, one that Christian Jews died for. “Christ is Lord,” they cried while dying in the forums and prisons, “not Caesar (or George Bush or Tito or any great man).”

“The men,” said the Malawian woman, “are killing us.”

In the Vatican, 15 old white men, followed by hundreds of other men, walked behind a great man last week to honour the world-impacting life he’d led. Outside, thousands of women and ordinary people – gardeners, the wounded, the ones who bake and offer the bread – unable to find a place inside, lit candles.

Some of them whispered prayers to Christ, that humble one, that poor one, that sometimes unrecognizable one. Christ smiled from one to the other, as unrecognized as on the Emmaus road, at least by most.

Quietly, silenced, these are the people who will go on changing lives and changing the world. This is a prayer for them all. Amen.

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