Erased, Silenced, and Distorted: A Catholic Woman’s Lament

Women’s history of holiness has been largely erased from the collective memory of the church. Furthermore, even when they are remembered, exemplary women’s lives are interpreted as models of virtue that support the male-dominated status quo and cast women into submission.

Women’s stories are excluded from our lectionary.

Our names are optional in the one rarely-used Eucharistic Prayer in which they occur, and are therefore omitted far more often than not.

Our voices are not heard at Mass; we may not preach. We may read the words of scripture, the general intercessions, and the announcements, but these are words written by others and given to us. We are not to change them.

Mary of Nazareth is portrayed as silent, obedient, meek and mild.

Mary of Magdala, Apostle to the apostles, is remembered as a repentant prostitute.

Mary of Bethany, who confessed Jesus’ messianic identity in John’s gospel just as Peter did in the synoptics, is remembered as an overworked cook who complains that her sister won’t help her.

Therese of Lisieux, who wrote with passion I feel inside me the vocation of a PRIEST, is venerated as the diminutive Little Flower.

A deacon told a story about Teresa of Calcutta that, he said, best summed up her holiness.

The Pope heard that she was very sick, in danger of dying, and so he telephoned her. She came to the phone: “Yes, Holy Father?” The Pope said, “Teresa, you are not to die. The church needs you too much.” She responded, “Yes, Holy Father.” She hung up the phone, and promptly recovered.

One Sunday, the lector for the 2nd reading turned to the wrong page in the lectionary, and accidentally proclaimed the gospel instead. The priest didn’t stop her, and didn’t re-read it afterwards. He simply remarked on it with amusement, and added firmly but matter-of-factly, “The gospel is to be read by the priest. As Catholics, of course we all know that women can’t be priests.”

That didn’t make me cry. It made me feel sick, like a kick in the gut.

I cry when I hear the women’s names proclaimed at the altar in the Eucharistic Prayer.

Felicity, Perpetua, Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, Cecilia, Anastasia

I cry when I see a baby girl baptized, and anointed “priest, prophet, and king.”

I cry when I sing hymn texts that include us, as our liturgical texts so rarely do: women and men, daughters and sons, sisters and brothers.

I cry in the few precious moments when it stops hurting.


Women’s history of holiness has been neither remembered nor truthfully told; nor does relationship with the saints in heaven generally redound to the empowerment of the saints on earth in their struggle for human and religious dignity. In fact, the patriarchal structure of powerful heavenly patrons and needy petitioners, coupled with the erasure of the memory of women’s discipleship and approval of the male-defined virtue of even those women who have made it onto official lists, conspire to block women’s realization of their own sacredness, bringing about a corresponding decline in religious energy.

Amid incalculable personal, political, and spiritual suffering resulting from women’s subordination in theory and practice, Christian feminism labors to bring the community, its symbols and practices, into a closer coherence with the reign of God’s justice.

— Beginning and ending quotes by Sr. Dr. Elizabeth Johnson, Friends of God and Prophets, pages 27, 29, 35.

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6 Responses to Erased, Silenced, and Distorted: A Catholic Woman’s Lament

  1. To be perfectly fair, my parish frequently violates the rule against changing the words to use inclusive language for humans (although it’s always “Brothers and Sisters”, never “Sisters and Brothers”). And we have both boys and girls as altar servers (though only boys as cross-bearers).


  2. Fariba says:

    I cannot believe the priest would openly say that. The priest in my parish hides his sexism a bit better. He shares articles on Facebook by traditionalists who blame the problems in the Church on the “increased feminization of the Mass” and feminists. The antidote? Have male-only worship sessions praising battles fought during the religious wars. Sr. Johnson is right that we need to rediscover the female saints. They were preachers, teachers, and mystics. Their works are as theological sophisticated as anything the male scholastics produced. I’m sorry you had to face such things at Mass where the Christ in whom there is neither male nor female is worshipped.

    • Thank you, Fariba.

      I think there may be a tendency among the ecclesiastical powers that be (clergy or lay) to assume that anyone who believes women should be ordained has already left the church; I’ve seen evidence of this before. That certainly seemed to be where he was coming from: not making a big deal of it, just stating the obvious.

      I was even grateful for the reasonableness of his response: he didn’t shame or scold her, he accepted it as one of those things, he didn’t insist on re-reading it himself, he even said she’d done a fine job and he wouldn’t do any better.

      I’m sorry you’ve got a pastor who posts feminist-blaming articles on Facebook, ugh!

  3. genevievemitchell says:

    Thanks for sharing. It is important for us to share our stories. I appreciate the gift of your writing. I have to say for me, I can no longer attend mass, it’s a bit like the abused wife syndrome, I can’t keep going back, it no longer feeds me, in fact, I feel abused and degraded. I no longer find connection to a white catholic male god in a church that doesn’t recognize my divinit, my color, my voice or my gender. I find my power, my solace, my grace and my work in the face of God/dess, in the Feminine Divine, in the Priestess that I am, not the servant the “church” would have me be. I find your blog poignant and makes me sad that this type of treatment of women in the church continues. If someone want a different perspective I just want to share the resources, books and inspiration available on my website at Blessings and light. Genevieve

    • Thank you for your comment, Genevieve. I know you are hardly the only Catholic woman that has had to leave the church for reasons like this. It’s why I’m so incredibly grateful to Catholic feminist theologians like Sr. Dr. Johnson, who persist in excavating the life-giving elements within the treasure of the Catholic tradition so that we can be nourished by them and so that the theological and ecclesial discourse can include them.

      Similarly, despite my serious concerns about schism, I am also very grateful for the Roman Catholic Women Priests movement, which can serve as a spiritual home for women who can’t take it anymore, and as spiritual first aid for women who sometimes just need respite. (Talk about “the church as a field hospital”!!)

      I wish you every blessing on your spiritual journey, and trust that it will bring you closer to the Holy Mystery Whose name is beyond all telling.

  4. Pingback: Blogiversary: Five Years Old | Gaudete Theology

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