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My vocation is to preach

· The experience of one Swedish Dominican ·

How do you cope with being Catholic, feminist and Swedish and a Dominican sister? How is it possible to become a Catholic after having been brought up as an independent, politically engaged woman? Why do I remain a Catholic while I am fully embracing the Swedish gender equality policies? I often have to defend my faith, to justify my being a Catholic. I am challenged by people both from within and without the Catholic Church and recently more and more from women on the brink of leaving the Catholic fold. Some would tell me to go to the Lutheran Church where I can become a priest. The two decisive interpretative keys to my being fully at ease as a Catholic are inclusivity and relationality.

In my particular context, I have to honestly ask myself why I would never convert to another Christian denomination. Today, there are many women (and men) who are leaving the Church. It has become a serious pastoral challenge and people are seeking, if not a definitive answer, at least some tools how to interpret their own life-experiences, and they don’t always get them. Obviously, there are many reasons why people want to leave the Church and far from all of them are based on feminist and equality issues, but we have to recognize that this is an aspect that has to be addressed by the church.

I get goose bumps each time I ask myself the question “To whom shall I go?”! In deep awe I commit myself to Christ and the way this is celebrated and lived out in the Catholic Church. My own story is deeply connected to the way I am reconciling being a Catholic, Dominican and feminist and I always come back to “being Church” as a unity in diversity built on relationality. Is being Catholic and feminist two contradictory phenomena? With the help of my own story I want to show that there does not have to be an opposition between the two.

During the fifties and sixties I was brought up as a feminist and at the same time I fell in love with the Catholic Church. My parents told me that I could become whatever I wanted and gave me full support in my studies and life choices. Women’s rights were central and if there were any obstacles they had to be overcome! They encouraged me to question authorities and not to take anything for granted especially in school.

At the age of ten, in 1964, my best friend asked me to come with her to the Italian midnight Mass at Christmas in the Catholic cathedral. My rather bewildered parents gave me permission and off we went to explore! Neither of us knew much about Christianity. Religious education, rather Lutheran biased at the time, sounded quite weird to me and I took a great pleasure in questioning the claims held by our teacher. The midnight Mass in the Catholic cathedral brought down my logic — I didn’t understand a single word but I knew that I was in an enchanting parallel world, and I was part of it! Despite being a complete stranger I felt deeply included! I really had a crush on the Catholic Church, but on a logical level I still contested all and everything Christian.

After confirmation in the Lutheran church, almost a civic ritual at that time, the priest suggested I started to read theology to become a priest myself … I thought he was crazy, I didn’t want to have anything to do with this male chauvinist and clerical Church and continued to attend the Catholic midnight mass at Christmas … Already at that time there were women priests in the Swedish Lutheran church, but I hadn’t met any and didn’t bother to do so either. But the crucial thing was that I had never been invited to join a living community. There were individuals, surely convinced of their faith, but only looking to the priest. There was a strong vertical relationship, to God and to the priest, but no horizontal communion.

During high school I wrote an essay on the philosophy of the state with references to St Augustine, St Thomas and Jacques Maritain. Politics was my way of life at that time. What really caught my interest was Thomas, not so much his writings as the fact that he was a Dominican, his life. For the first time logic and reason on the one hand and mystical prayer on the other, what I would have called a parallel world at that time, didn’t exclude each other. But it was also the way humankind was described as a communion where everybody had a vocation to build up a united society. This corresponded to my socialist way of looking at politics.

During summer holidays in high school I went to France to practice my French. The lady in the family I stayed with took me around in Avignon for her daily shopping and we always went into one of the old and dark churches to light a candle, and I guess that she said a short prayer. I was dumbfounded in front of this everyday worship. Shy about everything religious, I never asked why she did this, I just let it happen. One day, on my own, I went into one of the churches and tried to remember what my Lutheran confirmation-priest had said about prayer. “Make room in your heart and there you will talk with God.” Once again this kind of parallel world aroused in me, peaceful but not very useful, hardly logical and certainly not political.

Before going to university I took a year off to study and work abroad. This time I stayed with a practicing Catholic family in French-speaking Switzerland. They had six children around my own age and had lived in South America for a couple of years and brought back some rather intimidating animals … and we were four students from different parts of the world sharing their everyday life. This was in 1973 and the coup d’état in Chile was the big focus and subject at almost every dinner. Later on, the oil crisis came into the fore and a lot of ethical issues were debated. Now, the Catholic Church became political and to the left at that, and liberation theology was quickly introduced and soon enough women’s issues. I had never met so many strong Christian women in my life! Politics, reason, faith, prayer and worship became a whole. There were no parallel worlds any longer, even my feminism was included, and this discovery was my second crush on the Catholic Church.

Being back in Sweden and at university, studying the classics with a specialization in the Middle Ages, I was deeply engaged in politics and especially in feminist movements. However, I felt a void which couldn’t be satisfied by my political engagement. I went to my local Lutheran parish church, but I didn’t feel part of it. Mustering all my courage I called a French Dominican brother in Stockholm who also was the student chaplain. During four months he introduced me to the Dutch (New) Catechism, to the Second Vatican Council, to Teilhard de Chardin, Schillebeeckx, Congar, Catherine of Siena and Madeleine Delbrêl and above all to a community of very open-minded Christians in the Dominican parish. This time it was not only a crush, it was deep love with the Catholic Church. The jigsaw was complete and I was soon part of the picture.

Still at university I became part of the ecumenical chaplaincy and of a rather practical dialogue between the Catholic and the Lutheran Churches. This was a big leap for me and gave me much hope. We celebrated Catholic and Lutheran Masses alternatively, and the woman priest who was the Lutheran chaplain became a very good friend. However, it wasn’t enough to be an active laywoman, I wanted something more. I felt a call to religious life combined with political engagement but also to be a priest, especially to preach the Gospel. This was a period of quite a “wild” ecumenism, yes, we shared one another’s communion tables without any second thoughts, and, yes, lay people often gave the homily during mass if we didn’t all together have a dialogue after the proclamation of the Gospel. This was the time after the Vatican Council and before Inter Insigniores and there were quite a number of people who encouraged me to study theology with a view to become a priest in the Catholic Church. Everything was possible and we were many Catholic women walking ahead with great expectations.

Life then took another turn when I met a community of Dominican sisters in a suburb outside Grenoble during a summer holiday. This time, it wasn’t about crush or love, this time it was clear conviction. I wanted to live like they did, in an ordinary apartment among ordinary people, working in ordinary jobs and preach the Gospel through this kind of life. One of the sisters was a drama pedagogue among socially rejected boys, another one worked as a nurse among Muslim immigrants and the third one was finishing her studies to become a librarian and during some evenings she did the dishes at a Marxist restaurant. Messiness and dialogue were all over the place and this was Gospel for me. Now, I could actually touch what inclusivity meant. Being Christian and Catholic was to always be in deep relation with people embracing different world views than you did yourself.

Today, I have been a Dominican for 35 years and I have never regretted my vocation. There is still much to do to give an equal voice to women in the Catholic Church. During my initial formation, in the beginning of the eighties, we were studying feminist theology in my community and we also published a couple of booklets on the subject. My formation sister was a remarkable woman who repeated that a life of faith was an adventure where you had to walk towards a horizon that always took you further on. It was like jumping from the highest trampoline not knowing if there was any water to receive you …. Nothing is static, everything is changing all the time, evolving, nothing is impossible if you have faith ….

Pope Francis’ transformation of the Church is like a great birthday party to me. We probably have very different views on women’s issues, but he is putting words on the ecclesial life I was introduced to during the early eighties. Mercy, tenderness, messiness, courage, unity in diversity …. During all these years I have never been tempted to go anywhere else, despite the fact that I cannot become a priest. I feel very much included in this community, called to be a field hospital.

The Catholic Church was my first love and with God’s grace I keep returning to this love every day. And I do it as a feminist, an explorer of a creative and living theology and as a politically committed Dominican.

Madeleine Fredell




St. Peter’s Square

Dec. 14, 2019