Who are they and how do they live? Testimonies, opinions and some proposals

Poor in the Church

 Povere nella Chiesa  DCM-010
05 November 2022

Who are the poor in, and of, the Church today? We put the question to women and men, lay and religious people, scholars, theologians, teachers, faithful, and priests. From the answers, it emerges that if poverty is not measured, for everyone, by economic dependence, there is a gender-specific poverty, with indicators other than strictly monetary ones, which is made up of marginalisation, loneliness, exclusion, distorted power relations, and inequality. There is a lot of female poverty, which is sometimes invisible.

Those who do in fact perform a ministry but are unrecognized

On the one hand, I would answer that women are poor regardless. The very fact of being a woman in the Church is a condition of minority, both because they are excluded - at an institutional level - from ministries and power; and also because of a series of paternalistic approaches, patriarchal structures, sexist language in preaching, and catechesis. Much has changed since women entered theological studies, but we do not hide the fact that a glass ceiling persists that makes women’s study and career conditions much more difficult and unstable than those of their male colleagues.

On the other hand, however, these considerations seem of little importance compared to the violations of fundamental rights suffered by so many women in the world, who have no freedom of self-determination, no access to basic studies, no role in public life. The Church does not cease to denounce these situations, and is committed everywhere to offering aid, education, shelter, material and spiritual support to women deprived of their rights.

These two dimensions of poverty should not be separated. The Church, so committed to combating visible social poverty, should find the courage to let itself be converted by marginal subjects, and reform its own structures so that they do not produce exclusion within ecclesial relations. Accepting poverty means allowing oneself to be challenged and to change one's structures of power and language, so that all subjects are included. I believe the real issue is recognition, making visible the service, the ministry that women often actually perform. The theme of recognition is highly symbolic: being able to recognise themselves and see themselves represented in the institutional aspects of the Church, helps women to find their place, to be aware of their authority and to correspond to their vocation, for the good of the whole community.

Donata Horak, theologian, professor of Canon Law at the Alberoni Theological Studio in Piacenza


Those who could change the Church and cannot do so

Those who could change the Church but are unable to do so are women who belong to the church and do not recognise their value. This is so for many reasons; above all historical because Church history has not recognised them. Certainly, sometimes it has, the saints, and especially Mary mother of God; but exemplarity, extreme exemplarity in the case of Mary, has meant that they have not carried with them the value of the commonly extraordinary women in the Church, be they women theologians, or women community leaders, who are responsible to the ends of the earth. Yet they have existed and they do so still.

Poor are the little girls, educated in our parishes without a female role model to inspire them: a woman theologian, a woman who reads scripture with wisdom and competence, a woman who preaches, not by the benevolent concession of a bishop who comes and goes, a small recognition entrusted to the pastoral sensitivity of an individual.

Poor are (almost) all women, who in the right place, a place of co-responsibility visible to the world and the faithful all, could fill churches with hope and change the world according to the Kingdom's plan. Yet, they cannot do so.

Mariapia Veladiano, writer, graduate in philosophy and theology


Those who like the female prophet Anna serve God but are kept apart

“There was a prophetess, Ann… she was of a great age - she did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day” (Lk 2:36-38).

This short story about the female prophet Anna, after the long space given to Simeon, teaches us more about the poverty of women in the Church than long speeches. First, it may help us to understand why women were not allowed to be ordained to the ministries, which were considered too important to be entrusted to a woman, given the fact that in history roles of excellence only belong to men.

The poverty experienced by women has to be understood in the light of this situation. Everyone can recall the likes of the elderly woman who kept the church tidy, polished the candelabra, and helped the parish priest with the cleaning. Only now that even these people are becoming scarce do we realise how valuable the service of theirs actually was.

I would like to add a reflection that I have been proposing for decades and of which I am deeply convinced. A fundamental form of poverty is the marginalisation of women in those ecclesial services, particularly the Eucharistic service.  At the transition from 1899 to 1900, three categories of people were not admitted to priestly ordination, these were slaves, natives and women. During the 1900s, the difficulties concerning slavery were overcome, because it was no longer officially accepted even in churches, and the issue of natives was overcome and they began to be ordained as bishops and priests. However, the overcoming of this conditioning for women has not yet happened. Although those who advocate it spit fire and brimstone to say that the condition of the inferiority of women is untrue it is still a fact. When women are put to the test in this service, they prove to be excellent servants of the Lord, who can work, captivate, and thus take care of the people entrusted to them with excellent results, as proven by the experiences of other Christian Churches that have admitted women to the ministry. In short, this condition of inferiority is still a fact. It is necessary for the Church to become aware of the opportunity of overcoming this unacceptable exclusion in a world where women have shown how their service in all fields can be valuable.

Giovanni Cereti, priest, theologian, founder of the 'Anawim fraternity


Those who would like to be looked at as Jesus did with Mary of Magdala

“Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?” (Jn 20:15)

I have always been moved by the tenderness of these words that the Risen One addresses to Mary Magdalene. They express the delicate attention with which Jesus looks at her pain and, perhaps, her despair; and they are, by the same token, an incentive not to remove our gaze from the wounds of every woman’s poverty.

If I had to say which of these poverties, in my opinion, one must have the courage today to look at and alleviate with a look of hope, I would point to one that characterises the Church and one that characterises the dominant culture. In the first case, I am thinking of the fact that an innumerable host of women contribute to animating and nourishing the life of the Church, with commitments and tasks of all kinds. Rarely, however, are they granted the space of a “generative responsibility”. Almost never, that is, is the Church able to welcome the contribution they can offer in changing and improving structures, in imagining and implementing new models of ecclesial reality. In the second case, I am thinking instead of the distorted reading of motherhood imposed by the dominant culture, which often fails to grasp either its personal and family value, and even less its social and human value. I have always juxtaposed with much pain the pain of women who have had to live their professional or social fulfilment and motherhood in an alternative fashion.

This poverty is often unseen, but it is the result of a strong cultural myopia.

Roberto Repole, Archbishop of Turin


Those fighting for equality also within the Church

The experience of women’s impoverishment and discrimination is the number one challenge to be overcome in all societies, throughout the world. However, it is above all a call for the universal Church, for all God's people, as they seek to build a kingdom based on social justice and the dignity of God's daughters and sons.

The poor women of the Church are all those who are suffering humiliation, violence, lack of recognition and dignity in the world of work, in the domestic sphere, in the informal economy, in trafficking. Their cry is for worthwhile work, for respect for their sacred dignity, which no one has the right to take away from them.

There are millions of poor women on whom we must rely to build a Samaritan culture, a culture of care, of “bread and roses”. Also on the level of equality within the Church.

The Christian community is called to fight to foster social, economic and cultural conditions that make equality possible with respect for the dignity of all women, especially those who are living in conditions of inhumanity and slavery in so many parts of the world.

To the extent that we are able to stand beside, accompany and fight shoulder to shoulder with these women, our communities too will be able to change the culture that gives rise to an economic and patriarchal system that generates waste and exclusion.

Charo Castelló, spokesperson for the World Movement of Christian Workers and member of the organising committee for the Popular Movements meetings


Those from whom a child is fiercely torn away

There are women who suffer the excruciating pain of losing the fruit of their womb in a fierce way. A tear. At the foot of a cross. I met them in Argentina and Mexico and they were mothers of the desaparecidos. I prayed with them in Sudan and Afghanistan and they were mothers of children whose hopes were shattered against a wave of selfishness. In Sicily, Calabria and elsewhere, they were empty-handed, without truth or justice, of lives broken by criminal violence. In Iraq, Bosnia and Ukraine they had buried the future and were barely living. Poor, yes, because too often we cannot read in the transparency of their tears the new theology that the Spirit is writing as pages of life. Yet at that school, we can only grow as communities and believers. Beggars they are, but with a royal dignity because one can be a mother even without having given birth, but not without having experienced the pain of labor. However, how many should beg before those wombs and feel perfect!

Tonio Dall'Olio, priest, president of Pro Civitate Christiana in Assisi


Those living in silence and fear because of their sexuality

In Biblical times, widows totally relied on a male for protection and sustenance; they were frequently poor if they had no male relative to care for them. In modern times, the prestige of women is too often still dependent on a male. A woman who is not married to a man is often treated as socially poor.

I met some of these socially poor women when I was a graduate student. Not only were they not married to a man, but they were also in loving relationships with other women. Many had worked selflessly in the service of God’s people, as teachers, nurses, catechists, and social workers. Many were nuns. So I was assigned by my religious superiors to extend the loving hand of the Church to these women.

I have ministered among lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people for more than 50 years. I believe that Catholic lesbian women have lived in silence and fear about their sexuality for too long. They have more than a poor widow’s mite to give (Luke 21: 1-4). May we, as a church, accept all they have to offer and be grateful for their courage in claiming their sexual identity.

Jeannine Gramick, Loreto Sisters at the Foot of the Cross, USA


Those who are exploited by representatives of the clergy

Today, when reflecting on who are the “poor” leads me to think of the female religious who have been or are being abused in many ways by representatives of the clergy; whether that be  financially, psychologically, sexually or spiritually. Financially, many members of the clergy have exploited nuns by asking them to do all kinds of work without retribution. In some cases, the sisters have been deprived of the financial assets of the congregation. 

On a psychological level, manipulation or threats are used to subdue the sisters. Diocesan congregations are very dependent on their bishop who, in the event of a complaint, often sides with the presbyter. Spiritual abuse can accompany psychological abuse, which unfortunately often results in sexual abuse. Furthermore, the vow of poverty, along with the vow of obedience, is falsely interpreted to make the nuns submit to the priest or bishop.  As in the case of the poor in the Old Testament, the victims of abuse are the ones who are blamed for their deplorable situation.

Karlijn Demasure, director and founder of the Child Protection and Vulnerable Persons Centre, Saint Paul University, Ottawa


Journalists of the “Avvenire” and St Paul’s Magazines “Credere” and “Jesus” respectively