The following is a reflection given by Sister Janet M. Peterworth, OSU, and Kevin Karl at St. William Church in Louisville, Kentucky on September 3, 2023.
Remember Tevya in Fiddler on the Roof? Remember how he argues with God? “Dear God,” he says, “was that necessary? Did you have to make him lame just before the Sabbath? That wasn’t nice. It’s enough you pick on me. Bless me with five daughters, a life of poverty, that’s all right. But what have you got against my horse? Tevya complains, Tevya laments.
But Tevya is not the first to complain. Listen to Jeremiah in today’s first reading. He is frustrated, scared, overwhelmed, and losing his people. So here about mid-way through his 52 chapters he starts his complaining. He laments before God. You tricked me, you duped me, you deceived me, you haven’t kept your promise. And this goes on for the next several verses.
And as I reflected on the Synod that Pope Francis has convened, I think he was calling on the universal church to lament…to complain. For the first conversations we were instructed to go to the edges and bring people in. Go get those alienated from the church, go get youth, go get the poor, get every minority you can think of. Get them all and listen to their laments. Listen to one another, don’t judge, don’t argue, don’t convince, just listen to the laments. Listen as God listened to Jerimiah and Tevya. And then bundle the laments and bring them to the whole, bring them to the discerning body.
But what are these laments? Laments about clericalism, laments about shutting LGBTQ+ people out of church, laments about keeping divorced and civilly remarried Catholics away from the sacraments, laments about patriarchy, laments about women being overlooked for leadership positions……laments, laments, laments.
The Gospel today picks up on the same theme of lamenting. After hearing that as Messiah, Jesus would suffer and die, Peter wants no part of that, complaining that this must never happen. To lament or complain or even whine, is an act of faith that God accepts us where we are. (God knows what we are thinking and what we are feeling so we might as well admit it.) God takes us where we are and then can lovingly move us from there to someplace better.
In a Pentecost homily several years ago, Pope Frances lamented that as the church prayed for a new Pentecost, people were so locked into the Church we have now that they were unable and unwilling to imagine a church better than the one we have. How could the Holy Spirit renew the Church if we were not open to change and new visions? The Pope’s lament was that the Church was stuck. I take that instruction and today’s scriptures as a chance to air my laments in the trust of God’s acceptance and the hope that God can lovingly move us forward.
Speaking as a man on this forgotten feast of St. Phoebe, the woman deacon, I lament the treatment of women in this church. As a parish leader through many years, it was obvious that the Church’s very survival has been because of the generosity of women. There is not a parish in the world that could run if women didn’t do the heavy lifting. And yet women have never been acknowledged by the hierarchy with the privilege and responsibility of sacramental servant leadership. One of the amazing blessings of this parish has been seeing the vast gifts of women in ministry, in preaching, and in leadership.
I lament how many gifts in every parish are being wasted and squandered because women are ignored and forbidden to use their talents and graces gifted to them in Baptism. I find it interesting that in every culture, whether desired or not, the role of women has always been to serve at table, everywhere but not in this Catholic Church. All this waste is because of a difference in biological plumbing.
I dream of a day when women will be welcomed to all the sacraments of the Church and that all ministries would be opened to them as God calls them to serve. I dream of a day when sacraments, which should be the right of every Catholic and which are now not available in many areas of the world because of a shortage of celibate men, could easily be celebrated by generous women who might be there in abundance. As I reflect on the readings, I am struck that the experience of women in the Church must be similar to Jeremiah when he says, “I am done with this endeavor!” And at the same time feeling the call to lovingly serve and to belong literally exploding inside them. I lament that sad experience. As I said I am trusting that God will hear my laments and lead us to a better place and hopefully more like the one of which I dream.
And I have a lament of my own today and that is my sorrow and even anger that Phoebe, whose feast is celebrated on September 3rd, was “bumped” off the Roman calendar by Pope Gregory’s feast—perhaps deliberately because she was a woman leader? And by the way he was the pope that first called Mary of Magdala a prostitute—inaccurately I might note. Well, no matter what the Roman calendar says, I echo Jeremiah, “I am done with this endeavor!” Today I throw off my lament to celebrate St. Phoebe whom Paul calls, “our sister, a deacon of the church in Cenchrea, my benefactor.” We know also (from Paul’s words in his letter to the Romans) that Phoebe was a missionary, an evangelist, and a fund-raiser. She traveled about eight days from her home in Cenchrea probably on foot or horse with no Holiday Inn or Visa. She went to a community divided and arguing over dietary laws and liturgical norms. She brought the message of Christ’s liberating self-sacrifice and Paul’s message urging the community to unity, mutual respect, and trust in God’s providence.
The way Paul introduces Phoebe shows that she exercised an ecclesial ministry even in the patriarchal church of her day. Her role needs to inspire the present-day imaginings of the Synod discussion about women’s role in our church now in this 21st century. And so, I grow weary of holding it in. Let us celebrate our sister Phoebe, the deacon! Enough of lamenting, enough of complaining….at least for today.
I commend to you Phoebe our sister, who is [also] a minister of the church at Cenchreae,that you may receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the holy ones, and help her in whatever she may need from you, for she has been a benefactor to many and to me as well.