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How to Build Strong Working Relationships with Women

Every woman encountered is a daughter of God and a daughter of the Church

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“If 80% of lay ecclesial ministers are women, why in the world are we being formed in isolation from women?” one of my seminary students recently asked. Good question. “Well, the person to whom you addressed this question is, in fact, herself a woman, a wife and mother of four,” was my initial response. And indeed, several women, religious and lay, serve on our seminary faculty. In all their apostolic works, their weekend parish experiences and their summer assignments, seminarians work with women. But there was a deeper point the seminarian was making: How can priests successfully collaborate with women in the Church when they are not frequently interacting with women while in the seminary?

I thought long and hard, knowing that this precise question is being debated in articles and discussions on seminary reform. Together, the seminarians and I recalled that Christ took the Twelve apart for a time. Jesus and the Twelve prayed together, traveled together and ate together as he taught them by word and example, forming them to be men after his own heart: spiritual fathers. Perhaps seminary is a time to be apart with Christ to be formed into spiritual fathers.

While in seminary, and even more so after ordination, these men will be ministering to and with women. And it is by knowing who they are as men of God and as spiritual fathers that they will be able to effectively relate to women. Every woman that a priest encounters is a daughter of God and a daughter of the Church. Therefore, the most appropriate and effective way for priests to relate to all women in the Church is by fully embracing their identity as a spiritual father, formed by the heart of Jesus. Indeed, Jesus’ relations with women provide the model of spiritual fatherhood.

Jesus and Women

It is universally admitted — even by people with a critical attitude toward the Christian message — that in the eyes of his contemporaries Christ was a promoter of women’s true dignity and the vocation corresponding to this dignity.

In his apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem, Pope St. John Paul II said: “In all of Jesus’ teaching, as well as in his behavior, one can find nothing which reflects the discrimination against women prevalent in his day. On the contrary, his words and works always express the respect and honor due to women. … Jesus’ attitude to the women whom he meets in the course of his Messianic service reflects the eternal plan of God, who, in creating each one of them, chooses her and loves her in Christ (cf. Eph 1:1-5). … Jesus of Nazareth confirms this dignity, recalls it, renews it, and makes it a part of the Gospel and of the Redemption for which he is sent into the world. Every word and gesture of Christ about women must therefore be brought into the dimension of the Paschal Mystery” (No. 13).

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Role of Women in the Church

Pope Francis, in an Angelus address on Oct. 10, 2020, said, “Today we still need to make greater space for a more incisive feminine presence in the Church — I mean a lay presence — but underlining the feminine aspect, because women are often put to one side.”

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In his ministry, Jesus taught women. Mary of Bethany is praised for choosing to learn at his feet rather than cooking for him and the disciples. Jesus promoted women as good examples in several parables.

Recall the woman and the lost coin, and the faithful bridesmaids. Jesus praised women. He said of the woman who anointed him: “Amen, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed to the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her” (Mk 14:9).

Jesus listened to women. Consider the Syro-Phoenician woman who told Jesus that even the dogs have scraps to eat. Jesus healed women, touching them, restoring not only their health but their dignity.

Jesus engaged in dialogue with women. He dialogued with the Blessed Virgin Mary in Cana and with Martha at the tomb of her brother Lazarus in Bethany.

And in every Gospel account of the Resurrection, the risen Lord appeared to women first. Jesus had a heart for women.

HEART as a Key

The word “heart” serves as a key to unlocking effective working relationships with women in the Church. In the following paragraphs, three words from each letter in the word heart are used to describe essential qualities. Each of the words offers insights into how, as a spiritual father, a priest can foster effective working relationships with women in the Church.

H: Holiness, Humility, Hardworking

Holiness: “We know when you haven’t prayed,” said a seasoned pastoral associate. Women and men in the Church can spot a priest who neglects his prayer life from a mile away. Pray. Fast. Practice virtue. Women in the Church, more than anything else, want to collaborate with priests who are striving for holiness in themselves and others. Holiness is not perfection. It is the response of the heart to the awareness of the divine.

Humility: Christ humbled himself, taking the form of a slave. He washed the feet of his disciples. Humility can be expressed by leading from below, by lifting the people you work with. Set the stage so others can shine. Create a firm foundation that allows your collaborators, male and female, to excel.

Hardworking: What do you say to the father who spends all his free time on hobbies, sports and friends, so much so that his family is suffering emotionally and financially? You would encourage him to be more industrious. Women in the Church respect priests who work hard, who are productive and responsible. Effective relations with women require priests to be diligent, creative, industrious and to pull their own weight. Slacker priests disappoint and discourage all around them.

E: Eucharistic, Excellence, Endurance

Eucharistic: The Eucharist is the font from and to which all ministry flows. To be Eucharistic, the priest needs not only to model but to participate in the kenotic, self-emptying love of Christ out of a deep sense of gratitude. It is a generous willingness to sacrifice that is born out of a spirit of thanksgiving. Self-sacrificing priests inspire women and men in the Church by their authentic witness.

Excellence is not satisfied with mediocrity. It does not take the easy way out. It does not cheat God by halfhearted attempts. It strives for beauty first and foremost in the liturgy. Set goals and work hard to meet them. Be determined to serve in the model of Christ seeking the salvation of souls with good zeal.

Endurance doesn’t give up when the going gets tough. Jesus fell three times on the way to the cross. Endurance does not complain or lose hope. It is the application of hope. Patient endurance is contagious.

A: Appreciate, Acknowledge, Ask

Appreciation is best expressed verbally AND in writing. I have a drawer full of thank you notes from my previous priest employers and co-workers. These are precious reminders to me and my family that the clergy I worked with very much appreciated me.

Acknowledge: Recognize women. Acknowledge women who are in the room. Introduce them. Acknowledge their contributions, skills and simply their presence. It can be all too easy to overlook those women whose roles in the parish are not visible. Give credit where credit is due. Acknowledge all the players on your parish team whatever their position.

Ask: “What do you think?” “What are your feelings about that?” These are essential questions to ask women consistently. If the decision will impact a woman employee, ask her opinion. Consult with women on the parish staff and in the parish at large when considering pastoral changes. Ask for feedback.

R: Reverence, Reason, Reconciliation

Reverence is more than respect. It is the realization of the Divine Presence in the Eucharist, the sacraments. It is an attitude that affirms the human person as imago Dei. Reverence is maintaining the “sanctuary self” in the parish office. The tone, the posture, the mindfulness, the care of words and actions a priest exhibits in the sanctuary should be perceptible in his office demeanor.

Reason: Ours is a faith informed by reason. Interactions with women need to be informed by reason, by knowledge of the individual person as well as knowledge of feminine experience.

Reconciliation: Unhealthy conflict, rivalry, jealousy and tension in the parish office are lethal to parish life. Fostering communion among the parish staff is a key function of the clergy. Peace is the fruit of love planted in hope. Offer forgiveness and seek forgiveness eagerly.

T: Tenderness, Trustworthy, Transparent

Tenderness: Gruffness, cruelty and vulgarity exhibited by clergy offend women and men. Gentleness is the greatest strength, according to St. Francis de Sales. It takes more self-control to be tender than it does to be tough. Tenderness is a primary attribute of love. And God is love. Love builds a bridge upon which truth can pass. By being tender and kind, the priest can earn the trust of women in the Church.

Trustworthy: In Matthew 5:33-37, Jesus commands his disciples to keep vows and be men of their word. Nothing corrodes trust more than empty words and broken promises. Work hard to earn and maintain the trust of colleagues.

Transparency: Crisis managers say that two things are necessary to regain confidence in an organization rocked by scandal: accountability and transparency. Transparency can be fostered by sharing information; delegating authority and empowering others to make decisions; encouraging open communication throughout the parish system; explaining your decisions; making yourself available; having an open door and mind.

Begin and End with Mary

The Church begins in Mary just as the Mystical Body of Christ begins in Mary. By far the most important female relationship, and one that should influence all other relationships with women, is the priest’s relationship with Mary.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, in an article published in 1986 in the journal Communio entitled “The Ecclesiology of the Second Vatican Council,” expresses the Marian principle of ecclesiology this way: The Church is not a mechanical entity. It is not a mere institution, nor just a sociological reality. It is a person. It is a woman. She is a mother. The Marian understanding of the Church is the most decisive antithesis to a purely organizational or bureaucratic conception of the Church. We cannot make the Church. We must be the Church and the Church is in us only to the extent that faith shapes not only our action but also our being. It is only by being Marian that we become the Church.

“When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple there whom he loved, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, behold your son.’ Then he said to his disciple, ‘Behold, your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his home” (Jn 19:26-27). Take Mary into your heart and allow her to influence how you work with women in the Church. Focus on the sacred heart of Jesus and remember how he related to women. At the heart of effective working relationships with women is love: love for God, love for the Church, love for each and every person, male and female, made in the image and likeness of God. 

HELENE PAHARIK, M.A., Ph.D. candidate, teaches theology at Saint Vincent Seminary in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, and is completing her dissertation, “An Ontological Missiology of Friendship Love,” at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland. She has served in parish and diocesan ministries. Helene and her husband have four adult children.

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Renew Focus on Mary

Mary
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Helene Paharik relates that in Cardinal Marc Oulett’s recent book, “Friends of the Bridegroom” (Sophia Institute Press, $18.95), he asserts that an exclusive emphasis has been placed on the institutional and masculine aspect of the Church so much so that the “Marian face,” the feminine and maternal face, the mystical aspect of the Church, has faded far into the background.

This ecclesiology, Cardinal Oulett proposes, is not unrelated to the crisis of identity of priests that has marked the post-conciliar period. Signs of this crisis are an underdeveloped sense of spiritual fatherhood, the abandonment of the priesthood, loss of the sense of mystery, especially in the liturgy, confusion in the distinction of the roles between clergy and laity, and the purely functional vision of ministry. To remedy this crisis of identity that affects priests and the whole Church, Cardinal Ouellet suggests a renewed focus on the Marian principle of ecclesiology.

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