A league of their own
Leading off is Mother Teresa, followed by Mom and Catherine of Siena. Batting cleanup is Mary. Readers have chosen an all-star lineup of saints, nuns, family members, and other holy women for the U.S. Catholic Reader Survey on inspirational women.
Of the men and women responding to the U.S. Catholic Reader Survey on inspirational women, 49 percent said the church offers good female role models to women and girls. Is this a positive statistic? Certainly those who responded, most of whom were women, sang the praises of women they admire, from their own mothers to the Mother of God.
But the statistic could also read that just 49 percent of readers think the church offers good female role models. Almost one third of respondents look to women outside the church for their inspiration. Less than half tend to be inspired by women in their parishes, female saints, women in the Bible, and prominent Catholic women. Two thirds worry that young women find the church lacking in female role models because not all leadership positions are open to women.
The issue seems to be not whether there are female role models, but how well these strong women are promoted within the church. “They are all over the place,” a website visitor says. “We just need to be pointing our young women toward them.”
For generations of girls the church’s model woman was the traditionally obedient and submissive Mary. Although this image of Mary has lost favor since the feminist movement, a strong Mary continues to inspire readers who voted her as one of the most inspirational Catholic women.
Following God’s will shows that Mary is courageous rather than submissive. She was an unwed mother, admired especially by modern mothers; she was a refugee; and she saw her son killed. We have to “get past the vision of a holy woman such as Mary as meek, quiet,” Nancie Chmielewski of Milwaukee says. “I wonder if she really was meek?”
Another woman is just as popular as Mary among readers because she, too, combined humility with strength: Mother Teresa. News about the recent book (Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, Doubleday) that documented her long crisis of faith has seemed only to increase readers’ admiration of her.
“Although she felt that God was not listening to her prayers for years, she did not lose faith because she believed that faith is not a feeling but a gift,” says Ana Marie Clemente Pinzón, a website visitor from Makati, Philippines.
The strength of her faith, though, is just part of what makes Mother Teresa inspiring; readers also admire what she did with it. “She chose to work with the poorest of the poor and continued to do so despite her own crisis of faith,” says Laurice Bonannella of Budd Lake, New Jersey.
The most admirable group of women, earning esteem from 68 percent of readers, are women who work for peace and justice.
Working for justice within the church is the reason readers voted Sister Joan Chittister, O.S.B. by far the most inspirational woman currently alive. “She works for change from within the community she calls her home. She is an example of what it means to be on fire with the Spirit, loving her church so much that she can not sit quietly in the face of injustice,” says Kaija DeWitt of White Bear Lake, Minnesota. DeWitt adds, however, that “some of the most inspiring women in the church today, Chittister first among them, are not touted as so by the hierarchy.”
Inspirational Catholic women focus on others. What makes them commendable is “their relationship with God and how that relates to their relationship to others in the community,” says a reader from Springfield, Virginia, reflecting on the two greatest commandments: Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.
Women’s relationships with others are also one reason readers list personal role models almost as often as they listed Mary or Mother Teresa. Family members and women in their parish inspire more readers than saints, biblical women, or public figures. “The women I encounter in my daily ministry use their personal experiences, good and bad, to help others with compassion, love, and justice. They empower the poor and marginalized to find their place in the community and church,” says Mary Britanak of Seaside Park, New Jersey.
These women are lawyers, teachers, volunteers, lay ministers; they are nuns, sisters, mothers, and daughters. “She dares to be herself and is holy in doing so,” says an Omaha, Nebraska mother of her 22-year-old daughter, who has studied in India and works to address hunger issues. “She is loving and creative and faith-filled, and she walks the talk.”
When ordinary women “place into action the virtues of faith and love,” as Ronald Hill of Aliso Viejo, California says of his wife, they become extraordinary role models.
Although an exceptional few women have gained fame while humbly serving God and neighbor, their focus on others is what hinders most female role models from having greater name recognition. “You can find plenty of female role models if you want to model women’s work,” says Terrance Brown of Charleston, South Carolina. “But you can’t find them in real, public leadership positions.”
The lack of women in church leadership worries the majority of readers. Lisa Ford of Albuquerque, New Mexico, who is inspired by women outside Catholicism, thinks the church’s stance on women’s ordination hurts it: “Women are leaving the Catholic Church and taking their love and talents to other denominations. The Catholic Church has made clear that it does not want female leadership, so it is not getting it.”
Others respect the leadership roles that women currently hold, even if they are not priests. “While our female roles are different and limited, I don’t think of them as less significant,” says Jane Ross Laguna of Santa Ana, California.
Women religious, Sandy Calabro of North Stonington, Connecticut says, are “one of the church’s greatest resources. I am inspired by their faithfulness, vision, and level of education.” But their numbers are dwindling.
“Many parishes don’t have nuns to offer inspiration,” says Dianne Keller Smith of Columbus, Ohio. She adds, “My feminist daughter wants to be pope,” not a nun. Smith’s 15-year-old daughter doesn’t consider herself Catholic because of the issue of women’s ordination. Smith, however, remains Catholic because other women have taught her “that the Catholic Church has a beautiful, complex history. If I disagree with anything, I could leave, but the best way is to work within the church to make changes.”
Beyond Mary, Mother Teresa, Chittister, and a few other notable names and saints, women may not always be recognized for the work that they do for society and the church. Women who are strong in their own faith, however, play the most important role in the church: They are the torch-bearers of the faith, passing it to the next generation of Catholics. As a Web visitor says: “Face it, in most households it’s the woman who drags us to Mass.”
The woman who inspires me most today is...
The Blessed Mother was quiet but strong and took all things to heart with great thanksgiving and praise to our Lord. In her simplicity I find great strength!
Dawn Mary Curazzato
Mary Magdalene carried out Jesus’ mission while the males fled.
Central Lake, Mich.
St. Catherine of Siena focused on her Lord, the great lover in her life, and God helped her stay strong working in a male-dominated vineyard. Men sought her knowledge and wisdom.
Dorothy Day struggled and allowed her brokenness to be a blessing to others, especially the poor whom she served tirelessly and passionately.
Mary Lynn Delfino
Mother Teresa is a modern person who gave her all to follow Jesus and stay faithful to the end despite much suffering.
Sister Helen Prejean is committed to the cause of justice for prisoners, but her vision for caring for the Earth is evolving and passionate as well.
Sister Shelley A. Hogan
St. Louis, Mo.
Alice Camille speaks from her heart in everyday language, with humor, self-knowledge, and inspiration to make the most of ourselves.
My mother. Although she taught us and brought us up in faith, most of her preaching was done without words, by the way she lived.
Glen Mills, Pa.
My wife because of her faith in God and service to friends and strangers in need.
My grandmother loves the church and gives of her time and heart.
Jessica Bell Dobek
The most important characteristics of inspirational Catholic women are...
Openness to new thought and change. Respect for tradition. Willingness to pursue their goals despite opposition.
Leadership and using their talents to the utmost.
How they care for and treat others—family, neighbors, strangers.
Charles B. Beckmann
A contemplative lifestyle balanced with concrete action that serves the world’s voiceless. Speaking the truth and challenging patriarchal/dysfunctional systems despite fear of recrimination from church hierarchy.
Strength of character, perseverance, great love, senses of fun and humor, love of God, knowledge of religion, knowledge of the Bible, prayer life, tolerance, intelligence, work ethic, faithfulness.
Mary Jane Derschan
That she is true to herself. As women, we often get caught up trying to please everyone else and forget that we need to respect ourselves everyday, too.
Sarah E. Cavendish
Women who are not afraid to challenge the male-dominated church, who speak out against the injustices of the world, who challenge us to be the best that we can be in all we do, who teach us to appreciate the simple things in life, and who inspire us to listen to our hearts.
Jeanne M. Versweyveld
Blooming Grove, Ohio
The same for all humans. Being a good Christian, regardless of sex or race, is what’s important.
The biggest lesson I’ve learned about my faith from a woman is...
Emphasis on relationships. Compassion.
From the Rev. Carole Baker, a United Church of Christ minister, I learned that the spirit of God is gender-blind and those who would bar women from Holy Orders are restricting the voice of God.
Francis R. Mello
From my mother, to just have faith.
Be patient. God is like a persistent, compassionate mother wanting the best for her children, cheering them on, and believing in them even when they forget their own goodness.
Edward L. Palumbos
No matter what happens in my life, trust God always and let him guide my life
Jennifer H. Moore
Baton Rouge, La.
Life is not perfect. The church is not perfect, and I am not perfect and that is OK. An imperfect church doesn’t mean I have to lose faith, and an imperfect me doesn’t mean that God loves me any less.
Ryan J. Moser
It doesn’t matter whether or not the world values you because you are female (or male). What matters is that you are living your life authentically, exercising the call of God to be God’s sacred and healing presence as the unique, blessed, and beloved child of God that you are.
North Haven, Conn.
To trust the Spirit, and to know that religion occasionally gets in the way of God.
Lori M. Culberson
Faith is an ongoing commitment to be renewed day by day. We never stop growing in faith, unless we stop working at it. Each day is a new revelation.
Kathleen A. Garity
The best way I have seen the church promote inspirational women has been...
As far as church hierarchy, none. But individual priests, nuns, and parish women foster an inclusive attitude that allows young women to become involved before they are disillusioned.
Alba Doto Baccari
Preaching on women in the Bible.
The Albany diocese sponsors a “women’s commissioning” each year, recognizing women of all ages, from all parishes.
Ballston Lake, N.Y.
To not burn them all at the stake!
Highland Park, Ill.
Hosting them as speakers, but not often. I believe the church is concerned about offending its audience and can’t accept an outspoken, gospel-rooted, female radical!
Arlington Heights, Ill.
Allowing women in ministerial positions.
Canonization. Unfortunately living women don’t get much publicity.
Belinda Ann McCloskey
In Catholic education, through teachers, faculty, and administrators, and through special programs offered in the parish.
The biggest challenge of finding female role models in the church is...
Women must promote contemporary female role models. They can’t depend on the institutional church to do so. There seems to be a built-in fear of challenging, fearless, holy women who confront the truth head-on and are not in the game of power politics.
Chevy Chase, Md.
The lack of women priests and deacons.
Clint T. Hunsche
The church focuses on virgin martyrs. The guys who suppress devotion to the strong women (Mary of Magdala) and promote “saints” such as Maria Goretti.
Emphasizing their femininity rather than their spirituality.
Many people today are more inclined to hold up a celebrity as a role model. To a young girl, Britney Spears is a whole lot cooler than, say, St. Thérèse. But as these young girls (and boys) grow and mature, they hopefully will see examples to follow in our rich and wonderful history.
Pamela F. Bryant
Glen Allen, Va.
The humility of most of these women.
Sister Angela Palermo
They are few and far between. Many used to be found in religious orders, and now there are too few in that life.
Lorraine Mary Williams
Markham, Ontario, Canada
For the “good old boys’ club” to admit that Jesus treated women as equals.
St. Louis, Mo.
The ministries and activities women are often involved in are support roles that are hidden behind the scenes with little or no public recognition or promotion.
The frustration that makes good women seek work elsewhere.
Father Nick Punch
It is not the bishops with their gold rings and gowns that lead our church today; it is the women, middle aged and older, who have held us together.
New Hyde Park, N.Y.
There are many paths in the church for women to serve God. The fact that women are not allowed to be ordained as priests does not keep us from living a full life of service to God. Perhaps the challenge is to take the time to acknowledge how much women have achieved.
Carmen Brocke Robinson
The leadership positions that are open to women tend to have the lowest salaries.
Marybeth M. Curran
Plymouth Meeting, Pa.
I believe the church offers more men to model than they offer women, but some have been so involved in scandal, they can’t be labeled as better models.
Timaree J. Cheney
The good women are ignored. The good men are silenced.
If women stopped participating as eucharistic ministers and adding to the collection plate just one weekend out of the year, the impact would be so astounding that the men in charge would see who really runs the church.