“Let women keep silence in the churches; for it is not permitted them to speak,”
(1 Corinthians 14:34)
Imagine if we, as a Church, actually still adhered to this? Yet, in very fundamental ways, the Church still does. And some women have witnessed it more personally that others.
Mary Luke Tobin comes to mind.
Sister Mary Luke Tobin grew up in Denver, the daughter of a gold miner. In 1958, she became the leader of the Sisters of Loretto, an order based in Kentucky. But her calling and claim to fame in life would begin on October 11, 1962 when Pope John XXIII opened the Second Ecumenical Council on the Vatican, or Vatican II.
There, 2,500 men, the collective leadership of the Catholic Church, met to change the world followed by fifteen women who were allowed only to watch silently from the sidelines.
Mary Luke Tobin was one of those women, and the only American woman. At the time, as president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the diminutive nun had an agenda on her mind. But things didn’t go quite as she’d planned, as, for the most part, the women were kept silent.
But she was a woman of hope, hence, years later, she would reflect positively on what happened there. In a November, 1986 article for America The National Catholic Weekly Sister Mary Luke writes, “For me, Vatican II was an opening, although just a tiny crack in the door, to a recognition of the vast indifference toward women and the ignoring of their potential within the whole body of the church.”
Although relatively little changed for specifically women in the Church after Vatican II, Sister Mary Luke would go on to spend the rest of her life fighting for the rights of women within the institutional Church. As a lover of creative arts, Sister Tobin would conduct her battles with all the grace expected of women. A ballet teacher before entering the convent, she likened her work to the releasing of that creative energy into the world. “Life is often a dance, and we must keep in step with the tempo of each day if we are to respond creatively to the problems of the world and the world’s people,” she once said.
When she died in 2006 at the age of 98, Sister Mary Luke Tobin was at the forefront of the movement to allow women to be ordained into the priesthood.
But that battle is far from settled. Like Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz from centuries before who recognized that women had a right to an education, Sister Mary Luke was clear in her understanding that the exclusion of women from ordination was an injustice. In the America article she describes an interesting scenario and a compelling example of what she considered progress. She writes:
At a recent conference, a layman in the audience asked the presiding bishop: “What shall I tell my daughter when she tells me she would like to be a priest?”
The bishop replied, “Just tell her she will not be ordained, and that for only one reason: She is a woman.”
He continued, “All her life she will be minimized by that reality.” Then the bishop concluded his answer with this statement: "I agree that the situation is unjust. It must change, and it will.”
Sister Mary Luke did not live to see that change. With the shortage of traditional vocations and the need for ministry as prevalent as ever, perhaps some of our daughters will.
Tobin, Mary Luke. America, The National Catholic Weekly. “Women in the Church Since Vatican II” November 1, 1986. Jan 27 2010.
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