June 2005By Anne Barbeau Gardiner
Anne Barbeau Gardiner is Professor Emerita of English at John Jay College of the City University of New York. She is author, most recently, of Ancient Faith and Modern Freedom in John Drydens The Hind and the Panther (Catholic University of America Press).
The Catholic Mystique: Fourteen Women Find Fulfillment in the Catholic Church. Edited by Jennifer Ferrara and Patricia Sodano Ireland. Our Sunday Visitor Books. 299 pages.. No price given..
This timely, inspiring book consists of 14 essays, each by a contemporary woman recounting her conversion to the Catholic Church. These American women come from various religious backgrounds. Several were feminist liberals and Protestant ministers before their conversion. It is heartening to read how these intelligent women, earnest seekers after truth and holiness, eventually found their way into the Church. Their stories are full of rich and fascinating detail, but this review will touch only on three things that interconnect their stories: courage, the need for Church authority, and the discovery that holiness is a journey.
First, the courage of these women is remarkable. It puts many a cradle Catholic to shame. One of them was obliged to run a gauntlet when her Lutheran and Catholic friends asked how she could convert to a Church that did not ordain women. She confides that she was once a feminist liberal too. Sadly, Catholics zealous for the feminist cause still see her as a traitor. Another woman tells us that she hesitated on the edge of conversion because of her attachment to her congregation and her own sisters accusation of disloyalty, but in the end bravely resolved that natural loves have nothing to do with truth. Yet another recounts how she went through an Oh No! phase that lasted a couple of months, during which she faced, one by one, all the losses her conversion would entail: She foresaw that she would have to tell her family and colleagues something they did not want to hear, that she would worship alone without her immediate family, and that she would lose the professional gains of a decade just before applying for tenure. Each Oh No! raised the question, Is it worth it? But at the close of this searing ordeal, she found there was nothing left but Yes and a deep sense of peace and joy.
In an even harder, more poignant case, a woman on the brink felt like a first-time skydiver, knowing that her change would alienate most of my friends, disrupt our social circle, and undermine my business, because Protestant homeschoolers made up 85 percent of her readers. Even her Catholic mother discouraged her at first, warning of the trouble it would cause her family. Her conversion brought much pain in its wake: My best friends withdrew. I had to resign from the board of an organization I had founded. We were cut off from much of our social circle, and my family was divided and angry over the trouble I caused them. To endure such losses patiently is surely to stand in the anteroom of martyrdom.
When still another woman told her husband of her desire to convert, he replied that he felt betrayed, that she was not the woman he married, and that she was crazy to throw away all that she had worked so hard for. In many of these accounts, heroic courage bore fruit, as a number of husbands and children ended up also converting.
Two of these women were married to divorced men at the time they sought to convert, so they had to wait for years for the matter to be settled; nor was there any certainty that an annulment would ever be granted. One of them says that she and her husband lived two years under the cross of chastity as brother and sister, until the annulment finally came and they could be married in the Church. A striking example of courage, sacrifice, and grace!
The second point that interconnects these essays is that many of the women discovered a need for a strong Church authority in moral and theological matters. They saw their Churches sinking in the Spirit of the Times. Robin Maas was distressed by the general moral relativism of her Churchs seminary, its quirky and eclectic worship, and its campaign for inclusive language and bowdlerizing of the Bible. Likewise, Linda Poindexter who had once been politically pro-choice but was now convinced that all abortions were against Gods will was distressed when her Church refused to condemn even partial-birth abortions, as well as when her fellow clergy declared that homosexual unions could be blessed and active homosexuals ordained. Those who disagreed with these moral novelties were called unchristian and unloving. Poindexter thought a Church should not advocate constantly changing standards for truth, since there exists a truth beyond all our individual conceptions of truth.
Similarly, Patricia Sodano Ireland was disturbed by her Churchs silence on such issues as abortion, premarital sex, and homosexuality, and Kristen McLaughlin noticed that liberals had gained so much power in her Church that they were able to cast more votes on hot-button issues like abortion and homosexuality. After studying the Reformation from both sides, she concluded that Luther was wrong. Only the Catholic Church remained uncompromisingly firm on morals, and she decided that such firmness was needed.
Pat Dixon, Candie Frankel, and Jennifer Ferrara also discovered a need for a Church with clear teaching authority. Dixon saw her Church as having abandoned its historic Christianity and embraced the secular worldview. Frankel and Ferrara were shocked when their Church decided to cover abortions for employees. At the time, Frankel and her husband were teaching about the Reformation in Sunday School and began to study various sources on this topic. They concluded that the break-up of Christians had been wrong and the central problem was the true identity of the Church. At the same juncture, Ferrara reflected on the need for a Magisterium that interprets Scripture in light of the great Tradition of the Church.
It is surprising and heartening in this day to see capable and intelligent women accepting the need for the authority of the Catholic Church. One hopes that many women will read these essays and come to realize that the way forward is no longer through worldly pride, but through meekness and humility, the two virtues Jesus Christ sternly commends to both men and women in Matthew 11:29. Patricia Sodano Ireland tells of attending a 15th-anniversary celebration of the ordination of women in her former Church and finding it a lamentation orgy about the suffering of female clergy at the hands of men, without a single satisfied woman. Evidently, ordination had not brought them happiness.
Humility is a virtue closely linked to magnanimity. We see this in Linda Poindexters essay, where she confides that she had much to learn about obedience and humility. Only gradually did the good Lord teach her the reasons for authority, for a Church that is unafraid to speak Gods will and Word to His people. She has come to feel gratitude for the centuries of Tradition that offered assurance of the timeless beliefs of the Church.
In these stories, humility sometimes permeated a converts personal life, with surprising results. One of them found herself able to return to Mary as Mother of God unfettered by feminist mistrust of her submissiveness, and another so impressed her husband by her hidden practice of humility that he decided to look into a religion that had visibly changed her for the better. His search resulted in conversion. She adds that when she put Ephesians 5:22 into practice, she realized it meant honor and respect, not doormat passivity.
The ancient Fathers played a role in drawing Rosalind Moss and Victoria Madeleine to see the need for Church authority. Moss says she read the Church Fathers, as well as the writings of councils and popes, and discovered there a design for Gods Church on earth more beautiful, more majestic, more whole than anything I could have fathomed. Madeleine speaks of a defining moment that occurred when she asked a theology professor what the Church Fathers taught about the End Times, and he answered that he had never read the Church Fathers. Church authority through the ages was also a factor in the conversions of Cathy Duffy and Barbara Zelenko. Duffy realized that there was no obvious biblical support for the New Testament canon, so it was not logical to accept this canon and reject the Church that had approved it centuries after the Apostles. From this, she began to see the necessity of Church authority to maintain doctrinal integrity and stability down the ages. Zelenko, distressed that her Church now accepted choice in abortion and the need to accept the homosexual lifestyle in the name of Christian freedom and love, began to see it as obvious that there was a need for a pope. She studied the Church Fathers and concluded that it was implausible that God had let His Church wander in error for fifteen hundred years before the Reformation. In all these accounts, women searched into history for a fountainhead of authority on Christian faith and morals, and they found it in the age-old Catholic Church.
The third thing that interconnects these essays is the discovery that holiness is a lifelong journey. Ferrara says that what triggered her conversion was a retreat at the Sisters of Life Convent in New York, where she first heard about a theology of sanctification based on St. Teresa of Avila. For Candie Frankel, it had never been clear before why becoming holy matters. What she learned was that salvation is a lifelong journey to holiness, in which one is aided by the communion of saints: I have traveled very far, and there is far to go. Another who had aborted a child and delved into the occult explains that she had repented long ago, but never felt purified. A Catholic priest explained to her that, as with a stain on a dress, there was much cleansing yet to be done, and so she willingly undertook the journey to holiness.
Ruth Andreas confides that before her conversion she had not realized how our sufferings, our efforts, and our sacrifices are linked to Gods larger plan of salvation history. As a Catholic she learned to offer up her smallest sufferings on the road to holiness. Rhonda Grayson had long noticed that Catholics accepted their sufferings. After reading saints lives she understood that we are to offer up our sufferings for the needs of others and that these sufferings are precious to Christ. Linda Poindexter observes that Protestants often do not know what to do with their sufferings. For Catholics it is imperative to offer up pain or sorrow as prayer for others, since it is a privilege to participate in the redemptive suffering of Christ. She notes that the realization that there is a use for pain (a redemptive purpose) helps us endure it.
For Robin Maas, who was raised in Christian Science, disease was an illusion, so to advance spiritually meant to overcome suffering and vanquish its effects by impersonal prayer. When she started reading the spiritual classics of Catholicism, she was shocked at how they were tied to material reality and the fact of suffering. She has abandoned the denial of material reality and her prayers are no longer impersonal.
Perhaps the most inspired passages in Catholic Mystique are those on the Sacraments. Pat Dixon says she was drawn to the Sacraments as genuine openings, or points of contact, between heaven and earth. Candie Frankel speaks of the nearness of Christ in the confessional, how there is a powerful sense of Jesus healing mercy and my own radical dependence on it. Pat Dixon recalls that in her former Church, I could wrap my sins in a sort of mental bubble and send it up to God in a wordless confession, without ever looking at it too closely. Yet somehow this made the process unreal, as if it were just another mental phenomenon of my own making. I craved the personal contact with Christ that confessing through His priest would give me.
With equal eloquence, Patricia Sodano Ireland declares that in the Eucharist, Heaven breaks into our world and in a moment, He lights upon our sin-sick tongue, and we consume Him. Christ in me. For Candie Frankel, the Eucharist comes to us straight from heaven, and we receive it this side of Paradise. For Rosalind Moss, coming from a Jewish background, the Torah points to the Eucharist: Here is the Living Bread to which every lamb and every grain of manna pointed. For Jennifer Ferrara, at each Mass the supernatural breaks into the natural and we experience the mystery, splendor, and otherworldliness of the Church.
Seeing that their own Churches were sinking in the Zeitgeist, these women entered the Ark where Christ is the Pilot on the voyage to eternity.