by Ann M. Colford

As an American, a Catholic and a woman of faith, I'm aware that these are not easy days to engage with the Catholic Church. When the news broke about white smoke and ringing bells at the Vatican, I was reading At the Root of This Longing: Reconciling a Spiritual Hunger and a Feminist Thirst by Carol Lee Flinders. The irony is not lost on me.

Deciding who among them would be the next pope were just 115 men in red. Why they chose a cardinal whose past statements have made him a lightning rod is a mystery to me. After all, this is the man who suggested that a smaller church whose adherents are more loyal -- and perhaps more docile? -- would be preferable to the inclusion of people with differing views. The cardinals must have had their reasons, but their decision is cloaked in secrecy.

While my heritage and my faith tradition are Catholic, I don't carry a sense of responsibility for their decision. My voice was not heard. No woman's voice was heard.

So it is surprising that I feel hopeful about being a woman of faith today. But I do. Just three days after Benedict XVI ascended to the throne of Peter, I joined 2,000 women -- and a few good men -- for the Northwest Catholic Women's Convocation in Seattle. Given the worldwide attention devoted to the new pope's every public utterance, a lot of people -- including him -- might be surprised to learn that the women at the convocation paid very little attention to him. We were too busy embodying our own vision of church.

We were there ... we are here ... we'll be there, my sisters, we'll be there ...

The event opens with a choir and liturgical dancers telling the story of creation, all creation. From the "original flaring forth," both science and story reveal to us who we are. And through it all, women were there. Women are here, now -- mothering, working, planting, harvesting, protesting, dancing with joy, keening in sorrow. And we will always be there.

Like all good Catholic gatherings, this one blends ritual, song, word, reflection and the power of a gathered community.

Rise up, rise up all women ...

The first keynote speech comes from Bernice Johnson Reagon, founder and lead singer of Sweet Honey in the Rock and a veteran of the civil rights movement. She cannot speak for more than a couple of minutes without breaking into song. She begins A Balm in Gilead, then prods us with "This is not a solo." Hesitantly at first, then more confidently, we sing. Two thousand voices lift in ethereal harmony. The sound reaches into my heart and breaks it open.

Reagon tells the story of being arrested during a civil rights demonstration. "When they locked that jail door, I found they hadn't locked me up," she says. "Because I can still sing. And I am going to sing."

Speak out, speak out in courage ...

"We are the prophets, the priestesses and the birthers of new life," notes Edwina Gately, founder of the Voluntary Missionary Movement. "Clearly we are a problem for our church fathers."

She has spoken critically of the Vatican and was rewarded with excommunication, despite her years of service to the poor and the invisible among us. But she continues to speak.

"We must not blindly follow pompous dictates that violate the principles of the Gospels," she says. "Be bearers of hope. Witness to new possibilities. Hopelessness adapts. Hope resists."

Sisters, join in the stirring ... There's an uprising of hope, all women ...

On the Sunday before the convocation, at my church here in Spokane, I heard these words: "The leadership of the church does not rest with 115 men in Rome. The leadership of the church is not downtown at the Chancery. The leadership of the church is here. It is all of us."

I've come to realize that just as my faith journey is irrelevant to most of the male hierarchy of the Roman Catholic establishment, so their travails have become largely irrelevant to me. I watch them from afar. I am curious about what will happen to the corporate institution known as the Roman Catholic Church. But for me, church is the people with whom I gather every Sunday. It's feeding the poor, comforting the grieving, healing those injured by abuse of power -- and having a community nudge me out of my comfort zone.

I may be marginalized in the halls of power -- at the Vatican, and plenty of other places between here and there -- but my faith and convictions do not live at the margins. They are my core. They are the pillars supporting everything I do.

Many women hold a different vision of church than those in power, but that does not stop them from working for justice and fair trade, ministering, embracing divine creativity -- in short, using the diversity of gifts they've been given in service to the source of all being. They are rising up. They are speaking out. They will always be here.

Now it's our turn.

Rise up.

Music lyrics in italics were written by Denise Pyles of Redmond, Wash. Ann M. Colford is The Inlander's writer-at-large.

Publication date: 05/19/05

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