By Therese Fink Meyerhoff
A Women’s Advisory Committee for an all-male religious order? While it may seem incongruent, establishing just such a committee is one of the first actions that Fr. Tom Greene, SJ, took as he began his term as provincial of the Jesuits USA Central and Southern Province. Made up of women leaders and Jesuits, the committee provides a voice on women’s concerns and dreams that the provincial and the Society of Jesus might want to take into consideration in their ministries.
“Two things came together for me,” Fr. Greene said of his decision to form the committee. “First, as I looked back over all stages of my Jesuit life, I was struck by how much women do to lead in the Church. In many cases, they’re really carrying the load. So wouldn’t it be good to seek their advice and tap into that experience?”
The second thing was a desire to follow the lead of Pope Francis, who during his tenure has taken several steps to empower women in the Church, including his recent restructuring of the Vatican bureaucracy.
“There are so many women serving in our apostolates and on the province staff, establishing a committee seemed to be one way to formalize their input and advice on what we can do better,” Fr. Greene said. “They can point out our blind spots and our gifts.”
At its first meeting in October 2020, the members of the Women’s Advisory Committee found they were charting a new path. Father Greene made it clear that he wanted members to be forthright, even if that meant some criticisms of the province or the Society of Jesus. Beyond that, members were free to set their own course.
After just a couple of meetings, the committee established three short-term goals:
1. Highlight the array of roles and service of women in the Jesuits USA Central and Southern Province. This was reflected in this publication when the Winter 2021 issue featured stories of women in mission alongside the Jesuits.
2. Initiate opportunities for Jesuits to recognize and appreciate what women are doing in the province and the Church, an ongoing objective.
3. Bring together women and Jesuits to listen to one another, share experiences and reflect on their role in Jesuit mission, especially through the lens of the Spiritual Exercises. This was beautifully addressed this March when the province hosted a first-of-its kind Women’s Retreat at White House Jesuit Retreat in St. Louis.
Labeled a “women’s retreat” because of its focus on women’s experiences as co-laborers in the Society of Jesus’ mission, in fact seven Jesuits from the UCS Province attended the retreat alongside 12 women who work for the province or in a province apostolate.
Paula Sapienza, a spiritual director at Sacred Heart Retreat in Sedalia, Colo., led the retreat using stories of women Jesus encountered and the Spiritual Exercises as the basis of her presentations and the group’s spiritual conversation.
“Following General Congregation 34, in Decree 14, all Jesuits were invited to ‘listen carefully and courageously to the experience of women,’” said Mary Baudouin, the UCS provincial assistant for justice and ecology and a member of the Women’s Advisory Committee.
“Our first province Women’s Retreat was designed to do just that in a prayerful and significant way. I think that all of the participants would agree that this was a unique opportunity to hear the voices and experiences of women through Scripture, reflection and meaningful spiritual conversation between women working with Jesuits and Jesuits who collaborate in ministry with women.”
Father Bill Oulvey, SJ, rector of the Regis University Jesuit Community in Denver, was one of the Jesuits in attendance. “I found the time at White House to be both delightful and a little out of my wheelhouse,” he said, explaining that many of his meetings or retreats are with men. “We had very deep, good and sometimes painful conversations.”
“Sharing reflections and perspectives with the other women on the retreat was a beautiful experience, but equally important was the presence of the Jesuits who journeyed with us,” said Karen Wuertz, head of the Boys Division at Regis Jesuit High School in Aurora, Colo., and a member of the Women’s Advisory Committee.
“They were eager to listen and learn of our experiences and generous in their responses,” Ms. Wuertz continued. “Their ability to carry back to their works a genuine understanding of and appreciation for the unique gifts of women’s spirituality is essential for building bridges and partnerships among all who wish to contribute a vocation, whether vowed or lay, in the Society.”
“It was so beautiful on the retreat to hear the shared hurts, pains and victories of women in mission alongside Jesuits,” said Denise Diaz, a Spanish teacher at Jesuit High School in Tampa. “I am grateful for this opportunity to re-envision together and for the joy of being trusted first as Jesus trusted Mary Magdalene first with the Church when he revealed himself to her the morning of His resurrection.”
Ms. Wuertz also noted that it was “profoundly impactful to connect with other women from around the province, hear their stories and witness their gifts.”
“The retreat was helpful, but it doesn’t negate the reality women face every day,” said Fr. Ron Gonzales, SJ. “Even with women who are highly educated, talented, in love with the Church … there is always a glass ceiling. But on this retreat, it seemed the women were able to give voice to their experience in a way they haven’t felt able to before. I hope it is the beginning of our growing together.”
The retreat and the Women’s Advisory Committee have roots stemming back a generation to the Society of Jesus’ 34th General Congregation in 1995. That Congregation’s Decree 14 found the “unjust treatment and exploitation of women” to be a “central concern of any contemporary mission which seeks to integrate faith and justice.”
The Jesuits at the Congregation cited not only the universality of the issue, but their own personal concern for the women who are their colleagues in the Society’s mission. “We know that the nurturing of our own faith and much of our own ministry would be greatly diminished without the dedication, generosity, and joy that women bring to the schools, parishes, and other fields in which we labor together.” (Decree 14, GC 34)
The decree went on to commit the Society to make solidarity and reconciliation with women an integral part of its mission.
“Decree 14 sits in the background, where it influences and helps us understand what we’re being called to,” Fr. Oulvey said. “At the time, it fit the reality that the Church of the next millennia would be the Church of the laypeople. That’s our Church today. So how do we, as religious and as priests, how do we support and encourage and learn to be colleagues?”
Ms. Diaz recalled a meeting with the previous provincial, Fr. Ron Mercier, at the Jesuit Schools Network Colloquium. “I was so moved when he told us, ‘Don’t ever think you work for the Society. You work with us,’” she said. “We – lay people and lay women – are in lock step with the Society. Our mission is Jesus. We are ambassadors for Christ cleverly disguised as teachers. This is job one: bring our students to God.”
The desire to live the commitment made during GC 34 extends beyond the UCS Province. On March 8, 2021 – International Women’s Day – Superior General Arturo Sosa, SJ, announced the creation of the Commission on the Role and Responsibilities of Women in the Society of Jesus. He tasked the commission with evaluating the integration of Decree 14 and the roles of women in Jesuit institutions and then to make recommendations to strengthen the mission of the Society with the active participation of women.
The women who attended the retreat find all of these steps encouraging and empowering.
“This is a critical dialogue,” Ms. Wuertz said. “We represent generations of women whose sacrifices of time, effort and energy in service to the church have often been underrecognized and underappreciated. Our work pays homage to those who came before us and, hopefully, opens paths for those who will follow.”
“I hope that the Society will continue to educate us on how women are leading in this shared mission,” Ms. Diaz said.
“The goal for me and, I hope, for all of us, is to work for the moment when we are not judged by our gender, the color of our skin, our nationality, the place we grew up or our life preferences,” Fr. Oulvey said. “Instead, there will be love and respect and honor given to each person as a beloved child of God.
“My hope and prayer is that there will always be both men and women of all walks of life that we Jesuits are willing to listen to, learn from, work with, because that makes us better. That leads to a greater and deeper service of God’s people and building up the Kingdom. That’s our job. That is our mission in life. That is our bottom line.”