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Women from 42 countries express aims at synod

Gmunden, Austria

"Welcome, dear sisters."

Welcome to "Women for Change in the 21st Century" -- motto of the first European Women's Synod, held here July 21-28.

That's what some 200 life-size wooden women seemed to say as 1,200 delegates from 42 nations arrived. The painted figures that greeted us came in all shapes, sizes, color and decoration -- some with wings, some without -- and some would soon be desecrated.

The goal was specific; participants, diverse.

They ranged from the feminist theologians of Western Europe to feminists for Islam. Eloquent testimonies flowed from Eastern Europeans, raised as atheists, now struggling to articulate a newfound faith. Catholics, Protestant and Orthodox women talked freely without labeling or hoping to convert.

The aim? To increase public awareness of women's concerns and develop strategies for drawing more women into decision-making roles in church and society. It was also to pray in liturgies, to talk, to express solidarity with women who are poor, and to dance -- the latter difficult for the cerebral Europeans, more accustomed to a left-brained, male model for conferences.

Northern Europeans dominated, and some American women noted a hunger for spirituality while sensing, in the overwhelming academic nature of much of the gathering, a discomfort with passion.

Becky Drury, a Catholic laywoman representing the Kellogg Institute in South Bend, Ind., said, "I sense a profound pain center and a deep frustration in many of these European women, but I am not sure they have the voice to articulate it."

Sr. Frances Bernard O'Connor, also of South Bend, quoted an African-American woman: "I sit warming the pew while my soul freezes to death." O'Connor said she missed the passion and oratory of such American theologians as Sr. Joan Chittister and Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz.

Still, many felt that women of the old country have much to give to the new. Shirley Tung, board member of the Women's Ordination Conference from Phoenix, Ariz., said she felt European feminists have stronger backing from their religious peers than Americans do.

"These women came with the blessings of their home churches," she said. "That is not true for me."

Dutch nuns spoke of their work in rescuing Eastern European women from "white slave trade" -- forced prostitution in the West. Other nuns talked about rescuing Catholicism from its 19th century institutional focus by reclaiming the mystical and critical elements of their faith and the radical charisms of foundresses of their religious orders.

On the synod's third day, women linked to found WOW, Women's Ordination Worldwide. Ida Raming, Catholic theologian from Germany, said, "The authenticity of women's call to the priesthood can only be decided by women themselves."

On the third night of the synod, the lovely wooden figures that greeted us had been desecrated. Spray-painted erect penises, strategically placed, had been added to more than half of these art pieces. Those figures that bore wings were spared. We were in Catholic Austria, where wayside shrines of Madonna and child are common and crucifixes hang in stores.

The artists who created the figures reported the vandalism to local police, who said the figures should be removed, as they were now offensive. (The artists refused and are taking legal action.)

In the end, the most provocative statement came through silence rather than words: a reflection on the prophet Habbakuk, who said, "Write down the vision." The stories must be told.

Keynote speaker Mary Grey of England, Catholic professor of feminist and liberation theology at the University of Southampton, said, "The power of the community's vision and memory: that's the power we need at this moment when capitalism has hijacked our vision and given us cheap dreams. Disneyland instead of promised land.

"If it is good for poor women, it is good for all," she said. "With this principle, we critique the dominant cultures with our alternative vision of shared power. Our power is our wisdom, our compassion and our commitment to justice. And where else is God but in the struggle with us?"

Roberta Nobleman, an Episcopalian actress and writer from Dumond, N.J., performed a one-woman drama on sex abuse at the synod.

National Catholic Reporter, August 9, 1996