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Young feminist gathering suggests hope for reform

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

Recalling a gathering in the mid-1970s, a ground-breaking moment in the history of the feminist movement in the U.S. Catholic Church, Sr. Donna Quinn became teary-eyed, then asked, “How many of you were there?”

One woman broke the silence with her answer: “I was only 5.”

Some in the group, of course, hadn’t even been born.

That was perhaps the most telling moment of the Young Feminist Network’s leadership conference, and it came on the opening night. Quinn, a Sinsinawa Dominican, is one of the founders of the Women’s Ordination Conference, the umbrella organization for the new Young Feminist Network. The younger group grew out of a caucus for young women at the Conference’s 1995 gathering in Arlington, Va.

The Young Feminist Network’s first national event, the Sept. 18-20 leadership conference here, gathered two dozen women -- and one man -- for training.

If these “Gen X” Catholics are any indication of the future of the church, reform-minded Catholics have reason to be hopeful. From the 20-year-old college student with the nose ring to the thirtysomething punk rocker to the young married woman from Chicago, they are bright, prayerful and deep. Nearly half had already dedicated a year or more of their short lives to full-time volunteer service programs.

They are educated about the faith, but want to learn even more. And they are deeply committed to the Catholic church. But they are also frustrated with the same institution that they love, and are desperately seeking a community of like-minded peers who share their vision of faith and spirituality.

That’s where Young Feminist Network comes in. The organization is hoping to offer them something the older church reform movements can’t. “We need something different because our experience is different,” explained Kerry Danner-McDonald, the Network’s 26-year-old, part-time coordinator in Washington. “I don’t think we are connected with the institutional church in the way our parents are.”

But these enthusiastic young Catholics are serious about living the faith. One participant described herself as “a praxis-ing Catholic.”

“I put into action the things I believe,” said Theresa Trujillo, a 28-year-old former director of religious education, who is moving to Mexico to work for an organization that facilitates dialogue between North America and Latin America.

Although one participant admitted on the first day that she wasn’t sure she believed women should be ordained, Catholics in their 20s and 30s come from a generation that accepts women’s equality -- on principle, at least -- as a given.

“The first time I had a feminist thought about the church was when I was told I couldn’t be an altar girl,” said Kirsten Goa of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. “It just didn’t seem fair.”

The women attending the conference here said they often find that people on different sides of the issue look down upon the other group. “As I go to Mass every Sunday, I struggle with integrating my feminism with my Catholicism,” said Loretta Pequeno, 30, of Chicago.

In an attempt to offer practical skills, the leadership conference featured workshops on public speaking, conflict resolution, fund-raising and running effective meetings. Participants also did individual discernment about their spiritual gifts, goal-setting and strategic planning.

The ultimate goal of the weekend was to move the fledgling organization into the future. “A lot of feminism is talking. We want to push action,” said 23-year-old Stephanie Barnes of Nashville, Tenn., one of four conference organizers. The Network’s goal is to train leaders who can organize volunteer groups, start book clubs, gather spirituality circles and educate others about the need to work for equal rights for men and women in the church.

This first group of leaders promised to do just that. In a closing liturgy, participants named their commitments, which included starting a women’s group and planning an event for the Women’s Ordination Day of Prayer in March. The Network’s mission statement condemns non-inclusive teachings and policies and says, “[W]e believe that the current status of women in the Catholic church defers young people’s involvement in the church and the claiming of their religious values in public life.”

Many agreed that too many “Gen Xers” see institutional religion as irrelevant. “What strikes me is how few people my age are involved with church reform,” said Mark Anderson, 39, of Arlington, Va. “It worries me deeply that folks in my own generation feel so alienated they don’t even deal with the church at all.”

On the other hand, those attending insisted the “apathetic” label for Generation X is overused and inaccurate. “We’re no longer wearing arm bands, but we are still passionate,” said Kerry Ford of Auburndale, Mass. While they honor the women who came before them in the struggle for gender equality in the church, they recognize their need to create something new -- and eventually to pass on the torch themselves.

If the leadership conference is any indication, the approach of these younger feminists will mostly likely include an emphasis on spirituality and prayer -- and lots of E-mail.

Anne Avellone, a 34-year-old Chicagoan who works with the Paulist Lay Missioner program, said she came to the leadership conference to draw on the energy of younger women. “A lot of the women I connect with over these issues are older women who have been great mentors,” she said. “Now I need to reconnect with my peers.”

Anderson said he believed the newly trained group of young leaders can be a beacon of hope to their generation. “It’s become apparent to me that if there is to be a new church, we are it.”

National Catholic Reporter, October 2, 1998