The Big Question: Mark 7: 27-29

He said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first.  For it is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.’

She replied and said to him, ‘Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps.’

Then he said to her, ‘For saying this, you may go.  The demon has gone out of your daughter.’

This entry is dedicated to two feisty professors in the small Jesuit college that I call home.  The first is a Jesuit woman who hosts civic dialogues that I like to participate in.  Called to the Society of Jesus at a young age, she has elegantly, achingly, joyfully, and wryly persevered for 20 years in her vocation to service, piety, and community.  She asks in her scholarship and with her life: what does it mean to be Church?

The second is a Jesuit man, who teaches a Scripture class that I like to sit in on.  He put off his own call for about a decade before acknowledging it, and has persevered gracefully, achingly, joyfully, and goofily in the decade since.  He asks in his classroom and with his life: who is Jesus, and how are we being formed as his companions, with Ignatius to guide us?

Recently, these two have offered a couple of new behaviors that I’m trying on for size:  1) to sit longest with the passages of Scripture that I find the most uncomfortable; and 2) to care about questions that I don’t understand.

First, then, the Scripture.  Jesus speaks here with a Greek woman, a Syro-Phoenician, who has sought him out in a moment of retirement to ask him to heal her daughter.  His response?  My mission is to my people, the Jewish people – not to the Gentiles.  As my Jesuit man professor pointed out, the language Jesus uses seems incredibly insulting.  He basically calls her a bitch, though the word likely lacked the particular charge and layers of meaning that it carries for a 21st century woman in America.

What does the Syro-Phoenician woman say in response?  Instead of getting stuck on the ‘bitch’ part, she uses Jesus’ metaphor to make her own point: ‘Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps.’  And Jesus, sinless Son of God that he is, catches her drift.  His reply echoes a frequent theme of the Gospels, as the completely human and completely divine Jesus journeys into his own self-understanding.  For saying this, you may go home – your daughter is healed, he tells her.  But what he seems to mean is, your faith has saved you.  Go now, and enjoy the fruits of your own trust in God.    And so his mission widens, and deepens. (And I’ll have to keep on sitting with this Scripture.)

Second, then, to that question that I don’t understand, am maybe reluctant to understand, but still care about.  Why did Ignatius intentionally preclude the possibility of an institutional women’s branch of the Society of Jesus?  Why, knowing all of the women who felt called and would feel called to the way of life he was suggesting, did he petition the Pope not to let them do it in his Company?  How could what feels like such an arm-bar be, perhaps, a fruitful decision, in both the short and the long run?

Though I can’t answer my own question thoroughly right now, I can offer a few  suggestions for discussion and investigation.  For one, as we have read, this ban was politically, socially, and psychologically expedient for the young Society of Jesus.  It restored a sense of unity and freedom of identity to Jesuit men, and unburdened the Society of Jesus from being required to devote time and energy to conventional relationships between male and female religious.  Second, in the centuries that followed, this decision allowed the foundresses of Ignatian women’s religious orders to successively renew both the Jesuit Constitutions and the Church, each in her own way and according to the needs of her own time.  “Jesuit” and “Ignatian” are not synonymous, as we can discuss later.  But the development of large, independent Ignatian women’s religious orders was a major positive outgrowth of Ignatius’ original ban on women.

(As a side note to this point on Ignatian women’s orders, it is very interesting to compare the numbers of SJ today with the numbers in women’s orders founded at least in part on the Jesuit constitutions, or formed in Ignatian spirituality.  First, take the orders of sisters with an explicitly Jesuit rule: according to the websites of each order, there are an estimated 14,000 CSJ, 2,600 RSCJ, 2000 CJ, and at least 500 RVM in the world as of 2015.  Add to these women the rc, MSC, and other Ignatian-inspired orders I have certainly missed, and we have 19,000+ daughters of Ignatius in formation and ministry as we speak.  This represents a very healthy and diverse counterpoint to their brothers, the just under 18,000 Jesuit men in formation and ministry today.)

And we have not spoken yet of another group of women very close to my heart, whom I call Jesuit women.  Ignatius’ decision puts us in an interesting place in this time, in this sea-change Church.  At times in our Church, we have felt like the proverbial dogs under the table.  But by not taking conventional responsibility for women called to his way of life, way back when, Ignatius also created some space – space to move, and speak, and breathe, and choose.  Space to think, to write, to listen and minister in creative ways.  Space to explore, without a definite bureaucratic identity and its corresponding red tape.  We know the frustration and sense of impoverishment that can come with no fixed identity, but do we also realize the freedom and creative potential of that space?

It’s up to us to inhabit that space and that freedom now.  What does the Pope mean when he says, Mary is more important than the Bishops?  What does he mean when he calls for a greater and deeper role for Catholic women that is not clericalized, and for a prominent feminine genius that is not tied to women alone?  The Pope is a man who is willing to be really guided by the Holy Spirit, even when she leads to challenging places.  So what is the Holy Spirit trying to tell us through this Pope?  Jesuit women need to get together and find out.  My question is, what are the needs of our changing Church, and how can Jesuit women gather, discern, focus, and organize to meet those needs?


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