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So what is a young, educated, free spirited woman doing converting to Catholicism? Sue Birnie, a fine arts major at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, essentially asks that question and provides a wonderfully frank and witty answer in an essay (see page 16) about her journey from the Anglican communion to Roman Catholicism.

Last issue we ran an essay from another young woman, Kerry Egan, a student at Harvard Divinity School, depicting her journey to an adult decision to be a Catholic.

The two, quite independently of one another, open a new window on an ancient undertaking. Theirs is not a quest for some indistinct spirituality. Each in her own way has investigated the religious landscape and found the Catholic church to be “home.”

Each is keenly aware of all the, as some phrase it, “neuralgic issues” in contemporary Catholicism. Yet they find something deeper and more compelling in the Catholic experience than the divisions that have come to characterize the church of today, for understandable reasons, in the public perception.

With a touch of sarcasm directed at herself, Birnie asks, “Now, try to imagine a scenario: You’re a 23-year-old feminist who’s just moved to Victoria to study fine arts at a liberal university. What better time to join the Holy Roman Empire, right?”

Birnie and Egan both seem to bring a remarkable patience to their encounter with the church and what they see as its imperfections. They seem not as terribly bothered, as are those of us formed at least partly in the pre-Vatican II era, with who is in charge and what power is being exercised by whom. Perhaps it is because they’ve grown up in an era in which authority has been a slippery issue in so many arenas that their focus naturally turns elsewhere. They may have something to teach us about accepting and living in an imperfect community.

They also raise questions. Are they destined to either ignore the inequities they understand or to suffer indefinitely as Catholic feminists unable to change the course of the church? While one might see hope in the eventual evolution of the church’s understanding about women, it seems unlikely to happen in any great leaps in their lifetime. In the day-to-day, then, they are left on that score with the mystical spirituality of the cross. Catholic feminists will not have an easy time of it. Women in the church will continue to labor under great burdens, the heaviest of them the terrible paradox that the mystery and the institution are never separate realities.

I presume, with no ordered research to back me up, that while they may be unusually articulate in explaining themselves, they are hardly alone. I would love to hear from others, either reacting to the essays or telling your own stories. If you and friends have discussed the Catholic church and questions of whether to join or not join, stay or leave, let us know what you are thinking. You can e-mail me at the address below, send me a fax at (816) 968-2280 or call me (leave a voice message if I’m not available) at (816) 968-2255.

We would also like to hear your thoughts on Greg Pierce’s spirituality for the “piety impaired.” It’s been said that there is a certain brawny, independent quality to the Catholicism in Chicago that mirrors the character of the city. So it’s no surprise that the city would be home to the National Center of the Laity and that someone like Greg Pierce would develop a spirituality that requires a love for the workplace and a desire to be amid the hurly-burly of everyday life, not apart from it.

Robin Taylor, a frequent NCR contributor who most recently wrote about an ordeal during pregnancy (see NCR, Jan. 5), informs us that just as that issue was landing in mailboxes, Sierra Brianne Hagen was born (Jan. 3) and weighed in at 10 pounds, 1 ounce. “She is healthy and happy and doing well,” Taylor reports.

-- Tom Roberts

My e-mail address is troberts@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, February 2, 2001