How can the Church be more woman-friendly? If you’re still awake, well done. This topic has become as monotonous as Christmas turkey leftovers. But hear me out – especially if you’re a parish priest.
For the 31 years I have been Catholic, conversations about how to expand the role of women in the Church have been coloured by clericalism. For too long, women who supposedly speak on behalf of other Catholic women have argued that the main channel for increasing female visibility is through the administration of the sacraments: female ordination, female altar servers, female Eucharistic ministers and so on.
Great emphasis is always placed on women being “visible” in the Church. The problem is that we have neglected to support their presence in the pews, with so much prestige attributed to their being on the altar. To be blunt, women need help receiving the sacraments, not assisting with them.
You may be sceptical – and with good reason. If you walked into Westminster Cathedral tomorrow there’s a high chance you would see more women than men lighting a candle and offering a prayer. But how many of them are under 40 and how many have children in tow? I don’t mean to sound ageist, but it is in the Church’s interest that younger generations be engaged with the faith.
Since I became a wife and mother in the space of a little more than a year, it’s really been an education in how babies dribble all over your prayer life. Most of Mass is spent pacing up and down outside or anxiously feeding, with little time for serious prayer or reflection.
Let’s go back a little further. Pregnancy affects women differently. Some seem to glide through the nine-month period with a dewy glow, while others limp along, clutching a sick bowl. I was in the latter category.
As I waited for my baby to arrive in those final weeks, daily Mass broke up those long, lonely days. But what was sad is how frequently I missed Communion.
I found that regular eating (just small amounts) was the only way to counter the sickness I endured throughout pregnancy. But as far as I could tell from the Catechism, there was no clear exemption for pregnant women from the hour-long fast. So more often than not I went without.
Then there’s the issue of breastfeeding once a baby has been born. I received a text from a friend recently saying: “Man, I really need to go to daily Mass more.”
I sympathised. What was stopping her?
“Breastfeeding,” she explained. “I can never time things right for the fast before Communion, along with getting my older kids breakfasted and dropped off at school and nursery on time.”
One could argue that pregnant women are exempt from the hour-long fast on the grounds of “infirmity”. But I have never seen this written explicitly and there doesn’t appear to be any leeway for nursing mums like my friend.
Breastfeeding is a wonderful way of loving and nurturing your baby. Yet it burns a lot of calories and leaves you thirsty and ravenous. It’s important to respond to this as your milk production depends on you eating and drinking more than you would usually. If the Church could recognise this by exempting pregnant and nursing women from fasting before Communion, perhaps more women would attend weekly Mass and, even better, bring their kids.
Communion isn’t the only challenge. The first and last time I attempted Eucharistic Adoration with my son was last month. He slept like a cherub on the walk to church but woke up five minutes after we arrived. Had he proceeded to scream and sob it would have been a welcome alternative to the flatulence-like noises he began to make. Conscious that I was distracting others with my little bundle of irreverence, I scuttled off home.
But what if parishes were to set aside an hour of Adoration for mothers and babies? I’m not suggesting some sort of Eucharistic crèche where children can run riot, but rather an allotted time in which mums can pray without worrying that their babbling baby is annoying everyone else.
A woman-friendly church is a baby-friendly church. Imagine if on confessional doors it read “babies welcome too”. How many more women might avail themselves of this vital sacrament if they knew it was OK to have their baby sitting on their knee or to nurse him while they confessed?
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if parishes assigned a room or space to nursing mums, with cushioned chairs rather than narrow, hard benches? We are not demanding a VIP lactation lounge, just a more comfortable and practical alternative to perching awkwardly while trying to be discreet.
Receiving – not administering – the sacraments is vital in the life of any Catholic, including those of mums with young kids. Personally I’m not itching to stand at the altar, just aching to rest in the pews.
Madeleine Teahan is associate editor of the Catholic Herald
This article first appeared in the January 5 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here